|Barack Obama #1: Road to the White House
By Jeff Mariotte and Tom Morgan
IDW — saddle-stitched, $3.99
BEFORE PRESIDENT-ELECT OBAMA’S CAMEO ROLE IN Amazing Spider-Man and subsequent appearances as president in a host of other tasteless comics, IDW saw in the higher-than-usual interest in the 2008 election a chance to expand sales outside the direct market. IDW’s Presidential Material comics, published during the campaign, received a huge amount of press attention, and Presidential Material: Barack Obama is currently in its fifth printing. Less blatantly opportunistic than those later efforts, they were essentially straight, factual retellings of John McCain and Barack Obama’s biographies, flawed but accomplishing what they set out to do. Last week, IDW and creators Jeff Mariotte and Tom Morgan returned to the Obama genre that they founded, leaving me with similarly mixed feelings as their first outing.
When we last saw our hero, he had just won his campaign against Sen. Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. Picking up where Presidential Material: Barack Obama (which I suppose could now be considered Barack Obama #0) left off, Barack Obama #1: The Road to the White House opens with the Democratic convention in August, 2008, and covers the general election campaign through Inauguration Day in January, 2009. There’s not much need to summarize these events, as most readers should be familiar with them already.
Therein lies the existential crisis of Barack Obama #1: unlike the Presidential Material comics, which told the life stories of the two major party candidates in the 2008 presidential election, all the material this time around is very, very recent history. The previous comics likely informed many readers about aspects of both men’s lives of which they were unaware. By contrast, a reader who was following the campaign a few months ago is unlikly to find anything new in a rehashing of the events we all just lived through. So, what is this comic about, then? It’s doesn’t serve an explicitly educational role, as the Presidential Material comics did, and it’s not journalism in the traditional sense of the world—there is no original reporting or unique insights, and no pretense to those things.
Barack Obama #1 is most interesting as pure storytelling, a distillation of the campaign into a few broad thematic strokes. In the midst of a campaign, it’s easy to lose track of the overarching conflict amongst the hundreds of narratives fighting for attention every day. Looking back over an abridged version of the whole thing has a completely different feel. Naturally, in order to fit everything into 22 pages, events are condensed, and it’s necessary to select which moments will be included and which left out. In the process, Mariotte and Morgan have created, a few head-scratching moments aside, a cohesive narrative that actually feels fairly true to the general thrust of the 2008 campaign.
Interestingly, in this retelling John McCain actually comes across as the more compelling character of the two candidates. Obama is portrayed as remaining steady in message and presentation throughout the turns the campaign takes, which doesn’t make for much drama, but the representative moments chosen of McCain’s campaign reveal a man blindsided by the moment in history he finds himself in. McCain comes across as confused, out of touch, almost delusional in places—a victim of history, felled by the movement that he, by accident of timing, became an obstacle to, able only in defeat to step back and acknowledge the moment, in a concession speech that was the most graceful moment of his campaign. Even to someone diametrically opposed to McCain in political philosophy, it’s easy to sympathize with his apparent helplessness as the wrong man at the wrong time.
Of course, this is what happens when you impose a narrative on several months worth of a campaign in which a dozen things happened every day. During the campaign, it was in the interest of various news organizations to play up uncertainty in the election—a foregone conclusion is bad for ratings. By contrast, reading Barack Obama #1, Obama’s victory seems inevitable in the face of McCain declaring the economy sound while a falling line chart is placed behind him, or of Sarah Palin’s various statements, with their incoherent syntax even more glaring when appearing as text. The reality is that the truth is probably somewhere in between, but the 22-page format doesn’t allow for any more subtlety than the 24-hour news networks.
The limited space Mariotte has to work with also shows in the lack of detail in certain anecdotes. Steeped as he must have been in the material, Mariotte appears to have taken pieces of information for granted here and there. For instance, he notes that “when Obama described McCain’s policies as ‘lipstick on a pig’ . . . McCain’s campaign fired back, asserting that Obama was being disrespectful toward Palin.” How? Had a reader missed this story, nothing in the comic makes this sound like anything other than a total non-sequitur (the alleged connection to Palin was that she had earlier joked that the difference between a hockey mom—her self-identification—and a pit bull was “lipstick”). Several moments like this stick out.
The most interesting part of the comic is the day of the inauguration prior to the ceremony. Though only a single page, there were several details I was unaware of, such as the fact that the incoming president takes command of the nuclear “football” hours before before being sworn in, and I’d have loved to have seen more moments like this. Amusingly, Chief Justice Roberts’s mangling of the oath of office (and his addition of “So help you God?” which many oath takers say, but which is not actually part of the oath) is presented without comment. The scene is actually quite funny without context, though it did make me realize that the entire thread of the assorted conspiracy theories about Obama’s supposed lack of legitimacy—for instance, the fact that the oath was administered wrong, so he can’t really be president, OMG, remains a popular charge—are ignored in this version of events. (In fact, the oath was later re-administered, just in case. My favorite theory about the whole thing comes from a New York Times op-ed speculating that the error was a result of Roberts’s grammar Naziism.) It’s not something serious people debate, but it is a sad, dark undercurrent to a story that Barack Obama #1 portrays as purely sunny (one that is even darker after the many conspiracy-theory-driven murders that have taken place since the inauguration), with the sole exception of the now-impeached Illinois Governor Blagojevich’s attempted sale of the president’s vacated Senate seat, which receives a panel.
On the art side, a lot is asked of Tom Morgan, who has to master a whole new set of likenesses since last time, and he generally manages, though his Palin never comes out quite right, his McCain is iffy when not in close-up, and the Obama girls look a little too old. On the other hand, if Bluewater’s Female Force series is planning a Nancy Pelosi issue, I recommend Morgan. I was also able to recognize Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, even though he is not named when he appears.
The story moves a lot faster than in PM: Barack Obama, with most scenes lasting one panel and a heavier reliance on captions. Morgan’s response is to shake up the page layouts a lot more, with the unfortunate effect that, even after looking at them for awhile, I couldn’t determine the reading order of captions on a few pages. It’s a more mixed bag than Morgan’s last stab at this material.
It will be informative to see if Barack Obama #1 can recapture the success of the Presidential Material comics now that the election is over and, even though Obama’s popularity remains high, readers may be burned out on the campaign or ready to move on. For anyone who followed the election closely, there’s little new in this comic, but I found some value in a quick recap of those months, which seemed so different when seen all at once than when experienced day-to-day. With bits like highlights of the inaugural address, the comic fulfills the same “moment in history keepsake” function that last year’s installment did—this is what President Obama’s election looked like right after it happened—and in that respect it does its job, though in some areas more clumsily than PM: Barack Obama. In any event, IDW’s not finished yet, as the presence of a next issue blurb informs us that Obama has completed his transformation into a comic book hero by announcing the imminence of Barack Obama #2.
PS: Now that Mariotte and Morgan have gotten to continue with this project, I wonder if, somewhere, Andy Helfer and Stephen Thompson are seething over Obama’s victory in the same way that Jon Lovitz reportedly said, after the 1988 election, “Now fucking Dana [Carvey] gets to play the president for the next four years.”