Walking the floor of WonderCon in San Francisco this weekend, IDW Publishing Senior Editor Scott Dunbier mused on the odd sales ally the comics industry discovered at the end of a rough 2008.
"Barack Obama has become the comic book industry's own little stimulus package," Dunbier laughed, and he would know. The editor headed up one of the very first political-themed comic projects in what has become a legitimate publishing craze in IDW's twin "Presidential Material" one-shots. Released early last fall, the books followed Senators Barack Obama and John McCain through their lives and up to the point where they were nominated for their respective party's candidacy for president. Unsurprisingly, the comics (written by Jeff Mariotte and Andy Helfer respectively) ignited a fury of media coverage and went through multiple sellouts and reprints as election fever gripped the nation.
And while many other publishers have since released political (and specifically Obama) themed specials, the IDW one-shots remain two of the books whose critical approval have matched their sales level, with each biography earning kudos for sympathetic, in depth and accurate portrayals of the candidates. Considering all the remaining Obama-mania in comics, it's unsurprising that the publisher will return to the Obama story this summer with two all-new one-shots.
Running under the title "Barack Obama!" the two comics shipping in June and July will reunite Mariotte and artist Tom Morgan to first tell the story of the president through the election and his inauguration and second lay out an account of his first 100 days in office. CBR landed an exclusive first look at J. Scott Campbell's cover for the first new issue as well as Mariotte's take on the entire phenomenon of his Obama comics and how he plans to deliver on the anticipated follow ups.
CBR: Well, to start off I was hoping to take it back a bit to the release of the last book. Obviously, there were a lot of different election themed products hitting last fall, to say nothing of the number of comics that eventually came out, but it looked as though you and Andy's books both did very well. What was seeing the reaction like from your end? Anything surprising or unexpected about the response the book got?
Jeff Mariotte: I’ve been writing comics for a long time, and while some of them have been well-received critically and among fans, there’s never been anything even remotely close to the reaction that "Presidential Material: Barack Obama" got. At last month’s Phoenix Comicon I had a selection of my other comics, and some of my novels, displayed on my table. For every person who commented on "Desperadoes" or "Graveslinger" or anything else, there must have been 25 or 50 who stopped to look at the Obama book – taking pictures of it, taking pictures of themselves next to it, trying to buy it (this was about a week before the third printing hit, so it was in short supply in the dealer’s room), and generally being excited by its very existence. I signed a good number of them that weekend.
So it’s clear, just from that sort of anecdotal data, that people are responding to this book on a very different level than they do to other comics. Andy and I experienced a similar phenomenon when we were on tour for the books – many of the people we met had come into comic stores for the first time, because nothing in those stores had ever spoken to them before, but there was a hunger for material that addressed the real issues facing the country and the people who might be elected to deal with those issues.
Of course, the media reaction was something else entirely. Appearing on CNN and Fox News, getting mentioned by Rachel Maddow, being written up in the New York Times and the L.A. Times and the Associated Press, etc. is not something that’s happened to me before. Some of that was no doubt due to IDW’s great timing. We got started before Obama had won the nomination, so the eventual flood of Obama merchandise was still just a trickle. Had the books been released closer to the election they might have been lost in the crowd, but when they were announced last July they were new and different enough to be noticed.
I'm sure this is something you've at least wondered about, but maybe you had some news too: any response from Obama's people on the book? I know it was written up in the New York Times, so it seems that there was a chance someone in the campaign would have asked for a copy. Did IDW try and reach out to them about it?
I don’t know if IDW has made any efforts in that direction, but I haven’t heard anything from anyone inside the campaign or the White House. They’ve been a little busy, though…
Like I said earlier, since the election there's been a wave of comics product (and other pop culture ephemera) centering around President Obama. I know that with the initial IDW books, it was very important to you that the comics were informative and entertaining first so they didn't come off as a cash grab. With the market so hot for Obama now, did approaching a sequel require a little extra focus on your part, or did you pretty much repeat the process of research and writing that you went through with the first comic?
My approach to these next books is substantially the same as it was the first time around. The material is a little different – focused not quite as much on the person as on the events in which the person is caught up, and as a result the research process is slightly different as well. With the first book I had Barack Obama’s own writings as a primary source, but with everything backed up by other journalistic accounts. Now I’m writing about things more or less as they’re happening, so I’m tracking events day by day. There are no insider histories about this period yet, although some quickie histories of the campaign are starting to show up, but they’re written by people using many of the same resources I’m using. I have mounds of newspaper and magazine clippings, and so many bookmarks I’m afraid my internet browser might explode, and of course I’m adding more every day.
