[27 October 2008]
Contra Costa Times (MCT)
Barack Obama wins the endorsement of a green, scaly superhero with Chicago connections and big biceps.
Sarah Palin wields a hockey stick so she can whack at the Crypt Keeper and his cronies on a “Tales From the Crypt” comic cover.
Michelle and Barack Obama, caricatured to resemble knuckle-bumping terrorists, shock and stun normally staid New Yorker readers.
Is this politics as usual for comics in an election year?
Not to sound like a waffling politician, but the answer appears to be yes - and no.
“For almost as long as there have been comic books in the United States, there have been comics about political figures,” says Joe Field, owner of Flying Colors Comics in Concord, Calif.
“But this year seems a bit different.”
Historically, cartoons have portrayed politicos in a less than flattering light, artists often needling, chiding and hounding those seeking or already in public office. Walt Kelly, creator of “Pogo,” delighted in slyly skewering the likes of Richard Nixon and Sen. Joseph McCarthy, among others. In the ‘70s, Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” carried on that spirited tradition by aiming his illustrated buckshot at conservatives. And ever since the ‘50s, Mad magazine has specialized in political lampoonery of both parties.
Yet comic experts agree something more substantial is at work in this rough-and-tumble election, as cartoons reflect how the 2008 campaign has engaged, outraged and permeated our culture.
Four years ago, the likelihood of seeing George W., John Kerry or Dick Cheney on a comic book cover seemed implausible. Today, nearly all the candidates have been cartooned.
“I can’t imagine anyone lining up to buy a John Kerry comic,” says Andrew Farago, curator of San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum.
Certainly, you did not witness a superhero from the past backing one of the major candidates. But “Savage Dragon” - a creation of Oakland’s Erik Larsen - did just that this year.
Nearly all the major players are in the comics. Hillary Clinton might have lost the bid for the Democratic nomination but she comes up a winner in her own cartoon bio set for release in January. This month, GOP vice presidential running mate Palin received the dubious distinction of landing on a “Tales From the Crypt” cover, as a spoof of the disputed claim she banned library books. As for Joe Biden - sorry, the comics passed you up.
Even mainstream strips such as “Pearls Before Swine” and “Get Fuzzy” have addressed the election, Farago says.
The one recent comic receiving huge media buzz is “Presidential Material,” a flip book featuring the cartooned biographies of John McCain and Obama. Released this month by IDW, the 28-page books - each of which can be bought separately - strive to provide an unbiased overview of both men.
Editor Scott Dunbier said the creative teams took great pains to stick to facts, not innuendos. The writers and researchers relied on verifiable quotes, and even scrapped the idea of creating a fictitious narrator to avoid taking any creative licenses.
Dunbier hopes “Presidential Matters,” which has received favorable notices, reaches a broad audience and encourages people to read more about the candidates.
“I really think the audience we’re going for is one who doesn’t always go into comic book stores.”
A combination of loyal fans coupled with the curious turned the “Dragon” issue with Obama on the cover into a success. It just went into its third printing.
Larsen, co-founder of Berkeley-based Image Comics, admits the 16-year-old “Dragon” series gets political at times. One story arc even involved the finned superhero - once a Chicago cop - slugging George W. Bush; that is, a George W. imposter. Sales soared.
But does taking the bold step of endorsing a candidate alienate potential readers?
Larsen doesn’t worry.
What about if his man loses?
“I actually considered having John McCain win regardless; it makes for a more interesting comic.”
Undoubtedly, the most intriguing and most controversial election-themed cartoon came out in the venerable New Yorker. Intended as satire, the July cover featured the Obamas in terrorist garb and touched off a contentious and raucous feud on the Internet.
The visceral fireworks it set off illustrate just how emotionally powerfully cartoons can be.
“If it would have been a New Yorker essay, nobody would have blinked,” Farago said.
Perhaps a cartoon, even more than a picture, is worth a thousand words. Especially when it appears in the midst of a volatile election year.