One Fan's Opinion: Issue #74

Fri, February 23rd, 2007 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Erik Larsen, Columnist

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The cover to "Captain America" #1, with Cap giving Hitler a nice smack to the head.
I'm an American. I buy my pizzas from a hut, my radios from a shack and my dresses from a barn. I was born in America and chances are that I'll die in America. Yeah, I've traveled a bit-to Italy and Japan and Indonesia and Thailand and Mexico. I've even been to Canada.

Talk about culture shock.

I think at times folks tend to forget what it means to be an American. When folks tell me that questioning our leaders is un-American (or even "aids the terrorists") I have to stop and remind people that people that questioned their leaders and defied authority founded this country. If they hadn't we'd still be a British colony today. There's nothing more American than questioning our leaders' authority and holding them accountable. We have that right as Americans. That's one of the freedoms our forefathers fought for.

I'm a fairly well versed political beast. I read a lot and follow the issues and agree and disagree with both sides of the political aisle. My leaning is pretty liberal but that doesn't mean that I'm towing either political line. I wasn't a big Bill Clinton fan and I'm certainly not a George W. Bush fan. I like the government fixing my roads, but not censoring what I can say in my comics and what I can see on TV. There are times when both sides have a point and times when both seem hopelessly out of control and corrupt as all hell. I like to make my own choices and I base my opinions on information that I've acquired from the numerous sources that I acquire information from.

Politics have worked their way into comics over the years. In the '40s comics blasted Hitler and the President of the United States was almost universally treated with respect. Often the President would be off camera or in shadows, but when he was shown, he wasn't drawn as an exaggerated caricature. He would be drawn in a flattering fashion and would appear to be smart and articulate. As the years passed, comics tended to treat each administration with similar respect. The President of the United States was the lone person Rick Jones confided in when it came to the Hulk's other identity of Bruce (or was it "Bob") Banner back when the Hulk was appearing in "Tales to Astonish." It was President Johnson at that point.

In the '70s things changed. First, the President changed - first, we had a genuine, certifiable scumbag in the oval office and second, the Underground comix movement was in full swing and they were having a veritable field day with Richard Nixon. Mainstream comics followed suit. Nixon appeared to be lazy and shifty. He wasn't painted as a paragon of virtue. Steve Englehart took it one step further by having Nixon actually be revealed to be the master villain heading up the notorious criminal organization known as the Secret Empire in the pages of "Captain America." It wasn't stated outright, no, but it didn't take a lot of reading between the lines to connect the dots.

Now, Nixon was, by all accounts save those of a few hardcore glazed-eyed bullet-takers, a real stinker and he, frankly, deserved most of the abuse heaped on him. Still, as dishonest and paranoid as he was, I doubt that he'd take up the role of a costumed supervillain and it's at that point where I have to question the use of real-live politicians in comics. We're putting words into the mouths of real people and there's something not quite right about that.

Editorializing on the comic book page is risky business. There's always a huge risk of offending or alienating a good chunk of your audience. Like religion, it's a touchy subject. Say or do the wrong thing and readers will drop your book like a bad habit.

It's no wonder my sales figures are in freefall. But we'll get to that subject later…

Ronald Reagan as drawn by Frank Miller in "The Dark Knight Returns."
Moving right along -- the the next Commander-in-Chief, Gerald Ford got little airtime. He appeared in the "Incredible Hulk" #185 wearing a bright orange striped suit and was on the scene as Jack Armbruster sacrificed himself by hurling a murderous imposter posing as Major Glen Talbot over a railing, but other than that he made few appearances. It's understandable, really, as the guy wasn't in office a full four years and he didn't win reelection (or even an election at all -- Ford got the gig when Nixon resigned, remember?) Jimmy Carter was similarly neglected. He was seen aside a bowl of peanuts in an issue of the "Fantastic Four," but made few substantive appearances thereafter.

Ronald Reagan made quite a few, taking an active role in Frank Miller's classic "The Dark Knight Returns." He was most often treated as the bumbling, memory-addled, congenial dimwit that he appeared to be on TV. But Reagan was everywhere. I drew him myself in an issue of DC's "Outsiders" many moons ago.

