Presidential Comics: Part 1

The vitriol of modern elections is nothing new. Indeed, it is relatively tame compared to earlier generations. Ever since the emergence of the party system in ...

In every election since 1789, US presidents have been a staple of American cartooning. Here, for example, is a cartoon by James Akin, portraying then-President Thomas Jefferson as “A Philosophic Cock” strutting beside Sally Hemings—his slave and, it was widely and correctly rumored by 1804, the mother of several of Jefferson’s own children. The cartoon names neither Jefferson nor Hemings, but few would have missed the allusions to Jefferson’s increasingly public secrets; to his philosophical hypocrisies, indicated by his eyes directed to the heavens while his slave hovers nearby; and to his questionable political allegiances, represented by a rooster, associated with France, the country to which Jefferson’s enemies accused him of being enthralled.

The vitriol of modern elections is nothing new. Indeed, it is relatively tame compared to earlier generations. Ever since the emergence of the party system in American politics in the 1790s, we have imagined our presidents as both heroes and supervillains. Take, for example, Andrew Jackson, whose brand of populist demagoguery (increasingly on display in 2017) and costly battle over the National Bank fueled two very different cartoon images of the President. In one, he is the hero of the people: battling corrupt interests by tearing down the pillars of an institution whose only purpose was to rob the people, in order to line the pockets of special interests. In the other, he is a would-be monarch: provoking resentment of modern finance and government, in order to claim powers far beyond those to which the Constitution entitled the presidency.

While these political cartoons galvanized early opinion among the party faithful, they did not circulate widely until after the Civil War, when the market for illustrated weeklies exploded. Following cartoonist Thomas Nast’s brilliant take down of New York City’s political boss William M. Tweed in 1871 and his instrumental role in the election of Ulysses S. Grant to the presidency in 1872, political cartoonists emerged as power-brokers on the national stage—a position they would occupy for more than a century.

Today, however, the influence of the political cartoonist has greatly diminished. Newspapers and magazines employ fewer editorial cartoonists than at any time since before the Civil War. A 2011 report from the Herb Block Foundation puts it bluntly: “At the start of the 20th century, there were approximately 2,000 editorial cartoonists employed by newspapers in the United States. Today there are fewer than 40 staff cartoonists, and that number continues to shrink.”1 While it is certainly true that there are now online venues that did not exist even in 2011, it is equally true that no new media platform has yet been devised that achieves even a fraction of the visibility and influence that the editorial cartoon once exercised in presidential politics.

In a subsequent article, I will examine the work of political cartoonists engaging the Trump administration, which has declared journalism “an enemy of the people.” Here, I want to look at comic books, a medium which has until recently avoided presidential politics—and an industry undergoing its own seismic transformation in the wake of the digital revolution.

The modern comic book as we know it originated in the mid-1930s, initially dedicated to reprints of popular newspaper comics. Within a couple of years the emerging industry realized that the Depression had put at its disposal an army of hungry writers and artists, who could locally produce work for comic books at a fraction of the price that newspaper syndicates were charging for reprints. As with the founding of the film industry a generation earlier, many of the comic book industry’s pioneers were first- and second-generation immigrants, most of them Jewish. And as was the case with the first Hollywood moguls, these men had little interest in wading into political issues that might impact sales or call the wrong kind of attention to what was, after Superman launched in 1938, a booming business.

Therefore it is not surprising that when presidents did show up in early comic books, they did so in ceremonial roles: bestowing medals on heroes or stopping by to offer youths a brief civics lesson. For example, in Captain Marvel Adventures #110 (1950), President Truman delivers a speech promising that the second half of the “American century” “can be even greater.” This was about as political as any President was going to get in the pages of an early comic book; although in the 1960s, some comics began to address more highly charged political topics.

It was not until the 1970s and 80s that superhero comic books offered anything resembling a meaningful commentary on a current president. Two important if relatively isolated storylines from Captain America especially stand out. In the first, from 1974, our hero works to expose the “Committee to Regain America’s Principals” as a front for the evil Secret Empire, only to discover that its leader is none other than President Nixon. But for an industry struggling for relevance in the wake of the tumultuous events of the late 60s and early 70s, turning the already-disgraced President Nixon into a supervillain carried with it relatively few risks.

Riskier was a 1988 storyline in which President Reagan was transformed into a snake monster. While the President would eventually be restored to human form, the story’s creators clearly took pleasure in representing him as a slithering, venomous creature—engaging in the kind of zoomorphism that had been a staple of political cartooning since Akin’s Jefferson-as-Rooster, even if few readers thought of superhero comic books as instruments for pointed presidential commentary.