The goal is the same, too – the books have to recount the facts, and only the facts, faithfully telling what happened in a way that we hope is entertaining while being enlightening. My personal opinions are left out of it, and where events demand some interpretation I’m trying to interpret them as they relate to President Obama, because in the end he is the focus of the whole effort.
So when it came to doing a new Obama comic, how did you and Scott light upon doing two more issues rather than one? Did the expanded size come as you prepared more material based on the election itself, or did you just think there was a natural break in terms of subject matter?
That’s probably more a question for Scott Dunbier than me. I know that during the West Coast wing of our tour, I talked to Scott about doing more, but it was a whirlwind tour, and by then I probably wasn’t entirely coherent, either. In fact, you can watch the interview on CBR-TV and know that I wasn’t entirely coherent.
But when Scott called to talk to me officially about doing more, the decision had been made as to how many and how they would be broken up. The truth is that there’s so much material to cover, it might be easier to write full-length books, not comics. Or if comics, maybe as a 24-issue maxi-series…but that’s not the task at hand, so I’m trying to pick and choose those events that are most significant and to cover those in as much depth as possible.
Speaking of the two issues, just so I have my facts straight can you tell me exactly where the first picks up and wraps up in terms of the election?
The first book ended on the night that Obama accepted the Democratic nomination, at the big rally in Chicago’s Grant Park. The second one covers the entire general election campaign, the Obama-Biden team up against McCain-Palin, Obama’s victory, and the transition period, ending on Inauguration Day. The third one covers the first 100 Days of his presidency, beginning on the morning of January 21. Taken all together they will be as complete a history of Barack Obama’s life, from birth to that hundredth day, as we can manage.
I haven’t started writing the actual script pages yet (although I have started composing some bits and pieces), because every day there are huge new events coming along. I could easily have filled the book with things that have happened in the first 37 days, so I’m waiting a little longer to see which ones shake out as the most enormously critical and which are only gigantic.
Generally, how has the whole experience of writing these comics changed how you view the political process? Do you feel like the time and research you've put in have made a personal impact with how you view the presidency or Obama as a person?
I’ve always been interested in politics, and have occasionally done some volunteer work for one candidate or another. I think it’s tremendously important, and have never quite understood those people who think it doesn’t matter who is elected, because “they’re all the same” or something like that.
But because I had written the first book and was keeping an eye on things for future ones, I felt more personally invested in this campaign than ever before. It’s probably the same for any biographer of a living person, but I feel like there’s a certain connection forged between President Obama and myself – even though it’s a one-way connection, since as I said, I have no idea if he’s aware of my existence.
Tom Morgan returns on art for the two new stories. What has it been like working with Tom on the series? Obviously, his half is also very research and labor intensive. Do you think his take on things has changed or grown, now that he's been drawing these real life people for a few dozen more pages?
Tom did a wonderful job with the first book. I haven’t yet seen his pages for the second one, but I’m certain he’s knocking them out of the park again. As I script I try to provide him with some visual reference, but I know he’s going out and finding lots more so he can get everything right. I can’t speak for him, but I suspect he’s doing much as I am—watching events day by day and thinking hard about how he’s going to translate them to the page.
To wrap, I was just wondering if there's anything you're particularly excited about or even worried about in terms of returning to do these new comics that I haven't thought of asking about?
Not that I’m an expert in writing nonfiction, since my novels and comics are more likely to have supernatural beings and suspense than facts and figures, but the one thing that I’m always conscious of when writing nonfiction is the possibility of getting something wrong, or of interpreting what happens in a way that raises doubts about the impartiality of the material. As I mentioned before, I do have my own opinions, but on these projects I’m checking those at the door before I sit down to work. I have to constantly monitor myself – and know that Scott is there as backup – to make sure it stays that way. I wouldn’t want everybody’s hard work compromised by any error of my own.
That said, it’s thrilling to be able to remain involved, however remotely – and out here on the ranch it’s pretty remote – in the political process. Maybe by the time the third book is out, I’ll get invited to one of those Wednesday cocktail parties at the White House. Even if not, I’ll still have the satisfaction of having been involved in one of the most important comic book projects of its time, and it doesn’t get much better than that!