Thursday, November 19, 2009

Presidents in Comics: The Reagan Era

Welcome to the third installment in our week-long look at the depiction of American presidents through comics history. If you missed our first two days, you can get yourself up to speed by checking out our overview of the Golden and Silver Ages and how they treated Roosevelt, Kennedy and Johnson, and then take a moment to see how Richard Nixon's stint in office changed the way presidents were portrayed in comics forever. Go on, we'll wait. Dum dem dum.

Okay, back? Good. Because you're in for a treat, as today we're going to look at how another Republican president was treated in four colors: Ronald Reagan.

Now, you're probably thinking, but wait, mister Vault man, what about Ford and Carter? Have no fear, we haven't forgotten them. However, after the firestorm of Nixon's presidency and the explosion of commentary it triggered in the comics world, the terms served by Ford and Carter were relatively benign (with one big exception which we'll get into momentarily). Yes, there were a few cameos here and there; over in Marvel Two-in-One, for instance, cyborg killer Deathlok crossed over from his future alternate reality to assassinate Carter, only to be thwarted when it turned out his target was actually the Impossible Man. And Carter also had a brief cameo in the Super-Villain Team-Up crossover with The Champions when he, along with the rest of the world, was mentally controlled by Dr. Doom's brain gas.

But for the most part, these few appearances were fairly benign in nature. Whether it was the politics of the men or their brief stints in office, for whatever reason they managed to avoid the kind of treatment that plagued Nixon. The most famous appearance by Carter, for example, is his tiny cameo on the cover of Superman vs. Muhammed Ali. That about says it all.

Of course, we did mention that one glaring exception, which is the crowning moment in the fictional comic book life of Gerald R. Ford. It's too bizarre and complicated to fully get into here, but suffice it to say that in the pages of Iron Man, a long, drawn out epic called "The Battle of the Super Villains" took place over the course of more than a year from #69-81 which involved the machinations of a mysterious new villain by the name of Black Lama. At the end, in one of the bigger non sequitors in Marvel history, it was revealed that the Black Lama was actually... an alternate universe version of Gerald Ford. Turns out that King Jerald, who claimed the throne of his homeland when the previous king abdicated (yet another weird Nixon appearance), traveled to our world and was overcome by some sort of mental force that transformed him into a vessel of pure evil. Once he returned to his own reality, though, the madness lifted and Iron Man helped him regain his throne from that world's shady analogue of Vice President Rockefeller, Baron Rockler.


Anyway, other than that bizarre blip, like we were saying, most of the appearances by Ford and Carter were pretty tame, a trend that would swiftly come to an end thanks to the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

That's not to say that Reagan's inauguration returned comics to the days of Nixon; in fact, for the most part, Reagan's two terms in office more closely resembled the Golden Age standard, with the president appearing mostly in cameo roles where he decorated heroes for their work, gave them missions or delivered resounding monologues about the importance of freedom. Or all three. The main difference between the majority of Reagan's appearances and those by, say, Roosevelt or Johnson, is that a new level of political sophistication was added without necessarily becoming political commentary. In 1986's Legends, for instance, the president is shown pragmatically discussing with Superman the effects of Desaad's anti-hero smear campaign, a use that gives the president a fairly sympathetic, classic treatment while also allowing a more nuanced view of the president's role than might have been possible prior to Nixon.

That was pretty much par for the course during the Reagan years, but there were two major exceptions that would prove to be the most influential and buzzed about Ronald Reagan appearances in comics and go on to define his presidency for many comics fans. The first of these appeared in one of the most famous comics of all time, The Dark Knight Returns.

This series, which featured Reagan in a small but prominent role, is particularly interesting in contrast to (or conjunction with) his appearance in Legends, which was running concurrently with The Dark Knight Returns. In both books Reagan and Superman have a close working relationship, with Superman consulting with and deferring to the president in both series. The Dark Knight Returns, however, shows the potential dark side of such a relationship, as it portrays a Superman who has become less of a superhero and more of a government agent, taking orders from Reagan and going on covert missions to support the American power structure rather than the American people. As you might expect, the Reagan in this series is more of an ideological mummer, dressing up in star spangled suits and taking his "aw shucks" brand of senility to the American people on the airwaves to gain support for his military actions. It's a biting commentary on both Reagan's policies and American society in the 80's and has become, along with Captain America's Nixon, probably the most important use of a president in comics.

Somewhat less serious but almost as infamous is Reagan's appearance in Captain America #344. This took place during a long storyline where Captain America was ordered by the government to become an agent under their command (you may sense a bit of a theme here) and instead quit the role of Captain America in protest. The call-back to Englehart's famous Nixon storyline was both obvious and intentional, so it's only fitting that the story would involve the president. For most of the run (which lasted an impressive 19 issues), Reagan had just a bit part; it was shown more than once that Reagan was not aware of what his government commission was doing, with the implication that he probably didn't know much about what any other part of his administration was doing either. This had the double effect of making him seem both incompetent and sympathetic, because he clearly was on Cap's side but just didn't know anything was wrong to begin with, otherwise he would have stopped the whole mess (which eventually he does, in Captain America #350).

That's how Reagan was portrayed through most of the story. In issue #344, however, writer Mark Gruenwald took it out a whole new door as part of the culmination of his arc-within-an-arc about the Serpent Society. In this case, the evil nihilist Viper had seized control from the more pragmatic businessman (and founder of the Society) Sidewinder with the aim of toppling American government by poisoning the District of Columbia water supply. Cap and his friends are too late to stop this, and all of Washington is tainted by the supply. The poison doesn't kill people, though -- it turns them into mindless snake-men.

This led to the classic cover for #344, showing Steve Rogers (in his new identity as The Captain) standing in the Oval Office as a mutated, snake-man version of Ronald Reagan (shown in sinister silhouette) swoops in from the shadows with on goal in mind: to KILL! This great image from Ron Frenz is accompanied by the classic and pointed blurb "The Captain vs. the Deadliest Snake of All!"

In keeping with the tone of the series, the contents of this issue actually portray Reagan in a somewhat more benign fashion. With the populace of the city all turned into mindless snake people, Viper is able to waltz unmolested right into the Oval Office, where she stands around for a while, drinking in the sight of the president reduces to a nearly brainless animal state. Just as she is about to shoot him, however, The Captain shows up. Viper then gets to just about laugh herself hoarse as Cap is attacked by the mindless Reagan. Cap manages to fend him off without injuring him, Viper gets captured and the antidote is administered. Reagan, however, is still not made aware of the fact that it was Steve Rogers who saved the day, as by this time the government commission is in full cover-up mode and doing their best just to eliminate Cap and push it all under the table.

Overall, the Reagan era both returned presidents to their usual role in comics and also established a new standard going forward. While the days of Nixon appearing as a supervillain in every comic under the sun were gone, so too was the feeling that the president should be treated with kid gloves. Instead, a new, more nuanced and informed style of depicting the president emerged, one that allowed for commentary without needing to devolve into outright parody. But those times when it did, of course, invariably proved to be the most memorable.

Tomorrow: So how would seemingly liberal mainstream comic writers deal with a two-term Democrat in the White House? We'll find out tomorrow when we look at the 90's and the Bill Clinton era. See you then.

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