No Stranger to Fiction #3: We Didn't Start the Pyre
'We cannot build our own future without helping others to build theirs'.
-- Bill Clinton (1946-present), former US President
'We don’t all crumble at the sight of some clown in a flag'.
--Thor, God of Thunder, Earth-1610
It's exceedingly obvious that every single person who has ever lived -- even
people with the most rudimentary knowledge of history or politics -- has their own distinct definition of what a leader is or should (at least attempt) to be. To the recently-paroled Lynette 'Squeaky' Fromme, that leader was a mass-murdering cultist and self-proclaimed returned 'Messiah' named Charles Manson. To the advocates of recognition of universal Civil Rights in the United States through non-violent methods (which birthed, of course, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's X-Men), Martin Luther King, Jr. was the man to follow. To Britain's frighteningly Orwellian incarnation of the Conservative Party in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher was the be-all, end-all (Warren Ellis is famous for having noted 'I grew up in the 80s in England: we’d wake up each morning and look out the window to see if the government had finally put Daleks on the streets').
However, since the United States declared its independence in the late 18th Century, one sort of Western leader has captivated popular media, including comicbooks, in a way not even fairytale princes and Arthurian legends have been able to manage: the American President, a position that, in itself, is almost mythical in stature, if not in actual relevance.
From even before John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln and stretching beyond recent films like Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon and Oliver Stone’s W., the President has long held the attention of the people in both real life and on the screen. This, of course, extends to comics, and has since the advent of the superhero; after all, why were Superman, Batman, Namor and Jim Hammond created if not to do what Franklin D. Roosevelt could not do at the time? Since then, John F. Kennedy helped Superman protect his secret identity in an issue infamously released days after Kennedy’s assassination; Captain America was well-known throughout the war as Roosevelt’s golden boy, only to have his illusion of America shattered when he discovered that a President bearing a striking resemblance to Richard Nixon was head of the dangerous movement 'The Secret Empire'; and George W. Bush himself actively appointed Norman Osborn to head up a new agency that would, effectively, dissolve and replace S.H.I.E.L.D.
Yes, there's a fine line between Kennedy's interaction with Superman and the Watergate allegory that bruised Steve Rogers' faith, and there's an even finer line between the Secret Empire tale and the interaction between Bush and Osborn. As America matured as a nation, no doubt due to some of its trials in the 20th Century (among them the Great Depression, two World Wars, the Apollo program and the Cold War) so too did the relationship between 'our' world's President and the President on the printed page. There is most assuredly a gradual progression, and it's keenly obvious that the relationship hit a new 'go for broke' level when George W. Bush and Rudolph Giuliani stood on rubble where the World Trade Center used to be and shouted out from a megaphone for all the world to hear. Giuliani, and especially Bush, were heroes then.
Comics, of course, saw it differently. In the opening arc of Ultimate X-Men, Mark Millar, a well-established Scot, wrote a sequence in which mutant terrorist Magneto forced President Bush to strip naked on the White House lawn, as if trying to tell him that making vague threats to unknown attackers doesn’t make one a hero, as if he was trying to goad a man he viewed as a coward into taking action and, for once, doing something brave that his advisors didn’t suggest. Similarly, in his Ultimates, Millar portrays Bush as the intellectual opposite of his predecessors, often making ridiculous, vapid statements (most famously, perhaps, when asking Captain America if he thought the 21st Century was 'cool' or not).
Even DC Comics got in on the Bush-bashing action, albeit allegorically, when President Lex Luthor was used as a stand-in for the actual Commander-in-Chief. Frighteningly enough, the Superman line of books was able to predict, sometimes months, sometimes mere weeks in advance, many of Bush’s earlier, more troublesome decisions, before he was eventually revealed to the public as a criminal madman by Batman and Superman in Jeph Loeb’s “Public Enemies” storyline.
Very few comics creators saw Bush as an inspirational figure, or even a President who deserved to be in office. In the “Trouble” storyline in Ex Machina, Brian K. Vaughan has fictitious New York Mayor Mitchell Hundred state that he firmly believes Bush is 'a good man' before going on to imply that the 43rd President was misguided and in over his head (It should also be noted, however, that early on in his run in the seminal Y: The Last Man, when one character mistakes acts of violence for the work of Al-Qaeda, another characters remarks that it's 'Worse. Republicans'). In Dan Slott's run on Avengers: The Initiative, President Bush actually awards a Skrull posing as Hank Pym with a treasured award, speaking in a way reminiscent of Bush's interaction with former FEMA head Michael Brown and their failure to handle Hurriance Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans effectively. To top that all off, the inciting incident in Ellis’s acclaimed Black Summer is the assassination of a Bush-analog and his cabinet by rogue government superhuman John Horus.
With the election of Barack Obama, many comic book companies seem to have caught the wave of the 44th President’s “Audacity of Hope”, with Marvel’s Obama rubbing elbows with Spider-Man and Captain America and occasionally threatening to fire the malevolent Osborn. President Obama has appeared in the pages of Image Books like Savage Dragon and Youngblood, and has even received his own Devil’s Due series Barack the Barbarian, no doubt a tribute to his professed love of the Conan character.
But this upsurge in four-color hope is not limited solely to President Obama; Steve Rogers has returned to lead the Marvel Universe out of Osborn’s “Dark Reign” into a new 'Heroic Age'; DC will follow up their “Blackest Night” with a “Brightest Day”; and even independent books are catching on to the Obama frenzy. Marc Guggenheim’s acclaimed series Resurrection has recently revealed that, despite the terrible alien invasion (the book’s conceit) that ravaged the entire planet in the late 1990s, Bill Clinton, code-named “Eagle”, is still alive, and, to borrow a phrase, is serving as a 'shining beacon of hope' to the survivors of the occupation, even as a fictitious former Clinton cabinet member named Paul Dolan (who looks, intentionally, exactly like Karl Rove) plots to regain control of the States for humans in his own vile way.
Should the trend toward positivity continue -- should the days of 'Camelot' once again arise when a sitting President can make a goofy guest appearance in a mainstream superhero comic to deflect suspicion of the hero's true identity from others -- the industry may actually be moving away from the sort of maturity it has so long wanted the broader public to know it has achieved.
However, like the exact timeframe of a dead superhero's return from the dead or, indeed, the exact outcome of a Presidential election, only time will tell if that is the case.
Only the agonizing wait will tell if the comicbook trend towards hope is a step forward or back, just as that same wait will let us know if whatever change is ahead is really the change we believed in over a year ago.
Coming next week: An in-depth look at the current Captain
America fiasco in "Bleed American".