John McCain and Barack Obama comics are an October surprise

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EVENT: Andy Helfer and Jeff Mariotte, the writers of the new comic-book biographies for the 2008 presidential candidates, will be appearing at 7 p.m. tonight (Oct. 9) at Golden Apple Comics in Los Angeles. Details are below:

When IDW Publishing’s comic-book biographies of Barack Obama and John McCain arrived in the mailbox, my first reaction was a roll of the eyes.


To be sure, this is an exciting era for non-fiction comics with a journalistic bent and the sector is growing in size and sophistication all the time but nothing about this project’s cover art by J. Scott Campbell (each candidate standing arms akimbo beneath glowing sunshine and in front of a fluttering American flag) suggested that this project would have any more depth than campaign bumper stickers.

I’m happy to report that the stories and art inside were far more compelling than I anticipated and that these short-form biographies (sold individually for $3.99 or in a ‘flip cover’ combined volume for $7.99) deliver savvy and nimble life stories for both candidates and mostly succeed in stripping away overt partisan spin, be it home-team puffery or us-versus-them venom. The books, while short (or maybe because they are short), are fairly ideal introductions to each candidate, especially for teen readers.

The McCain story begins with him in a dank cell at the Hao Lo Prison in Hanoi and communicates the future senator’s agony and bravery in those most dire of circumstances. But it also shows him in far less heroic panels: downcast after his first marriage failed, cutting loose on bar tabletops as a Naval liason to Congress, unleashing his temper on rivals and reeling amid the ethics investigation into the so-called Keating Five episode. Obama, meanwhile, is shown on a far different odyssey, which dwells longer on childhood and young adult years to communicate his struggles as a youngster of mixed-race heritage growing up with a single mom. The intellectual zeal that made Obama the first African American president of Harvard Law Review is a strong undercurrent but, like the McCain story, the compromises, detours and stumbles are left in; we see an aimless, teenage Obama scoffing at the idea of college and then later, after he was shellacked in an expensive 2000 campaign, there’s the scene of him getting his credit card denied while trying to buy a plane ticket to the Democratic National Convention. Both bios have more text than most comics and a source bibliography.

The McCain bio was written by Andy Helfer (whose career in comics included some memorable work on ‘The Shadow’ after DC Comics revived the iconic pulp character in the 1980s) and drawn by Stephen Thompson. The Obama bio was written by Jeff Mariotte and drawn by Tom Morgan. The two writers will be at Golden Apple this evening to sign their books. There will be a voter registration booth, drinks, some debate and, I suspect, a bit of press coverage, considering the appetite for anything connected to this particular political season. Golden Apple is at 7018 Melrose Ave.

I got a chance to talk to both writers by phone briefly yesterday. Mariotte, a self-described political junkie, said he jumped at the chance to tell the tale of Obama’s life and after the project was finished he found himself with a deeper admiration for the Illinois politician. ‘I was more impressed with him as a person and as a politician. He’s a smart guy and a terrific writer and after spending so much time on the details of his life, I felt like I know how his mind works.’

Mariotte said his main trepidation going into the job was slipping into the voice of a pure booster.

‘My worry was the idea that it would be perceived as a partisan thing. That I was for Obama and that Andy was for McCain and the books were debates. They are not. We tried to walk a real line and keep them fair. I would have written either one. I live in Arizona and McCain’s story is one I know and it’s so interesting. His story is packed with drama and action. I think Andy might have had it a bit easier with that one part of the project. McCain’s life has these moments that fit in a comic book page more readily.’

Perhaps, but Helfer, who also wrote far-longer comics biographies of Ronald Reagan and Malcolm X, had to grapple with a different problem. ‘I have to say that if I had taken this job just four weeks later I think the tone of the whole thing might have been different.’

The reason?

Helfer said McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as a running mate was ‘so cynical’ that it would have tinged his chronicling of the Arizona Republican’s life. He also said the GOP candidate has veered away from his familiar political positions in hopes of winning over voters and powerful backers.

‘I thought I had a pretty good impression of who he is but I guess politics make for strange bedfellows,’ Helfer said. ‘He is a different candidate now than he has been in the past but, in knowing his story and his personality, part of me thinks that if he got elected he would go back to being the person he was before and revert back to his rebellious self. That would be very much in keeping with his story.’

Helfer said his goal was to create a fair, accurate and accessible biography of McCain for ‘a first-time voter or someone who is curious enough to want to know about the candidate but isn’t that likely to read one of the long books already out there.’

Helfer said he will now vote for Obama. How would he feel, though, if his pre-Palin comic-book script ended up winning votes that put her and McCain in the White House? ‘That is a very interesting question. I do think that McCain might switch back to his old self but for me, the Palin pick was a deal-breaker. If other people find this book informative and useful, well, that was our goal all along.’

-- Geoff Boucher

RELATED More on the McCain and Obama biography comics

ALSO Top of the Ticket, the Los Angeles Times election blog

BONUS Check out political parodies inspired by superheroes, ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Star Trek

Images from the McCain and Obama biographies courtesy of IDW Publishing.