Even as presidents began to play bigger and messier roles in comic books after 1974, neutrality remained the guiding principle, and presidential elections remained off limits. All of that changed, however, in 2008, when Image Comics’s Savage Dragon endorsed Senator Barack Obama on the cover of the Image comic two months before the election. This first endorsement by a mainstream commercial comic character made national news and generated a huge spike in sales for the issue. A couple of months later, Marvel Comics’ Spider-Man featured Obama on its cover, with the newly-inaugurated president occupying the hero’s place, while the title’s star takes photos to mark the occasion.

The visibility of presidential politics in mainstream comic books over the last 20 years might seem surprising, especially given the growing importance of superheroes to the bottom-line of Disney and TimeWarner, the media conglomerates that own the two largest comic book companies. But of course, those companies’ products have value as media properties other than as simply comic books—but also as movies, television shows, and global exports. Comic books and their readers are essentially R&D for other platforms. With a best-selling title today rarely exceeding 100,000 copies, comic books exist primarily as potential generators of new properties to be exploited in the profitable media of film and television. For the writers and artists working in the comics field, this means more freedom and less visibility—the story of cartooning in the 21st century.

Which brings us to the outer margins of an industry long mired in the doldrums, in which Marvel (Disney) and DC (TimeWarner) control more than two-thirds of the market. A small handful of publishers, including Image, Dark Horse, and IDW, have emerged to secure 20 percent of the remaining sales. This leaves dozens of small publishers competing for access to a shrinking comic book shop market controlled almost entirely by one distributor, Diamond.

Recent years have seen the emergence of comic book companies whose primary business model depends not on comic book shops, but on downloads. Finding reliable numbers for digital comics publishers is impossible, which suggests that the numbers remain extremely small. But some businesses are clearly finding ways to make it work, including TidalWave, which has demonstrated a remarkable resilience over the years and under various names (Bluewater, Storm, Stormfront) despite years of bad press that would have destroyed most larger companies.

Focusing increasingly on digital distribution since 2012, TidalWave has made the unlikely genre of celebrity and political biography the backbone of its library. While working for TidalWave has not always worked out well for the artists and writers who publicly accuse the company of non-payment or unfair contracts, it has worked out well enough for publisher Darren G. Davis to keep at it for the better part of a decade.

All of TidalWave’s biographies range from neutral-to-positive—marketed as “educational” material and as keepsakes for fans—and their Trump comics are no exception. The first half of Donald Trump: The Graphic Novel is derived from a 2011 comic book biography produced when rumors of a Trump candidacy were first being floated. With amateurish art and a willfully bland script by Jerome Maida (whose biographies for TidalWave have included Glenn Beck, Laura Ingraham, and Arnold Schwarzenegger), Donald Trump tells the story of a rich boy’s rise to becoming a richer man and a celebrity. Although repackaged for the 2016 election, Maida’s script offers no account of the aspects of the candidate’s 2016 run that were of most interest to supporters and detractors alike. For example, nowhere in this biography is to be found mention of anti-immigration rhetoric and promises. Nor, despite the ample attention the book pays to Trump’s father, is there any account of the role Fred Trump’s own racist beliefs and business practices might have played in shaping his son. Nowhere is the long history of Trump’s predatory and abusive behavior with women mentioned or explained—not even his involvement with beauty pageants. In fact, his three marriages and decades of legal problems are each accorded precisely one panel, both on page 27. As a work of biography, it is hard to imagine a present-day fan or foe finding any satisfaction in these pages. Most will hardly recognize the object of their adoration or loathing—and not only because the artist’s representation of the future president looks nothing like the man.

The 2016 biography, however, is only one half of Donald Trump: The Graphic Novel. The second part, originally produced as a stand-alone comic in the run-up to the election, is devoted to describing the conversion of an imagined “typical” Midwestern man to Trump’s brand. Written by Michael L. Frizell (who, when he is not writing numerous scripts for TidalWave, serves as Director of Student Learning Services at Missouri State University), the script is impressive, especially when compared to Maida’s writing in the first half of the volume. Frizell tells the story not only without third-person narration but also with a protagonist who never speaks a word. In the space traditionally occupied in a comics panel by narration we find a running, cacophonous transcript of the media—talk radio, news, campaign speeches—which increasingly envelops the protagonist. And in the place of his own voice, we see the protagonist surrounded by the speech balloons of others: his stressed-out wife, his queer son, his impatient superiors at work (including a younger woman of color whose success he visibly resents).

