Sunday, November 22, 2009

Presidents in Comics: The Clinton Years

Welcome back to the latest installment of our weeklong look at how American presidents have been depicted in comics. So far we've touched on Roosevelt forming the Justice Society, Nixon using the powers of entropy to bring about wold destruction and Reagan turning into a mindless snake-man. Today we're up to the 1990's and that means, of course, Bill Clinton.

Of course, there was a president in between Reagan and Clinton, but like other one-term presidents, George H. W. Bush didn't have a huge impact on the comics scene; he didn't even manage to have that one bizarre story like Gerald Ford to etch him in the public consciousness. Perhaps his highest profile appearance was in the pages of Mike Grell's hot button issue series Green Arrow. In the pivotal arc "Blood of the Dragon", culminating in Green Arrow #24, readers discover that Green Arrow has (unknown to him) fathered a child with his occasional rival, the expert archer assassin Shado. This comes to light when Shado is blackmailed by the Yakuza to assassinate President Bush when they take her son hostage. Green Arrow, however, saves the boy, freeing Shado from her obligation; Bush, meanwhile, is also saved just in the nick of time as a back-up assassin is about to finish him using a poison pen.

Otherwise, though, it's Clinton who has the larger legacy as a comic character. This is in some ways fitting because Clinton is also the first president to be an admitted fan of comic books. Unlike Barack Obama, who appears to retain some appreciation of the medium (which we will discuss more tomorrow), Clinton got out of comics early, eventually turning his collection into a source of income when he sold it off as a teen. For some reason this story came to light during a conversation with the Russian media, but I've tracked down a YouTube clip where Clinton himself explains his comic book connections to... Calista Flockhart for some reason.

As far as his actual appearances within the comics, as with most of his predecessors, the majority were of a ceremonial nature, with presidential cameos acting as a way to ground stories in the real world while also adding weight to them. If the president is in the comic, after all, then something important must be taking place. One example of this type of use took place when President and Mrs. Clinton appeared at Superman's funeral following the character's death in Superman #75.

Like his post-Nixon predecessors, however, Clinton also was used for parodies and for a broader artistic expression than merely showing up in his normal capacity as presidential figurehead for comic events. In Supreme: The Return #1, for example, an alien warlord named Korgo lands on Earth and formally issues a challenge to Bill Clinton as head of the free world. Clinton is defeated, but Korgo ends up throwing the match to escape Hillary Clinton, preferring exile. This cutting edge commentary was written by legendary comics genius Alan Moore, for whatever that's worth.

While the use of Clinton as a character was in many way similar to the presidents that came before him, it differs in one major way: Clinton, for whatever reason, has remained a viable comic book character even after leaving office. There have been some instances of presidents being used after their term was up, of course, but these are almost entirely cases of stories being set in the past, such as the near universal use of President Roosevelt in contemporary stories set during the Golden Age.

Clinton, however, is different in that he is still being used for current roles as both an ex-president and as a broader character in general (and sometimes both). Just this past September, for example, it was announced that Marc Guggenheim was planning to add Clinton as a regular cast member in his post-apocalyptic action series Resurrection, which may be the first time that a president has actually become a regular character in his own right rather than a stunt guest star. As Guggenheim told Comic Book Resources, "I believe we're charting new territory."

Perhaps the most infamous use of Clinton post-presidency, however, was his odd appearance in Uncanny X-Men #401. In this story, which was part of a special silent month at Marvel where no words appeared in any of their titles, Wolverine confronts a mutant hooker named Stacy-X. In the course of his encounter with her, Logan stumbles across a client of hers, flopped on a bed; thanks to photos on the bedstand, it's clear that her client is none other than former President Bill Clinton.

What makes this so curious, of course, beyond the obvious lame Clinton horndog angle, is the fact that the script actually didn't have Clinton in it at all -- instead, the original politician who was going to be pilloried was actually... Rudy Giuliani? Yes, originally Marvel was going to use the then mayor of New York in what was likely intended as commentary on Giuliani's marriage-destroying affair with Judith Nathan.

So what caused the sudden change? At first glance it might look like some sort of overt political decision to switch out the Republican mayor for the former Democratic president. And there's no doubt it was political, but in a different way: the story was (likely) changed due to the events of September 11. In the aftermath, Marvel, which of course is based in downtown New York, was quite prominent in efforts to raise money for survivors and probably felt it would be in poor taste to run this kind of commentary on Giuliani, who at the time was being widely praised for his efforts. Instead, an easy and seemingly benign new target was chosen as an acceptable stand-in for this scene: President Clinton.

Tomorrow: George Bush! Barack Obama! One wins, one dies! Okay, that's not true, but one does win in the world of comics. Hmm. I wonder which one comes out on top?

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