Thursday, April 16, 2009

Crisis on Infinite Elections

The 2008 presidential campaign even spilled into the normally resistant world of comic books—who cares about presidents when you’re destroying whole realities? --with at least three different publishers offering comic book biographies of the candidates. The ones I read—the Presidential Material series from IDW—were interesting and serious-minded, but never quite came together, either as stories or political documents.
I can be much more enthusiastic about O8: A Graphic Diary of the Campaign Trail by Michael Crowley and Dan Goldman (Three Rivers Press, $17.95). There are several reasons for that, but, before I get into them…
While thinking about this piece, I’ve been frustrated by the fact that there’s no category name that really describes this new wave of non-fiction comics. At least, I haven’t found one. You can’t use “graphic novel,” because they’re not fiction. Books like Persepolis and Fun Home are being labeled “graphic memoirs.” That’s accurate enough, I suppose, and easy to use. But what do you call non-fiction comics about current events or political figures? Graphic non-fiction? Graphic narrative? Graphic biography? Using the phrase “comic book” suggests super heroes, and being comic booky in a negative sense. However, using the word “graphic” suggests that the story is sexually explicit, which isn’t always the case. The New York Times is avoiding the issue entirely, by creating a best-seller list for "graphic books. " Policomics, anyone?
As mentioned above, “08” is subtitled “a graphic diary.” That might not be entirely accurate either, but it does give you a general sense of what the book is about: an overview of the 2008 campaign. That’s a big topic, but Crowley and Goldman are given the time and space to cover it. “08” is roughly 160 pages long, and the creators had a little bit of time to put the events into perspective.
Also, Crowley and Goldman have backgrounds uniquely suited to this project. The former is an editor for The New Republic and the latter produced Shooting War, an excellent graphic novel about brushfire wars (It’s set in a near-future Iraq, but the points it makes apply to more than just that situation.)
Thanks to some concise writing and some clever design work, “08” never seems static or talky. The text is integrated into the overall design of the page, rather than dumped into traditional caption boxes. People who appear for only a panel or two are identified with discreet—but still readable—name lines.
Providing narration and commentary on the proceedings are two fictional reporters: Harlan Jessop and Jason Newbury. Not only is this a clever storytelling technique—a version of which is also being used in Bluewater Comics’ Female Force series BTW —but Jessop bears a very strong resemblance to the late Darren McGavin, playing reporter/supernatural investigator Carl Kolchak. If Newbury is patterned after anyone, I’m afraid I don’t recognize him. (And, no, Jessop is not the only reason why I’m recommending the book. One of the reasons, but not the only one.)
Is “08” biased against any of the candidates? Really, that’s hard to say. I think it’s difficult to describe something as biased. What may be a simple recitation of facts to one reader may be a display of bias to another one. To me, the first thing that came across was a skepticism of the entire electoral process. And if you want to call it a healthy skepticism, I’m not going to argue.
On the other hand, the dividing line between fact and fiction becomes a problem in another part of the book. There’s a two-panel prologue with a young Barry Obama and his mother. As a bit of story-telling, it’s very effective but I’d like to know where it comes from. It may be from Obama’s Dreams From My Father, but, if it is, I wish it were labeled as such.
Reliving last year’s presidential campaign may sound more like a punishment than light reading. But I still think you’ll be pleased if you pick up a copy of 08: A Graphic Diary of the Campaign Trail.

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