While the art is passing at best, its stiffness works in support of the story Frizell has written, in which everyone is acting out a part scripted by a media stream that confirms the protagonist’s personal frustrations and cultural resentments, driving him into the arms of Trump’s campaign. As the tension builds, our protagonist remains mute, finding “voice” only in Trump and the rallies he begins surreptitiously to attend. In a new ending, added to the original story after the election, the protagonist’s wife seeks comfort in his arms following Trump’s victory, still unaware of her husband’s allegiances. While she sobs, we alone see the smile on his face, his deep satisfaction that he still cannot bring himself to articulate publicly, outside of the safe haven of rallies.

Frizell understands the comics medium and knows how to make it work for the story he has been asked to tell. There is little reason to suspect Frizell or his publisher, Davis, are Trump voters themselves. There is also little reason to suspect that they are Trump detractors. After all, these are not comics about political beliefs but about—as the series’ title makes clear—“Political Power.” Politicians are celebrities who succeed by gaining more celebrity; voters are fans whose support demonstrates the power of that celebrity. The comic leaves blank not only the protagonist’s but also the narrator’s voice so that Trump’s words and promises—which flood the panels of the second story in the volume—need be neither endorsed nor condemned. If politics means argument and debate, there are no politics here.

That is what makes this story so insidious. Into the blank spaces left by the absent words of both narrator and protagonist, the reader is asked to project their own identifications and beliefs. Does the comic portray its unnamed male protagonist as a victim (of multiculturalism, immigration, feminists, the gay agenda)? Yes. Is the comic presenting this protagonist as someone whose latent racism and sexism is stoked by a hateful campaign into support for a would-be fascist? Yes. This is the high art of lacking all conviction, and the consequence of importing a superhero logic into political biography, so that power and its acquisition become ends in themselves and last year’s villains can be tomorrow’s superheroes. All that is required is some quick rebranding and a well-timed victory.

In a sense, Donald Trump: The Graphic Novel reveals the deepest sympathies on the part of TidalWave—not with Trump’s positions, but with his success. TidalWave made “political power” into a brand that carried them through a tumultuous decade in their industry and now through a tumultuous election. By recycling a 2011 biography for their 2016 comic, they are able to tell the story of Trump’s rise to power without including any one of hundreds of claims and promises made on the campaign trail. They can embrace Trump the rebranding master while ignoring him as the white nationalist candidate. By constructing in the volume’s second half an imagined Trump supporter who is attracted to all that the first story leaves out, the comic seeks not to challenge but to exploit confirmation bias: in order to allow the reader to fill in the blanks with their own presuppositions so as to create whichever of the two opposing stories they want to believe is true.

Despite the claims Davis makes on behalf of his company—claims that often resemble the hyperbole of Donald Trump himself—TidalWave is neither poised for growth nor likely to exert any meaningful influence on the future of comics. Nonetheless, it has more than once been reborn from the ashes of public relations disasters to continue publishing in a market where even the most powerful titles count their sales in the tens of thousands. TidalWave’s success (at least measured by longevity) suggests that the conditions are right for the emergence of similar companies: successful-enough in marketing “educational” comics to parents and schools, with media attention just frequent enough to spark interest in new titles, but not so frequent as to garner closer attention to dubious business practices.

None of this would matter except that comics themselves are a medium whose power lies in its structural inefficiencies. Those inefficiencies—the challenges of telling stories about fears and fantasies in a series of sequential panels—has historically led the form to be most frequently used for telling very simplistic stories. This is why comics have been so often used to tell insipid children’s tales. And it is why they have often been deployed around the world to propagate racism and discrimination.2

For more than a century, the best cartoonists have shown us that their medium’s power can be used for good, to engage the reader in acts of active, collaborative meaning-makings that fundamentally destabilize attempts to reduce individuals to types. But doing so requires an artist of conviction—intellectual, ethical, political. Comics scholars talk about the unique “power” of comics, but this “power” in the hands of those who would abuse or neglect it is also the medium’s greatest liability. Used without conviction and with the aim of pleasing everyone, the elliptical nature of comics storytelling does not challenge readers to encounter the unfamiliar or invent anything new, but instead smooths the way for us to fill in gaps with whatever it is we already knew we knew. icon

  1. The Herb Block Foundation, “Report on Editorial Cartooning,” December 2011.
  2. See, for example, “How to Spot a Jap” (1942) by Milton Caniff, commissioned by the US military and distributed to personnel stationed in China during the way.