Picture Perfect?

In three new graphic histories, the facts get a visual boost

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.”

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.

And yet, just as the Beats were characterized by relentless linguistic play, The Beats manages to make the scene new again on the sheer strength of artistic play. Piskor dispenses with realism altogether, transforming these overly familiar accounts into lurid, EC Comics-worthy pulp fictions. This is a good thing. Piskor rejuvenates the Beats, or at least their collective mythology, via his vaguely menacing depictions of their romantic hookups, artistic frustrations, drug problems, and eventual rise to legitimacy. His shady yet realistic art provides a skewed point of view that at its best unifies this structurally chaotic overview.

Che, on the other hand, opens with Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s premature birth in Argentina in 1928. These hundred dazzlingly drawn pages cover Che’s medical education, the famous nine-month motorcycle journey that radicalized him, the Cuban revolution, his rocky experience as director of post-Batista Cuba’s economy, and his subsequent career as instigator-in-chief, concluding shortly after his 1967 assassination in Bolivia. A biker and radical himself, Manuel “Spain” Rodriguez lent a gritty revolutionary spirit to the first wave of underground comics during the late 1960s. In the pages of Zap Comix and alternative newspapers, Rodriguez portrayed superheroic dissidents battling fascist police forces in the dystopic future. Indeed, his best-known character, Trashman, bears a striking resemblance to Che, although Rodriguez has largely steered clear of embellishment.

Rodriguez briefly enters the book himself to recall being a scared and confused kid at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, but Che is anything but a first-person account. Like every good biography, it provides context for the more dramatic moments of its protagonist’s life’s arc, while skillfully manipulating space and time to give the story a richly detailed and almost visceral presence. Che’s one-cylinder Norton motorbike has never been so lovingly represented as it is here.

What graphic journalism, biography, and history do best, suggest 08, The Beats, and Che, is convey the aura, emotions, and fuzzier details of lives and events. The better the artist, the better the resulting interpretation will be. Of course, journalists and writers still provided the information from which Dan Goldman, Ed Piskor, and Spain Rodriguez quite literally drew their conclusions. But there’s something superheroic about the ability to make those facts soar anew. 

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Richard Gehr writes for Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, and elsewhere. His latest book is I Only Read It for the Cartoons: The New Yorker's Most Brilliantly Twisted Artists (New Harvest).