COMICS: John Reviews “Presidential Material” by Andy Helfer and Jeff Marriotte

Political comics (not to be confused with political cartoons, which are usually single images in newspapers) are becoming more and more popular as time goes on.  The most famous and successful entry to the genre so far has been The 9/11 Commission Report – Graphic Edition, but it may be eclipsed by IDW Publishing’s two new biography-comics, “Presidential Material – Barack Obama” and “Presidential Material – John McCain.”  These one-shot bio comics (available as separate issues or as a 2-in-1 “flip” book, as well as a version for mobile phones) include relevant biographical information on both parties’ candidates in the upcoming 2008 Presidential election. Designed to help inform a subset of American culture notorious for being politically out of touch (the youth market and/or comics fans in general) “Presidential Material”‘s existence alone may prove beneficial to American society.  But is it fair to both candidates, or does it just another example of the “liberal media” playing favorites?

Let’s begin with Andy Helfer and Stephen Thompson’s examination of the life of Arizona Senator John Sidney McCain III.

McCain’s story begins at the lowest point in his life: His stay as a prisoner of war in Hanoi, Vietnam.  These images are by far the most striking and engaging in the entire issue, and are reminiscent of the best stories in war comics (Joe Kubert’s Sgt. Rock springs to mind.)  His early life is told through a prolonged flashback sequence, and the narrative conitnues forward after his days in Hanoi have been reexamined.  Helfer takes us through his troubled childhood as an armed forces brat, his rebellious teenage years, his days as a cadet in Annapolis, his tragic aviation accidents, the courtship of his first and second wives, his return from Vietnam, his path to political power, the “Keating 5” scandal, and his continuing record as senator and presidential candidate.  It’s a lot to cover (and the writing is forced to stay fairly expository in order to fit it all in,) but everything is touched on to at least some extent.   The artwork, as in most political comics, takes a backseat in all but the war-time section.  It is almost uniformly a step above simple reproductions of photographs, but ends up merely working alongside the text rather than with it.

Where “Presidential Material – John McCain” really disappoints is in its highly evident bias.  The comic contains no false information as far as I am aware, but its language is clearly derisive in many places and it encourages the reader to jump to negative conclusions.  One example is the line, “After graduating from Annapolis at the bottom of his class (forging a trend for future generations of McCains),’Slew’ McCain advanced slowly but steadily to the rank of Vice-Admiral.”  There is no need for this kind of language unless the author is trying to influence the reader.  It cheapens the piece and starts it down the road from biography to propaganda.  There are plenty of other examples, too:  The fact that McCain’s great-grandfather owned slaves during the Civil War, the McCain family’s less-than-exceptional academic records, John’s flight accidents (phrased to imply that he was dangerously incompetent), and his reputation as a hard-partying rebel more interested in using his navy uniform to attract women than in serving his country. That particular line was followed with, “To this end, his free time was spent either partying on the beach or cavorting with the strippers at Trader John’s, a particularly rowdy local bar.” Instead of simply letting the facts speak for themselves, Helfer felt the need to inject derision and venom into his descriptions of McCain’s greater and lesser mistakes.  I shudder to think what he would write about my life if he applied the same tactic.

Not all of Helfer’s descriptions are negative, however.  In fact, the wartime segments seem to describe an entirely different John McCain, one who is a pillar of unwavering resolve and dedication to his country.  His  senatorial decisions following the Keating 5 incident until the events of 9/11 are also praised, showing him to be the “maverick” the campaign currently claims him to be.  Following the tragedy of September 11th, however, it is implied that McCain began to toe the party line and abandon the stance that had won him national admiration.   He is never completely lionized or demonized, but overall Helfer does seem to paint Senator McCain in a less-than-favorable light.

And now, on to Jeff Marriotte’s biography of Illinois Junior Senator Barack Hussein Obama II:

“Presidential Material – Barack Obama” reads more like a comic book than its counterpart, in large part because of its greater use of comic book conventions.  Dialogue is more frequently related through word balloons than caption-box summaries, and the overall structure is more linear, making it feel more narrative than historical.  Obama’s tale begins at a tense moment in his life (“Super Tuesday” of the 2008 democratic primary elections), but in no way compares to the tragedy and drama of McCain’s stay at the “Hanoi Hilton.”  As he waits for the final tallies to be announced, he reflects on the people and experiences that led him to that point.  We see a young Barry Obama’s difficulty relating to the other kids in Hawaii and Indonesia, his struggle to define himself as a young man of mixed race, his experimental college years when he befriended socially-conscious and often controversial students, his graduation from Columbia and his time spent working at a New York law firm.  It is at roughly this point in Senator Obama’s personal history when he makes the important decision to dedicate his life to what he believes in: Strengthening communities and working to correct the social and political injustices of America and the world.  His time as a community organizer (a profession treated with the utmost contempt by his current opponents) was instrumental to his dream of social change, and the values he grew to embrace on the south side of Chicago have continued to serve him in good stead.  Michelle Obama even warned him during his race for the U.S. Senate taht politics is not a profession for honorable people like him.  Yet it is that very quality that helped propel Barack Obama to the forefront of American consciousness, first in his speech at the 2004 DNC and then in his campaign for presidency.  Marriotte continues to chronicle Obama’s meteoric rise to prominence, from his success at Harvard Law to his senatorial positions, his speech at the DNC to his presidential campaign.  All the while, he frames the story in the style of a riveting biographical movie.  The only negative criticism of Senator Obama is restricted to a single page, with individual panels mentioning scandals great (Rev. Wright, William Ayers) and small (his disinclination to wear an American flag pin.) Former U.S. President Bill Clinton is quoted in “Presidential Material” as characterizing Barack Obama’s story as “the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen.” While I would not go nearly as far in my estimation, I would say that Marriotte’s biography of Sen. Obama is as glowing as Helfer’s biography of McCain is damning.  Considering how prominent these issues have become – especially in recent days – one would think they deserved more panels to cover them properly.  Nevertheless, “Presidential Material – Barack Obama” succeeds in relating an uplifting story of a boy from Hawaii who overcame adversity to become the first African-American presidential candidate in United States history.

Is “Presidential Material” an example of responsible political publishing in the comics industry?  more importantly, is it worth the money? My answer is a qualified yes:  While the comics are far from objective and un-biased, they both serve as excellent primers to the candidates for people who are uninformed or under-informed on the current race to the White House.  Given the relatively low page count (roughly 28 for each issue), authors Andy Helfer (McCain) and Jeff Mariotte (Obama) manage to include a surprisingly comprehensive amount of information, but it should not be anyone’s sole source of information any more than one TV news channel or blog should be.  If you are looking to find out more about the background of the 2008 presidential candidates (specifically their histories before entering the political world), “Presidential Material” will convey the important information in far less time than it would take to read Dreams from My Father or Faith in my Fathers.  If you are looking for a comprehensive, fair and unbiased guide to the candidates in order to determine who to vote for, take “Presidential Material” lightly.  Do your research, examine the arguments on both sides of the media, and ultimately draw your own conclusions, and do it as soon as possible.  This election is too important to America for anyone not to vote, and every citizen should try to make as informed a decision as possible on November 4th.  Thank you for reading, and God Bless America.


One Response

  1. Another good review. Did either of the comics mention their respective candidates stance on any of the issues, or was it just biographic information?

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