Monday, November 23, 2009

Presidents in Comics: The Modern Era

All week we've been taking a look at how presidents have been portrayed in comics. We've seen how the respectful use of presidents was subverted forever due to the presidency of Richard Nixon and how this led to political satire during Ronald Reagan's terms and sly humor at the end of Bill Clinton's. Now we've caught up to the present with the final installment, which will examine how the way Clinton was treated set up the modern era of Presidents in Comics.

Prior to Clinton, there were still two basic ways presidents were shown: the original, where the president cameos as himself and the Nixonian archetype where he appears in the form of commentary or satire on the politician or his policies. As we saw yesterday, though, towards the end of Clinton's term and in the years afterwords, a third archetype began to develop: the president as a character rather than an icon. In other words, it wasn't necessarily "The President of the United States" appearing, it was Bill Clinton.

This would eventually have a dramatic effect on the depiction of presidents in comics, but first something would intervene that would temporarily halt that development: September 11.

As we saw yesterday, the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, had a direct impact on Marvel's editorial stance regarding politicians; instead of placing New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani in a compromising storyline, they opted to replace him with former president Bill Clinton, which presumably was a more acceptable target. This sort of thinking extended as well to the depiction of President Bush. Upon entering office, it might have seemed that Bush was ripe for parody, what with his malapropisms and the voting controversy in Florida. However, following the attacks, Marvel -- and comics in general -- rallied behind the President, instead showing him in a positive and sympathetic light almost exclusively.

Examples of this can be seen in early issues of Alias, where Jessica Jones has to stop a Democratic conspiracy to malign the president. Bush also is shown in a fairly stand commander in chief role in Ultimates, where he becomes friends with the newly revived and decidedly right-wing Captain America. At Marvel he was also shown many times in the traditional comics role as benevolent leader of America, with cameos designed to impart the importance of the events, such as his appearances in World War Hulk and at Black Panther's wedding to Storm in Black Panther #18.

It's interesting to contrast Marvel's hands-on editorial policy towards President Bush and other leaders during the early half of this decade with the anything goes mentality of the 1970's, when writers were often given free reign to have Nixon show up as villainous wizards or use Gerald Ford as a deranged alternate-universe overlord.

As the decade progressed, however, and Bush became an increasingly divisive figure, other companies stepped in where Marvel refused to go. In Savage Dragon #119, which has never shied away from political commentary, the President is shown as an archvillain looking to wage war of superheroes. However, he does turn out to be an impersonator rather than the real president. Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis weren't quite as coy with their commentary, if you want to call it that, as both wrote sequences which depicted the president being murdered (Ellis in Black Summer, Ennis in 303).

And DC, of course, might have had the most pointed commentary of all when they decided not to depict George Bush at all in their comics and instead had Lex Luthor elected president. This has led to the strange and gradual distancing of the DC Universe from real America, as Luthor has now had three successors, all of whom are fictional, a stark departure for the company that once worked with the Kennedy administration to develop educational comics.

In all, then, the Bush era was in some ways more of the same: most of his appearances were either as a presidential icon (Marvel) or political commentary and satire (everyone else). The emergence of the president as a person and individual character which seemed to be in the offing with Clinton did not end up quite materializing. That is, it didn't materialize until the emergence of Barack Obama onto the scene.

It's just stating the obvious to say that Obama has been a pop sensation, and comics have been no different. But because this cult of personality exists, he's jumped right from being a president to being a character. Yes, there have been requisite appearances in traditional -- or psuedo-traditional -- roles, such as his famous cover appearance on Amazing Spider-man #583, but Obama has also become a bit of a cipher or muse for many creators either inspired by Obama or looking to cash in on his fame by featuring him.

Barack the Barbarian is one of the more prominent examples of this (showing Obama as a Conan-esque swordsman), with President Evil also being a prime offender (this time as a chainsaw wielding zombie-killer). The tidal wave of Obama covers and crossovers began, fittingly, with Savage Dragon endorsing him for president on the cover of #137, a use that the series had probably earned, but since the success of that book and the popularity of Obama himself has soared, copycats and other opportunists have come out of the woodwork hoping to grab a piece of the Obama pie.

Because of this, it's hard to say just what Obama's long-term effect on comics will be. He's already brought some media attention to the struggling industry by being a high-profile, self-proclaimed comic geek (hence his appearance on the cover of Spider-man, according to Marvel EIC Joe Quesada; sales might be a factor too, as the title previously featured Stephen Colbert on the cover as a stunt). But until the hype settles down, as it has now begun to do, it's impossible to tell whether Obama's presidency will end up being a traditional one or, as seems possible, whether it will finally fulfill the promise of Clinton's terms and usher in a new era where presidents are, like Wolverine or Batman, just one more comic character to be used as the plot -- and character -- dictates.

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What an awesome series of posts. Some great nostalgia, some very interesting facts, and a lot of just plain fun.

Thank you so much for this blog.


With the Obama era now ending, it would be very interesting to see how the comics would handle President Donald Trump :)