Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Presidents in Comics: The Nixon Effect

Who is the greatest supervillain of them all? Is it Lex Luthor? The Joker? Dr. Doom? The Red Skull? Magneto? The Headmen? The Tetrarchs of Entropy? Turner D. Century? The debate has raged on for decades, but above all of these fictional villains towers an all too real arch-villain on a scale unprecedented in comics: President Richard M. Nixon.

Yes, Richard Nixon, who would, of course, go on to resign in disgrace after Watergate, became a target for comic book writers almost immediately upon his ascension to the presidency. Though the bulk of the attacks didn't get into full force until the Watergate scandal broke, even before that it was clear that the respectful kid gloves usually reserved for treatment of presidents in comics had been set aside. Part of this is due to the changing political climate in the nation, and part of it was due to a more direct source: a changing of the guard in the ranks of comics creators, especially at Marvel. Out were the older generation of creators who had grown up with the industry, right from its World War II roots, and in was a new generation of post-war creators who had grown up on both comics and distrust of the government. This new generation of writers and artists, including those with noted political stances such as Gerber and Englehart, were quick to seize on Nixon as a foil -- a decision that forever altered the way presidents were depicted in comics.

Things didn't start too badly for the president, of course. One of his earlier appearances, in 1970's Fantastic Four #103, was of the more traditional variety, with Nixon calling upon the FF to save New York from an Atlantean invasion (though even here, Stan did manage to slip in a little snipe about the direction of the Vietnam War). And this sort of thing also took place over in staid DC titles like World's Finest, where Nixon appeared in the usual presidential cameo role.

The tide was turning, though, something that can be seen in comics like Incredible Hulk #139. As we saw yesterday, a few years earlier Nixon's predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, had also dealt with the Hulk in Tales to Astonish #88, seeing right to the heart of the tragic beast and giving Banner a full pardon. Not so much with Nixon; in #139, Nixon prevaricates while discussing options with General Ross and finally decides to delegate authority to his hand-picked liaison Spiro Agnew. That, as history has shown, was usually not a good idea and the predictable ensued.

Thus the long-standing principle of always having the president be an honorable, upstanding guest-star was slowly being chipped away at. Gone were the days of "If I can't trust the president of the United States, who can I trust?" and in were the days of sidelong, if still not too pointed, political commentary. In Fantastic Four #123, for example, Nixon (who even lands a guest spot on the cover) debates whether or not to turn matters over to the Fantastic Four, worrying that he "has an election coming up". And even more subtly, Jack Kirby drew a small bit of Republican ire when he supposedly modeled one of the kids in Jimmy Olsen's Newsboy Legion strip on Tricky Dick. Hell, even Richie Rich got involved, using Nixon as a lab assistant named, for no apparent reason, after the band Uriah Heep.

But then Watergate hit and all bets were off. Jabs and snide remarks weren't enough anymore; with righteous indignation, the comic world began really venting its anger on Nixon. DC, for its part, was still fairly mild, simply going with items like a caricature of Nixon on the cover of From Beyond the Unknown #17 where aliens decide that Earth must be a myth because any planet that would have Richard Nixon as its leader is "scientifically impossible!"

Marvel, though, was pulling no punches. Steve Gerber, who would go on to create the politically savvy comic icon Howard the Duck, immediately cast Nixon as the villain in the infamously titled Giant-Size Man-Thing #1. In this story, Nixon appears as the leader of a cult of entropy; wearing a hood and spouting nihilist slogans, Nixon (who is known among his disciples as Yagzan) tries to bring about the end of, well, whatever is supposed to end; that's how entropy works I guess. Luckily Man-Thing is around to save the world, even if real-life America wasn't so lucky.

But the most famous Nixon story of all time, and one of the most infamous storylines in Marvel history, has to be the Secret Empire story that ran from Captain America #169-176. In events specifically designed to parallel Watergate, Captain America uncovers a vast conspiracy by a shadowy organization called the Secret Empire. Following the paper trail, he discovers that this plot to covertly control America leads right into the White House itself and in the #175 he is shocked to find that the leader of the Secret Empire is none other than President Richard Nixon.

Confronted with evidence of his misdeeds, and faced with America's fighting legend himself, Captain America, Nixon does the only thing that he can do: he commits suicide in front of the shocked hero. The entire episode leads to Cap questioning both America and his role in the nation and results in Steve Rogers deciding to quit as Captain America because he no longer believes in the government.

Eventually, of course, he decides that he does not represent the American government, but instead the American dream, something that is stronger than any one politician, no matter how corrupt. This was a defining storyline in the history of the character, as it crafted a specific new role for Cap that he has maintained to this day, showing how the character can still be viable in a nation that no longer trusts its own government. Because of that, it remains perhaps the quintessential Captain America storyline of all time, which means that in the end, Nixon's presidency ended up getting at least one thing right.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't also briefly mention the other most famous Nixon story in comics, which was printed over a decade after the president left office: Watchmen. Everything in the story is informed by the Nixon years, as it takes place in a world where Nixon not only never stepped down, but was in fact re-elected several times, becomes a de facto president for life. Alan Moore and partner Dave Gibbons were commenting on the Reagan era as much as on Nixon, but the images of Nixon calmly discussing how much of the nation was an acceptable loss in case of a nuclear strike is still among the most indelible graphics from that most famous of comics.

Once that cat was out of the bag, of course, it was impossible to put back in. Nixon had changed the way presidents were treated in comics; instead of across-the-board respect, individual presidents were now treated as just that: individuals, to be lauded or ridiculed based on both their actions and the political leanings of the creative team depicting them.

Tomorrow: We'll be looking at the biggest target this side of Nixon, Ronald Reagan, as we look at how the new rules established in the 70's paved the way for one lampoon after another in the 80's. Featuring, of course, the famous "Reagan literally turns into a giant snake" story. Be there!

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Uriah Heep was a literary reference to the slimy, untrustworthy Dickens character, not the rock band which took their name from the David Copperfield villain.

The Nixon bashing in the comics is really boring - it's just a lazy writers trope - and now its made its way to movies too (eg., Days of Future Past). It's fine to make fun of Nixon, particularly since he made himself a target and Marvel prided itself on being "anti-establishment," but some of the stories from the '70's and since were way over the top (see the examples you provided). Given Marvel's (and the whole comics industry) shameless kissing up to Obama, in retrospect the Nixon bashing has been revealed as just lazy, petty and political.