Does Biography Work in Comics?

by

 

 

Presidential Material: John McCain
By Andy Helfer and Stephen Thompson
Presidential Material: Barack Obama
By Jeff Mariotte and Tom Morgan
IDW — saddle-stitched, $3.99 each


(Disclaimer: I gave money to Sen. Obama in both the primary and general periods of the current election. Read that into the following as you will.)


POLITICAL CARTOONS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN a part of American elections, perfect for distilling an idea—often an attack—into a handful of icons capable of getting a point across at a glance.

However, the comics form has rarely, if ever, been used for a more in-depth look at political candidates’ histories and positions on issues. For that matter, while autobiography is common, there are relatively few comics biographies—political or otherwise—in print. There may be good reasons for this, and IDW’s new Presidential Material comics, while stronger than I’d anticipated, reveal several of the factors that make serious biographical work so rare in comics.

It is worth noting that traditional prose biographies of historical figures are usually written by historians, with some intention to educate, but usually more than that to convince their audience of the accuracy of their own interpretation of their subject. Authors engage in independent research, and base their books upon their findings.

Film “biopics,” as they are called, are meant to entertain as well as enlighten. They are generally made by filmmakers who specialize in fiction, but have a passion for the particular person depicted, like Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, Clint Eastwood’s Bird, or Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There. They bring their own vision of the person, or perhaps adapt one from a book that captured their imagination, and bring that to the screen as a narrative, imagining scenes and dialogue that may have happened, but probably didn’t.

As Gregory Cwiklik argued in his 1996 essay, “The Inherent Limitations of the Comics Form as a Narrative Medium,” creating dense or lengthy work in comics is difficult because it requires an immense investment of time. Not only must an artist draw hundreds of pages, time-consuming in itself, but they have the additional burden of drawing characters and locales over and over, a requirement not shared by film or prose. In biography, there may be the need to acquire photo reference for hundreds of people and settings, and master their depiction. In prose, such things are described once and the author may move on; in film, sets are built once and actors are made up once a day.

Unlike books and film, in which biographies are usually stand-alone works, the most prominent modern comics biographies are the products of publishing initiatives that release them in series, like Hill and Wang’s “Graphic Biographies,” The Center for Cartoon Studies’ books looking at a day in the life of historical figures, and Presidential Material. The books in the “Graphic Biography” series are uniform in design and length (to the page—each is 100 pages exactly), despite recounting the stories of such diverse figures as J. Edgar Hoover, Malcolm X, and President Ronald Reagan.

The “Graphic Biographies” are clearly for children, more illustrated Cliff Notes of existing biographies and autobiographies than products of new research or individual passion. None include primary sources or original research in their bibliographies, and none reveal any original insights into their subjects. J. Edgar Hoover is written and drawn by Rick Geary in the same style as his “Treasury of Victorian Murder” series, while Malcolm X and Ronald Reagan are written by former DC Comics editor Andrew Helfer, and illustrated by Randy DuBurke and the team of Steve Buccello and Joe Staton, respectively.

Geary benefits from his experience, though his “just the facts” approach is less revealing in considering an entire life than the questions surrounding a single criminal case. When Geary explains that Hoover wanted the FBI to have this or that responsibility and that President Roosevelt “thought differently,” or repeatedly leaves it at “they needed each other,” this raises more questions than it answers. Similarly, Helfer has a habit of gliding past issues over which there is disagreement, writing “Whatever the case . . .” too frequently for my taste. Kids aren’t likely to catch such details and it does them a disservice. On the other hand, it’s hard to know what else Geary and Helfer could do, given their mandate and the space allotted.

The art in each book is passable, largely shots of people shaking hands or posing together, many referencing specific photographs, with likenesses shifting here and there. Cwiklik’s argument is instructive here: drawing 100 pages of such material probably wasn’t very exciting, and deadlines likely didn’t allow the amount of detail that would make them more interesting to look at.

The question of what images should accompany text that is largely a series of facts in captions is central to the notion of biography in comics. Prose authors don’t need to pick a single moment to define each point they make, nor do filmmakers, thanks to the continuous nature of film. Geary sticks with a sober style throughout Hoover, restricting himself largely to portraits, maps, still frames from movies, and book covers. Helfer calls for cartoonier moments as metaphors for complex ideas, though the need to make everything instantly recognizable leads to some strange moments when applied to the text, as when President Kennedy, in one of Reagan’s only two thought balloons, is introduced thinking, “Ask not what your country can do for you . . .,” though this has nothing to do with the scene in which it takes place.

