08: A Graphic Diary of the Campaign Trail | By Michael Crowley And Dan Goldman | Three Rivers Press | 160 pages | $17.95
The Beats: A Graphic History | Edited by Paul Buhle | Hill and Wang | 193 pages | $22
Che: A Graphic Biography | By Spain Rodriguez | Verso | 106 pages | $16.95
No greater dichotomy informs the history of comics than the seemingly unbridgeable chasm separating Superman, a godlike alien, from his secret identity as mild-mannered Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent. At the same time, the journalist and the superhero form a perfect synthesis of observer and observed. Superman performs the sensational feats that Clark Kent subsequently covers on behalf of his paper’s readers. As the authentic subject of his own stories, albeit anonymously, Clark Kent is a sort of anticipatory New Journalist.
In an essay collected in The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero, Vanessa Russell takes the journalist/superhero dichotomy an intriguing step further. Russell suggests that it’s the reporters who transcend mortality in nonfiction comics—specifically, in Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus and Joe Sacco’s Palestine. “The superhero is superfluous,” she writes, “because the reporter, through extensive research, interviews, physical trips to the conflict site, photographs, oral history, and memory work can reproduce a coherent authenticity that mimics a superhero’s vision of omniscience.”
That may be overstating the case (although at this point, the average journalistic ego needs all the boosting it can get). And the ascendance of nonfiction comics undoubtedly poses less of an economic threat to mainstream journalism than do Google, Wikipedia, citizen journalism, fake news shows, and blogs unlimited. Yet even a quick flip through journalist Michael Crowley and artist Dan Goldman’s 08: A Graphic Diary of the Campaign Trail reflects what mainstream journalists are up against in the marketplace of attention.
As far as nonfiction comics go, Superman long ago left the supermarket. Which is not to say that transcendent subjects no longer exist. Barack Obama, who combines utopian expectations with his own alien-tinged origins, neatly fills that role for Crowley and Goldman. His dramatic and emotionally satisfying (for most) ascent to the presidency is the already familiar backstory to 08, condensing the prolific Crowley’s substantially more verbose reportage for The New Republic, where he is a senior editor. But without Goldman, an artist deeply in touch with the graphic rhetoric of our time, 08 would be old news, a snooze.
Their collaboration, which began with the Republican rout of 2006 and concluded with Obama’s acceptance speech, is written in all-caps headlines and hyperbole. Nuance is sacrificed as we barrel once more through the seemingly endless campaign. “I wanted 08 to draw from both comics and newspapers/magazines in the hopes that someone who’d never read a 160-page comic could pick it up and not feel the room spinning as they tried to navigate the pages,” Goldman told the online Graphic Novel Reporter. “Using big bold text as design elements throughout (not just as titles) makes it both familiar and chock-full of information.”
Comics arguably condense narrative more efficiently than any other medium does, and 08 works that advantage for all it’s worth. In this sense, 08 is the talking-points version of Crowley’s TNR commentary, making it an executive summary even more cursory than The Week. That means that the 1,100-word Crowley dispatch filed on March 18, 2008, about Obama’s Jeremiah Wright speech can be sufficiently distilled into three panels and the comment, “Yeah, but how will it play in the Rust Belt?” And on that level, the book rocks. But this is hardly the first-person “graphic diary” promised in the subtitle. The authors’ conceit is that the campaign is being reported by a pair of clichés: Harlan Jessop, a disheveled geezer akin to Jimmy Breslin, and Jason Newbury, a slick, younger Times/Post man. (Lois Lane must have been on maternity leave.) Their interjections resemble blog comments. “They all make asses of themselves sometimes,” grunts Jessop at one point. “Romney just takes it to another level.”