Goldman cites the usual heavies (The Boys on the Bus, The War Room, and Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72) as primary influences. Yet 08 essentially pressure-cooks the recycled images and echoing sound bites that define modern political campaigns. And that isn’t necessarily an invalid approach. As Evan Cornog (CJR’s publisher) and Richard Whelan write in their introduction to 08’s closest cousin, Hats in the Ring: An Illustrated History of American Presidential Campaigns: “[I]mages and symbols of an election are as freighted with meaning, and as ‘valid’ a political medium, as the more explicitly issue-oriented material inscribed in party platforms and spoken at debates.” 08 summarizes the issues and talking points. But even more significantly, it captures the tsunami of logos, chyrons, photo ops, holograms, and other virtual-reality graphics that enhanced the campaign and election night. It reflects what we’ve come to accept as adequate campaign journalism: the aggregation of facts endlessly spun, massaged, and repackaged, even as news wells and original reporting shrink.
Historically rooted in caricature (and politics) as they are, comics always distort what they depict. In this regard, 08 is particularly harsh on Hillary Clinton, while also pointing out how “sexism could be found everywhere.” Of course, what national politician doesn’t seem a self-parody beside Obama? A metaphysical aura surrounds him in the book’s final pages, with his victory speech rendered as an event of cosmic proportions.
This time around, in other words, Superman easily surpasses both Clark Kents. Which means that we miss the keen and sober perspective that might have brought Obama’s coronation back down to earth. (No mention is made, for example, of the corporate, union, and PAC contributions that got him to the Senate and made his presidential bid possible in the first place.) But as a deft condensation of this epic campaign, with a finely calibrated ratio of showing to telling, 08 is, like the best superhero comics, a quick, energizing read. It may skim the surface, but that surface is sufficiently fascinating to justify 08 as an alternative to journalism not all that far from its mainstream sources. What it gets perfectly, however, is the vibe.
This isn’t all we demand of nonfiction comics, of course, but it’s harder to pull off than it looks. Some truly stunning graphic biographies employing other strategies have appeared in recent years. Ho Che Anderson delivered a book worthy of its subject with King: A Comics Biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Fantagraphics, 2005). Anderson contrasted dense pages of unadorned black-and-white panels containing the facts of MLK’s career with colorful montages conveying its dramatic arc (08 clearly echoes Anderson’s innovative use of retouched photographic imagery). Kyle Baker’s Nat Turner (Abrams, 2008), on the other hand, recounts Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion in virtual silence. Baker eschews word and thought balloons for pages and pages of exquisitely rendered visceral violence to convey the ambivalent catharsis of Turner’s rampage.
All of the authors and artists mentioned above emphasize the immediacy and emotional impact of their respective subjects, while hewing close to historical fact. In many ways their work is more like a kind of personal documentary filmmaking than writing. On the other hand, graphic renditions of topics relating to the humanities and sciences often remind me of the filmstrips of my youth. Pantheon seemed to reclaim this middle ground between word and image in 1978, when it launched what would become a popular graphic-oriented series with Lenin for Beginners.
That spirit persists somewhat in The Beats: A Graphic History and Spain Rodriguez’s Che: A Graphic Biography. Paul Buhle edited both books, and each combines nuts-and-bolts prose with outstanding art. The core of The Beats consists of chapters devoted to the big three: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs. Harvey Pekar of American Splendor fame wrote these chapters, which are illustrated by artist Ed Piskor. Several other writers and artists contribute short comic essays on lesser Beats. Joyce Brabner’s unabashedly opinionated take on “Beatnik Chicks,” Mary Fleener and Pekar’s psychedelic meditation on Diane di Prima, and Jeffrey Lewis’s collaboration with eighty-five-year-old Tuli Kupferberg (of the Fugs) all evoke their subjects with the kind of loose, manic charm the Beats practically invented.
Pekar, however, seems to find a kindred working-class hero in Kerouac, and occasionally pops into a panel to comment. Pekar is a pioneer of the autobiographical comics trend from which books like Maus and Palestine evolved, and The Beats might have been better served by more of a first-person approach. But the book as a whole suffers from a dearth of quotations from its subjects’ work, the material that justifies their fame. David Halberstam made the same mistake in The Fifties when he suggested that the lives the Beats led were more important than what they wrote.