As if the past two years of speculation, polling and jockeying didn't strike America strongly enough, the week ahead looks ready to be the most politically-saturated seven days in nearly a decade as the United States prepares to elect a new president on November 4. And while the campaigns of presidential hopefuls John McCain and Barack Obama have been popping up on the pop culture map as much as the 24-hour news channels, the comic book industry appears to be sinking its teeth particularly deep in the presidential race. But as CBR found out, Marvel Comics nearly merged the real life candidates and their fictional universe in a significantly lasting way.
While Marvel has a history of reflecting the social and political issues in the pages of its comics from Spider-Man's days in the '60s dealing with drug-addicted friends to recent series like "Civil War" providing not so vague commentary on a post 9/11 America, one unfulfilled project from writer Joe Casey would have seen the Marvel Universe taking a step fans have never seen before by casting the actual victor in the upcoming race for the White House in his own ongoing series.
Casey first mentioned the proposed comic, titled "Executive Power," in an interview on the iFanboy podcast, and after the idea of placing a real public servant in the midst of the Marvel Universe piqued our interest, CBR News asked Casey for a copy of the pitch and an explanation of the series as proposed.
Rather than make commentary by way of partisan politic storytelling,”Executive Power” would have focused on the real president's struggles in leading a nation ensconced in superhero drama.
"Honestly, my original notion was for it to be a fictional President in the Marvel U," Casey told CBR. "But, the more I thought about it, and in initially talking to [Executive Editor] Axel Alonso about it two years ago, it made much more sense — on several levels — to make it about the actual President -- which, back in the summer of ’06, obviously no one had any idea who the candidates would be, although that didn’t really matter for the purposes of this pitch. At that point, it suddenly morphed into possibly the most commercial idea I’ve ever come up with for a work-for-hire series. And Axel was into it. In a lot of ways, he’s probably the most forward-thinking editor at Marvel. His track record certainly shows he doesn’t shy away from controversial ideas, approaches or stories. I think he knew right away that this would be a lot more substantial a project than merely some gimmick book."
When Alonso moved positions within the company and took up the reigns of editing the X-Men line of titles, the "Executive Power" proposal stalled, as the logistics of depicting a real public figure in a comic book series as a full time character outweighed the idea of showing how a presidential staff would adapt everything from its foreign policy to its cabinet picks in a world where Iron Man leads a super powered spy squadron.
"I then talked to Tom Brevoort — another great editor up there who I’ve worked with on some of the best things I’ve written for Marvel — and he expressed concerns over the likeness issue and things of that nature," the writer recalled of the series’ end. "But from my point of view, showing the office of the President in such a heroic, aspirational manner, I think either candidate would’ve been thrilled to be portrayed that way. To be drawn shaking hands on the page with Captain America; to be depicted as a capable, honest Commander-In-Chief, even in an obviously fictional landscape, that’s about the best [public relations] I could imagine if you wanted to connect with so-called 'geek culture' of the American populace."
When asked about the political commentary a series like "Executive Power" might contain, Casey stressed there was no overt political component to the stories he was envisioning. "I feel like I’m fairly aware politically, but 'Executive Power' was never going to be about real world politics,” he said. “It was going to be about superhero politics, how the President does his job in a Marvel Universe filled with superpowered beings. Rule number one with anything of this nature is to entertain. And regardless of the outcome of the election, the story and the characterization of the President would’ve remained absolutely the same.
"In other words, I would’ve been writing a forthright, striving-to-do-the-right-thing character whether his name was McCain or Obama. I think that was a tough sell for Tom, that you could use a name and a likeness but portray -- in his view -- a fictional characterization, although I saw it as much as a behavior that any President would love to exhibit on a daily basis, rather than complete fiction. Unfortunately, there was only one way to prove that it could be done, and that was simply to do the book."
Though “Executive Power” didn't end up making it out of the idea phase, Casey expressed no hard feelings that the pitch was turned down -- as he explained "maybe as much as ninety percent" of all series pitches don’t make it through -- but admitted the series has been on his mind over the summer as the politics/comics crossovers have sprung up across the marketplace.
"Look how the current Presidential race has already shown up in our industry," Casey remarked. "There’s the IDW candidate one-shots, which got national media attention; there’s the Hilary Clinton and Sarah Palin one-shots; Obama appearing on Larsen’s 'Savage Dragon' cover; there’s the 'DCU Decisions' book. It’s almost a shame that the biggest comic book publisher in America is dicking around with this silly 'Colbert For President' gag (long after Colbert himself gave it up) despite Quesada saying in one of his recent MySpace Q&A’s that, in the Marvel Universe, Obama and McCain are indeed the Presidential candidates.
"When you consider that the average audience age for Marvel and DC readers are probably around 30 — a readership that has seen it all — this election has become much bigger and much more prominent in the pop culture landscape than anyone expected, and I guess I’m just bummed that we’re missing a possible slam dunk on this one."