The other mode of biography in recent comics is in line with the auteurist impulse at work in the better movie biopics. A short and classic example is Gilbert Hernandez’s eleven-page “Frida,” which uses pastiches of Frida Kahlo’s paintings to probe deeper into her work and inner world. More recent examples of artists working in this mode are Kyle Baker’s Nat Turner and Ho Che Anderson’s King. Both are the work of individual cartoonists and were serialized toward eventual collection as stand-alone books. That they are different from the “Graphic Biographies” is clear right from the beginning. Nat Turner features a preface in which Baker writes about why the story was important to him, while King opens with cultural critic Stanley Crouch hailing Anderson’s accomplishment.

Like the “Graphic Biographies,” Nat Turner spans Turner’s entire life, but unlike them, it focuses most of its page count on a specific event: the slave rebellion Turner led. Much of the book is silent, and almost all of the text comes directly from Turner’s confession. Baker doesn’t shy from the brutality of the rebellion, though the details he has previously shown—the capture of Turner’s mother in Africa and the treatment of slaves on the voyage to America—force one to wonder what other option there was. Baker’s central message is also clear: it was the exercise of Turner’s intelligence in his learning to read that was his true rebellion, moreso than the violence.

In an opposite approach, Anderson includes at least as much text per page as the “Graphic Biography” series in King, but doesn’t limit himself to essay-style captions. His narrative also features dialogue scenes, eye-witness reports, and just about every other method of imparting information Anderson can fit it. The ten years that Anderson spent on it is a testament both to his passion for the subject and to Cwiklik’s assertion that such a work in comics can’t be completed in the same time span as a book or film.

SO, Presidential Material. Two questions immediately come to mind: are they obvious plays for attention and cash that no one will care about in a few months? And is that bad?

Probably so, and not necessarily.

IDW is hardly alone in haphazardly cashing in on the quadrennial interest in presidential candidates. Every election cycle, dozens of books are written on both candidates, their running mates, their spouses, and their associates. Most candidates write a few books themselves before running. There are even already more than half a dozen books on Sarah Palin, and most people hadn’t heard of her two months ago. Some of the many campaign books are partisan, some hope to inform, most can’t hide how quickly they were put together, and almost all will be forgotten after the election. IDW is to be congratulated for identifying such a lucrative market, actually getting something out in the space between the nominations and early October, and creating a product far less crass than the majority of campaign-related books, even as the comics themselves show the signs of their expedited process and the weaknesses of such a condensed format.

The next obvious question: Are the Presidential Material comics any good?

Better than I’d have expected, actually. This comes down in large part to how compelling the stories of both men are. Both are informative as brief portraits and provide a view of the candidates’ philosophies. They manage seriousness without being overly stuffy, and embarrassing comics moments are rare.

Written by Andy Helfer of the “Graphic Biography” series (PM: McCain), and Jeff Mariotte (PM: Obama), the contents seem to be based largely on the candidates’ autobiographies, which means PM: Obama is better than PM: McCain by virtue of Obama’s books being better than McCain’s. Whatever one may think of his politics, Obama is a brilliant writer, describing his youthful search for roots with a novelist’s command of language, and giving Mariotte a deep and introspective foundation to build upon. His first book, Dreams From My Father, was also written years before he was a candidate for anything, and is therefore likely more honest than it would otherwise have been.

McCain’s books are well-regarded, but, the product of a collaboration with another writer, Mark Salter (oddly, not mentioned in the bibliography, though a picture of the book within the story itself shows Salter’s name on the cover), they are less revealing. Mariotte also benefits from having the same number of pages as PM: McCain, but with fewer years to cover, and is able to get more into the details of anecdotes, even including sequences with back and forth dialogue, verbatim from Obama’s memoirs. By contrast, PM: McCain bursts with captions, as Helfer has tried to at least mention as many significant moments from McCain’s career as possible.

Where the Presidential Material comics differ from traditional campaign books is in who created them. Most campaign books are written by the candidates themselves (or their ghostwriters), by journalists, or at least by partisan operatives who are steeped in the material, even if their main original contribution to the record is creative dishonesty. Helfer and Mariotte, on the other hand, are journeymen comics writers who have both clearly put effort into research and fairness, but are just as clearly not experts.

Helfer’s experience with Hill and Wang’s “Graphic Biographies” was surely helpful in distilling information, but he reveals his lack of expertise in the very panel in which John McCain is born, claiming that the reason McCain is a US citizen and qualified to run for office is because, though he was born in the Panama Canal Zone, at the time it was US Territory. In fact, he is a US citizen because both of his parents are US citizens, and he would have been whether the Canal Zone was US territory or not. For that matter, US territories are not considered part of the country for Constitutional purposes (e.g. what counts as “natural born”), so someone born to non-US citizens in the Canal Zone would not automatically be a US citizen (Helfer is probably misunderstanding a silly controversy over whether McCain’s birthplace qualified him as a natural born citizen before Congress resolved that the requirement is that a candidate be born a citizen, rather than born on US soil). A minor error, but enough to make me read the rest of the book with some skepticism.

