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The American comic-publisher Idea and Design Work draws from past and prints the biographies of presidential candidates John McCain und Barack Obama as comic books.
A whole range of different polls from various research institutes structures the everyday life of this year’s presidential election in the USA. On each new day, after each new debate, the voter’s reaction is being transferred into data and awaits analysis. Such predictions find their grotesque climax in the ongoing TV-debates: During the first debate at Harvard University, viewers could witness on the TV screen the audience’s reaction via a political barometer. The immidiate reaction to every word a candidate said was displayed as a peak. But how the reaction to words like „Iraq“ can be deciphered will be forever the researchers’ secret. A different kind of polling system was introduced by the American comic-publisher IDW.
Till 9th of October, IDW presented a poll on their homepage that saw Obama, the democratic candidate, with 48% in the lead. His rival John McCain, candidate of the Republicans, followed with only 34%. Yet the race was not decided as 17% were still unsure. These calculations came into being as the comic-publisher counted subscriptions of two new comic books announced by IDW three months earlier. Each comic offers a unique comic-book-version of the biography of one of the candidates.
It has been some months ago, that Scott Dunbier, responsible for special projects at IDW, made a joke at a meeting about a comic book which could motivate the readers to vote. What started out as a joke soon became an actual project with the title Presidential Material. On 32 colored pages, the authors Jeff Mariotte (for Obama) and Andy Helfer (for McCain) produced their biographies for the candidates after thorough research. At the end, the lives of the candidates got the “comic book treatment”. Their words turned into speech balloons and their actions turned into images.
Both authors start out their comic-biographies at a moment of crisis in order to tell the histories of McCain and Obama. While in the case of Obama this moment is the Super Tuesday, Helfer depicts McCain’s desolate life in Hanoi’s military prison. It was always important to Dunbier to show both candidates as human beings with a history. The comics should offer the reader the possibility of an informed choice when they go to the ballot. Yet a decision solely based on the reception of these comics is not what Dunbier had in mind.
With the use of newspapers and quotes from Obama’s and McCain’s books, both comics are filled with information. Similar to ordinary biographies, general facts are recreated only to be completed with explanations and short interpretations. It was the sole decision of the authors to put further emphasis on chosen situations in each candidate’s life. While the youth of both of them is spread out in every detail, it takes McCain and Obama only two pages in the comic to get from a greenhorn politician to a seat in the Senate. Yet the authors take their time to slow down the narration at crucial moments in both candidates’ lives. Obama’s speech against the Iraq War turns into a graphic reminiscence of Martin Luther King’s famous „I had a dream“-speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Artist Stephen Thompson on the other hand paints the life of John McCain more colorfully. He displays action-sequences in which the young navy pilot escapes his exploding aircraft just in time to save his life. In another infamous incident McCain is said to have taken out half of Spain’s energy-supply by cutting a power line with his plane.
Except these graphic excursions, both artists, Stephen Thompson and Tom Morgan, work hand-in-hand with their authors. The images should not distract the readers too much from the actual content but supply them with further information. Thus both comics include a large amount of captions and speech-balloons to add explanations. This mode of narration has a little setback; it turns its protagonists into robots who are guided through their past only to give the right quote at the right time.
Along with interesting information about the candidates, both comic-biographies highlight the candidates’ quotes. A young Obama gets told to „Embrace the difference!“ by his mother. What follows is a quest in order to find his true heritage, which puts the young would-be senator from Illinois on his road to presidency. Another quote can be read as a campaign slogan itself: „A story that could only happen in the United States of America“.
McCain’s biography, too, centers on an important rhetoric. Similar to Obama, McCain is introduced to his motto early in life: “Destiny to fulfill“. Yet this call for destiny seems to be more a burden than an actual choice if one looks at McCain’s life in retrospective.
The most meticulous work, according to Dunbier, was the checking of facts. While IDW normally deals only with fictitious stories such as the comic book which ended up being adapted as the horror movie 30 Days of Night, this time the publisher had to assure that no legal action might follow up if they dig up any dark secrets the candidates had to hide. In order to highlight darker passages of Obama’s and McCain’s past, the biographers relied on the facts provided by newspapers. In McCain’s case, these passages are his not so glamorous time as a navy pilot but also his involvement in the „Keating Five“ scandal. Mr. Mariotte had to face similar obstacles in his biography of Obama. The senator of Illinois had problems of a rather different kind. Political friends and even his wife put Obama in a bad light. Michelle Obama was cited that she was really proud of America for the first time in her life when her husband entered the political stage. Both biographies seem to go against their protagonists in a similar fashion without overexaggerating the negatives.
As impartial as the comic-biographies paint their candidates, as impartial acts Dunbier in his decision for the cover artist: Fans’ favorite J. Scott Campbell produced two striking images of both candidates in their respective colors, posing energeticly. While the young senator from Illinois looks to the right with a troubled expression on his face, McCain smiles self-assured into the opposite direction. This duality is further strengthened by a special issue of the comic book, a flip-book that puts the biographies of Obama and McCain side by side. Considering the many similarities of both personalities, this analogy is not out of the ordinary. Mariotte and Helfer display a similar interest in the wild times of both characters and in their bi-partisan decisions both made. But while the reader might expect such a history from Obama, McCain’s past, his rebel attitude as a young officer, is certainly a different side of the Republican’s past. Only with this flip-book both candidates turn into two sides of the same coin.
American popular culture and the presidential election campaign were closely intertwined since the 19th century. Starting from the political cartoons of Thomas Nast to the warmly fireside-chats of president Franklin D. Roosevelt, popular culture was used to motivate American citizens to take part in politics. Since the last election even the youth culture found its interest in the election. On MTV you could hear stars like Christina Aguilera shout out „Rock the Vote!” This was the reason for IDW to reach a larger audience. Since the 9th of October you were not only able to buy the comics but also to download them as online content for your mobile phone. Together with provider uclick, the publishing house offers the adventures of Barack Obama und John McCain as online entertainment.
A choice between the printed paper and the electronic version seems yet easier compared to the upcoming election. Regarding the question who he would like to see as the next president of the United States of America, Dunbier answered that he will not comment in order to remain neutral. Yet there was a wish he admitted to us: „I'd like to get inscribed copies from each!”
All pictures © IDW Publishing