And while featuring a candidate in a single issue of a comic book and casting the president in his own series within what is arguably the world's best known superhero universe are two vastly different ideas, Casey said that looking at how the 2008 campaign has heated up convinced him the latter would not only be workable but profitable.
"Seeing how the race has captured the general public’s fascination, there’s no doubt in my mind that the existence of this comic would’ve made every news outlet in America, every talk show, etc.," the writer explained. "The Presidential race has gotten much bigger than I ever could’ve predicted. I mean, c’mon, Obama drew one hundred thousand to a rally in St. Louis! CNN ratings are up 165 percent, which is unheard of for an all-news cable station! Sarah Palin shows up on 'Saturday Night Live' and the ratings are the best they’ve been in fourteen years! The climate couldn’t have been better for this kind of idea. The entire country would’ve known about this comic and I’m convinced that sales would’ve been through the roof."
Asked whether he was at all interested in tweaking the concept for another publisher or universe, Casey answered with an unequivocal "no," stating that it was the combination of the real world leader and the most recognizable superheroes that made the pitch work. "Marvel was the only publisher to do this. They’re the biggest and, in most cases, the ballsiest. And, let’s face it, Marvel’s had a pretty good track record when it comes to reflecting the zeitgeist of the culture at large. Just recently, in the early days of the Jemas/Quesada regime — roughly 2001-2003 — and then once again from the beginnings of 'Civil War' probably through the death of Captain America, Marvel’s absolutely reflected the mood and tone of the cultural landscape and captured the imagination of an audience far exceeding simply the Direct Market shoppers.
"I always dug the fact that Marvel was the more daring of the Big Two when it came to putting the actual Presidents in their books -- although I recall DC dipping their toe into that water when Reagan showed up in Giffen’s 'Justice League,' but you’d never catch them trying that now. [Marvel] didn’t have the reticence that DC always seemed to when it came to including 'real' people as part of the fabric of the Marvel U, and I liked that. Even now, Marvel’s basic marketing is this 'Your Universe' line, and I always thought it was a good one.
"Brevoort might’ve been nervous about the implications of making the sitting President the star of a superhero comic book, but I honestly think that the existence of this series would’ve gotten Joe Quesada an invitation to the White House (something I’d certainly pay to see). I think that would’ve been huge for comic books in general, a huge moment of cultural penetration."
For readers of both Joe Casey's work and Marvel Universe titles in general, the more important issue may be exactly how the writer planned to pull the series off in terms of meshing "The West Wing"-style dramatic writing with a world that includes characters named Paste Pot Pete. But the comparisons the writer drew to current Marvel output may help cast the idea in a more practical light. "The attention to be paid would’ve had absolutely nothing to do with the real world,” he said. “Aside from the name, the likeness and the locale, everything else about the 'Executive Power' idea was completely fictional. It wouldn’t have worked any other way. No one wants to read a Marvel comic book about the President dealing with the current credit crunch or the war in Iraq, but I was pretty sure they’d want to read about the President dealing with S.H.I.E.L.D. corruption or if the Masters of Evil destroy Manhattan or if Dr. Doom decides to stage an international incident.
"I felt like the book could’ve really been a cool companion series to whatever big events were going on in the Marvel books at any given time. I’m sure the cycle of big summer events is nowhere near over so a series like this could’ve been a nifty perspective on whatever big stories Marvel would be doing, similar to the way the 'Front Line' books try to illuminate certain street-level aspects of the big crossovers, but from a more political aspect. How would the President have dealt with a Skrull invasion or its aftermath? How would the President react to whatever this 'Dark Reign' scheme is that’s coming up next? Those could’ve been interesting stories."
If "Executive Power" would have ended up an ongoing as Casey had proposed, the first issue would be hitting stands in the next few weeks after a quick grafting of the winning candidate into its pages. "In the pitch, I proposed that the first issue would shipped next month, Nov. ’08," Casey explained, saying the two-year lead time on the book would have allowed for some production wiggling room. "We bank as many issues as we could ahead of time, with the caveat that, once we know who wins on Nov. 4, we stat in the appropriate art of the winning candidate (both of which were also drawn in advance), and Marvel prints the first issue and gets it out maybe two weeks later. They’ve certainly done it before.
"The series would’ve began on election night, spent a month during the 'transition' period (which I think is a pretty interesting time for a new President), and then issue #3 would’ve been the inauguration. Of course, the first three issues would’ve primarily dealt with more superhero-centric plots, but those other activities would’ve been the backdrop for the action."
Alas, "Executive Power" wasn't meant to be, but come November 5, readers can exercise their fictional vote by taking debate over whether or not the winner of the election (whomever it may be) could handle the current events in the Marvel U on CBR's Marvel Comics forum.
In the meantime, thanks to Joe Casey for sharing the timely, if timed out, pitch.