The problem with basing the comics largely on other biographies and the candidates’ autobiographies is that they are short on original insight, really just summaries of lengthier works. This makes attempts at lending narrative shape to the two men’s lives an occasionally clunky exercise. The comics share a technique similar to one Helfer used in both of his “Graphic Biography” assignments, in which he began at the end of his subjects’ lives, before jumping back to the beginning. Here, both begin with dramatic moments in the candidates’ lives.

Helfer’s choice is obvious: what could compete with McCain’s years as a prisoner of war in the Hanoi Hilton? While Obama’s life provides no similar obvious moment, this frees Mariotte to decide what constitutes a significant moment, but he chooses unimaginatively, leading with Obama awaiting the results of the Super Tuesday primaries in his race against Sen. Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. Surely he could have done better, like Obama’s decision to make his historic and, some would say, presumptuous run for the White House. How about preparing for his speech before the 2004 Democratic Convention, when he was introduced to the nation, or the moment I’d have chosen: wrestling in 2002 with the extremely unpopular—at the time—decision to oppose the war in Iraq. Any of these is more compelling than waiting on election results.

As for the art, Stephen Thompson—on PM: McCain—and Tom Morgan—on PM: Obama—acquit themselves admirably, but the strain of the schedule and the sheer amount of research shows. Likenesses sometimes work, but other times come out strangely. Thompson’s work is more realistic, but it is also stiffer, as it is more often complementing information-heavy captions, while Morgan gets more narrative scenes, and draws a few Obama speeches, which allow him to draw from the actual performances and body language that accompanied the words.

As in the “Graphic Biographies,” selecting single moments as illustrations of facts and abstract details presents a challenge. In a crucial early moment, Obama’s youthful drug use is briefly mentioned. While it wouldn’t be inaccurate to depict him snorting cocaine, it would seem wildly unfair, the kind of visceral image that hasn’t popped up anywhere else and could easily overwhelm the rest of the comic, and would certainly be the most prominent detail in subsequent coverage of Presidential Material.

Instead, the accompanying image is part of a basketball scene as Obama dunks, and the following panel containing his later claim that “Things had gotten complicated” steers just as clear of visceral imagery, but underlines the gravity of the statement by slowing down with a close-up of the ball going into the hoop. It’s a good solution to the potential pitfalls of the medium’s requirement that an image sit next to every fact.

One thing that’s not entirely clear is who these comics are for. The ads on the back of each are for Rock the Vote, so they are obviously meant for people old enough to vote, and the way IDW has promoted them to the national press implies an attempt at an even older demographic than Rock the Vote targets. However, they are stylistically similar to the “Graphic Biography” series in their Cliff Notes simplicity, and PM: McCain actually uses superhero-style word censorship when McCain threatens to “beat the $%&# out of” a reporter, an old-school comicsy moment that does the project’s attempt to be taken seriously no favors.

A surprising detail is the disparity in production values between the two, considering they come from the same publisher and even the same editor. PM: Obama has page numbers, while PM: McCain doesn’t, and the printing in PM: McCain is noticeably worse, pixelated and washed out. Certainly these were produced in a hurry, but it’s strange that that fact is so much more obvious in one than the other.

Bottom line, these comics do an okay job at what they set out to do, but are most interesting as curiosities. They mostly get the facts right, but are fairly shallow and offer nothing in the way of original revelations or viewpoints. Given the constraints on time and space, it doesn’t seem likely that candidate biographies in comics can be much more than a truncated introduction to the presidential hopefuls. Early next year we’ll find out how much having a bit more time benefits a similar project showcasing Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin (Oops, I meant this), as well as if anyone still cares by then. I would personally be more interested in more books along the lines of King or Nat Turner.


I advise anyone with a serious desire for a compelling and even-handed dual-biography of Sens. McCain and Obama to save their $8 and instead watch Frontline’s excellent “The Choice 2008,” available in full on their website. And while I’m in “For more information” mode, The New Yorker recently published a fascinating article on the history of campaign biographies.

Oh, yeah, and vote. (And a special shout-out to the lovely Akiyo Horiguchi, a brand new citizen who will be voting in her first election this year.)

Update: I looked back on the Presidential Material comics on the occasion of PM: Barack Obama’s “inauguration edition” fourth printing, and compared them to subsequent exploitation of President Obama’s image in superhero comics. I also reviewed IDW’s follow-up comic on the general election and Obama’s inauguration.

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