Financial crisis. Suspended campaigns. Sarah Palin.
For many Americans, this year's Presidential election represents as important an occasion to head to the polls as either of the past two, but sometimes the constant barrage of post-debate spin, lipsticked pig talking points and endless accusations from both sides can prove quite the turn off to our political process.
Luckily for comics fans, IDW Publishing’s much touted "Presidential Material" one-shots are aiming to inform readers about the life and times of the major party candidates without getting pulled into the uglier aspects of partisan politics. CBR is no different in our dedication to an open discussion, so while we brought you world from the publisher's Barack Obama biographer Jeff Mariotte when the project was announced back in July, we're more than happy to give John McCain's comic book scribe Andy Helfer a platform as well. Although, like Mariotte, Helfer doesn't see any need for endorsements to play into his comic.
"I was very objective in my reporting, and I have a great deal of admiration for McCain, so I wrote the book with a very objective point of view," explained the writer, perhaps best known for his many years in editorial at DC Comics, where he worked on such diverse projects as 1987's "Justice League" re-launch and the Paradox Press line of graphic novels. However, it was Helfer’s recent work as a graphic novel biographer of political and historical figures for publisher Hill & Wang that brought him onto "Presidential Material" with a longer format comic about another famous Republican serving as a great aid in telling McCain's story.
"I'd done the Reagan book and the Malcolm X book, but particularly with the Reagan book, I think the similarity between Reagan and McCain is that both of them were not youngsters when they got into their political life, both had reinvented themselves on a number of occasions, and both of them have lives that were full,” Helfer explained. “They did a lot of stuff. So the McCain book became a real issue of distilling all the stuff down to 28 pages. The Reagan book was an issue of distilling all the stuff down to 100 pages, so you can imagine how much more distilling I had to do with McCain."
A wide amount of research conducted over the months leading up to the Republican National Convention helped Helfer piece together an in-depth portrayal of McCain's life, from his days as a prisoner in a Vietnamese prison camp to his often rocky yet ultimately successful political career. And for readers who think they've heard all the details of a candidate’s life, Helfer hopes his biography will contain a few facts and insights that would be new even to veteran political junkies, such as the facts surrounding McCain's first stepping onto Vietnamese soil.
"The very first time that John McCain set foot in Vietnam, it was as a prisoner of war because as a pilot he never set foot in Vietnam until his plane crashed,” Helfer revealed. “He was fished out of the drink and thrown into prison. I like to date events so that you get the pure chronology down, but if you don't date events, you kind of get to make a montage of them. I did that on a couple of occasions just to open it up a bit — particularly in the P.O.W. parts where I described things that happened, but perhaps not in the order that they happened, just to help the narrative flow a bit. It's not really presuming that these things happen in sequence. It's just that they happened."
Despite his respect for McCain as a person and a war hero, Helfer did point out that his work on "Presidential Material" was not swayed by McCain's campaign rhetoric, and in fact, many times the candidate himself helped paint a more complete, less romantic picture of his life. "I would say that my work was finished before the campaign started to get the spin on it,” the writer explained. “Preceding the conventions, that's when they built the image that they wanted to project at the conventions. When I was doing it, I had McCain's own books and a handful of other books written about McCain and various news stories. Everything to my mind seemed to be very objective, and most importantly McCain himself — and he wrote his books with this guy Mark Salter — was always very self-effacing.
"You didn't need to interpret if McCain was being a jerk because McCain was the first guy to say, 'Yeah, I was a jerk, but here's what I did.' I frankly don't believe I've ever seen that before in autobiographies of political people. He was almost too quick to accept the blame for certain things — particularly blame for the failure of his marriage and any other number of things. 'I was an idiot, and I crashed my plane.' That kind of thing. I suppose that when someone's that self-effacing, you're far more likely to believe him. 'If he says he's an idiot, I can't disagree.'"
Overall, the fact that the one shots on both candidates won't be addressing more recent points such as running mates, convention speeches and debates shouldn't have much of an impact on the final product, according to Helfer. "Substantively, not much has changed. Their history is their history, and neither candidate has advanced too much further with what's happened since the events depicted when the book ended. They're still the same people with the same records."
And for readers interested in more biographical comics work, Helfer's next project will be editing yet another Hill & Wang non fiction graphic novel with art by indie legend Rick Geary, who previously collaborated with Helfer on a J. Edgar Hoover volume. In the meantime, be sure to check CBR's exclusive preview of both "Presidential Material" one-shots.