George Bush Sr. came and went without a lot of funnybook fanfare. His appearances were few and far between. There wasn't a lot of editorializing or adlibbing; Bush Sr. was treated with a fair amount of respect. His second-in-command was less well treated. Dan Quayle was fodder for some choice jabs and in one story during Walter Simonson's run on the "Fantastic Four"; his ascension to the throne was an indication of a world gone wrong.

Clinton made few appearances and most of those were bland and perfunctory. He simply played the part of the President. Monika Lewinski was seldom mentioned (outside of Karl H's blisteringly funny Dilbert/Savage Dragon send up "Savage Dragonbrert") and that's just as well.

And George W. Bush?

Well, he's been treated with kid gloves for the most part. And considering how liberal most comic book creators are, that struck me as a bit odd. Here's a guy whose criminal activity dwarfs Richard Nixon's by a wide margin, who cheated his way into the Oval Office -- twice -- and who has been hailed by many in both political parties as the single world president ever and he's pretty much gotten a free pass in the comic book pages (in the funny pages it's a whole other story. He's been well roasted in the comic strip "Doonesbury" by Garry Trudeau, but since newspapers often speak with several editorial voices they can get away with it).

But it's a hard thing to do. It really struck me, as I was writing and drawing "Savage Dragon" #119, which featured on its cover the Dragon punching President George W. Bush in the face. Now, I think old George is a guy who well-deserves a good poke in the snoot but in writing the story, it really hit home that what I was doing was, well, wrong and that it wasn't possible to do it right regardless of what I did. Much of the story involved an imposter having replaced the Commander-in-Chief and at that point I had free rein to do as I saw fit, but once the real guy was on screen it was a hell of a dilemma of just what to do. You see, while Bush has a tendency to trip over his own tongue, it felt wrong to have him commit any more assaults on the English language of my own making and working in old quotes didn't seem right either as the guy didn't seem to make the same precise gaffs over and over again so stringing a list of them together just wouldn't cut it. The guy may have trouble spitting out coherent sentences, but they're not all nonsensical gems worth quoting on late light talk shows. What I ended up with was pretty bland and, regrettably, pretty uncharacteristic of "the decider."

George W. Bush receives a hard left on the cover of "Savage Dragon" #119.
And that was something of a shame.

Ultimately, I chickened out. I decided to play it safe rather than risk offending. Had I had my wits about me I'd have doled out a few dandy quotes (like the time Bush referred to the Constitution as "just a goddamned piece of paper" when it was pointed out that the Patriot Act undermined it), but my wits were nowhere to be found.

I tackled computer hacking and stolen elections a bit shortly thereafter, but unfortunately the GOP utilized the plot I had earmarked for my villain with their hijinx in Ohio and it pretty well took the wind out of my sails. One more reason to avoid politics altogether, I thought.

Which was, ultimately, the lesson learned. With the lying, cheating and stealing and the constant underhanded events and backdoor deals, it's very difficult to be accurate, current and fair. In 1941, the cover of the first issue of Captain America comics had the good Captain smacking Hitler in the puss. It's a good thing Marvel didn't follow their own example and avoided having Captain America socking Saddam Hussein on the cover of his comic after the Bush administration made such an effort to tie Iraq to the events of 9/11. Imagine their disgust when it turned out that Hussein had nothing to do with the events of that tragic day and that he wasn't hiding any weapons of mass destruction anywhere. Not that Hussein was a sweetheart or anything--but was it really worth pissing away all that money and destroying all those lives just to finish the job Bush's daddy botched?

These tragic world events compel a creative person to act, but it's hard to know how to act and what's appropriate. With the ever-changing cast of villains, patsies and fall guys, it's even more difficult to know what to do. Who's to blame? How? And should these four-color wonders really reflect reality anyway? There are those that would argue that comics should be escapist literature, that we've had too much reality in the real world and sometimes it's nice to go to a reality where the bad guys have black capes and red sculls and the good guys wear their underwear on the outside of their pants and fight for truth, justice and the American way.

Whatever that is.

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