Comic Fodder

Turning History to Superheroes

Firstly, thanks to all ten of you who signed the petition for reducing the cost of comics.

I don't know why the numbers were so low on the petition, but I guess it tells me (a) either Comic Fodder isn't going to be the force to mobilize this effort, (b) people think $2.99 or more per issue is okey-dokey, or (c) our readers are too lazy for click-throughs.

It was an interesting experiment, and I'm frankly not too surprised by the results.

On to the pain!

I don't know what's nerdier... that I've been picking up bio comics on the presidential candidates (I read the McCain and Obama bios about a month before the election), if it's that I pre-ordered the Hillary Clinton comic, that I am stoked about a Michelle Obama comic, or that I think they owe me a Cindy McCain and Bill Clinton comic...

Perhaps because we are often so focused upon the promise of the future, Americans tend to keep history relegated to required school reading and pretty far up on the dial on digital cable. History is, of course, stranger than fiction (even superhero comics featuring aliens fighting transdimensional weirdos in tights), and what's missed in the classroom, as teachers ask students to memorize dates, names and chronologies, is that history is full of STORIES. And that history is happening right now.

Superhero and other comics have an odd relationship with real-life figures, from George Bush appearing in the first series of Ultimates, to Peter Bagge's priceless "Founding Father Funnies" which acted as a back-up in the already great "Apocalypse Nerd" series (no idea if those are in the collection). It's a curious mix'n'match of attempts at biography (see Ho Che Anderson's King cycle), as well as mixing historical figures with the tropes of science fiction, fantasy, etc... that we've come to enjoy in some comic genres.

Roosevelt, Super-Hero

Recently I picked up a reprint of a T. Roosevelt bio from Classics Illustrated. I've also picked up a comic called "Tales from the Bully Pulpit", which casts Roosevelt and Edison as space-faring, time-hopping adventurers. It's actually a terrifically fun read. It's been out of print for a while, but perhaps you can find a copy.

I was far less impressed with the Roosevelt-starring "Frazetta's Creatures" which imagines Roosevelt as a paranormal investigator as well as President. It seemed pretty clear these guys hadn't bothered to do much in the way of research on T.R. And, no, it didn't advance the story. It just felt sloppy. And, yes, I do expect more from a comic book. (A sure tell of a badly researched TR work? Anyone, at any time, refers to TR to his face as "Teddy". TR was a victorian who expected to be referred to by his proper name, his rank, his office, or as "TR" by his intimates. Teddy was something for the yellow-journalism reading rabble.)

Superheroes and the Presidents

My earliest memory of seeing a real life figure interacting with fictional characters was probably in an issue of X-Men (I've long since forgotten the issue number) where Rogue goes high to catch Piotr's grand slam during one of those popular X-Men baseball games, and gives Ronald Reagan a "hello", kissing the window of Air Force One. It was one of those moments that Claremont was so good at, giving his characters that extra human touch.

Marvel has tended to de-fictionalize the presidency, while DC has gone so far as to put billionaire Lex into office in 2000 (although the pay-off of the move was/ is questionable). This was followed more recently with the DCU Decisions mini-series that was unpopular here at Comic Fodder, and from the lack of buzz... I'd say the series was met with a monumental shrug of indifference. Most recently, however, a W. stand-in appeared in Superman #681 to meet a Kryptonian delegation (although this same president, who I believe is President Thorne, has been depicted differently by different artists).

It seems Eric Larsen has been the first superhero creator/ artist to depict President-Elect Obama as, well, a President-Elect.

Other Oddities

I'm still waiting on more issues to arrive, but Helen Killer has been a almost-tasteless-but-still-fascinating book which re-imagines Helen Keller as a sort of superspy of the turn of the century. I think that the idea may have worked a bit better for me had the creators used a different name with a nod to Keller. But use of the actual historical figure dilutes the amazing and real achievements of Keller and Annie Sullivan. That said, it's a fascinating read.

A walk down the non-capes and tights section of the comic shop may not provide you with a flurry of "What if Henry Ford and Louis Pasteur teamed up to fight Aliens?" titles, but it's interesting to see comic-logic (or superhero logic) applied to the heroes of our history textbooks. My LCS (Austin Books) has a section carved out for these kinds of comics right next to "Western", "Pirates" and other historically placed sub-genres. Maybe not a huge section, but its nice to see it broken out that way.

The biggest danger of books using historical figures in such a manner is whether or not the writers have done their due diligence. As with TR, smallish details, anachronisms, etc.. can pull one right out of the book. It would seem that if one had the passion to write an historically-based epic, one would feel obliged to do the hard research necessary. Or even do more than a quick Wikipedia search.

Room for Non-Fiction?

While comic memoirs like "Persepolis", "Fun Home" and "Blankets" receive adulation, and indie comix have taken a page from R. Crumb and Harvey Pekar to turn misanthropic journaling into its own genre, historical or non-fiction comics don't enjoy a huge presence in comic shops.

I've enjoyed Eric Shanower's Age of Bronze comic when it comes out as a collected edition. Shanower's careful research into period costuming, politics and behavior is absolutely fascinating, and doesn't require the heady distraction of the gods' meddling in order to re-tell a compelling story.

I've also picked up Kyle Baker's "King David", which I highly recommend. I haven't yet read "Nat Turner". There's a Houdini graphic novel I didn't pick up, and now I can't figure out who wrote it, published it, etc... but I'd love to track that down.

Miller's "300" is probably an epic fail when it comes to accuracy, but if it got you to watch a few documentaries on the events of Thermopylae on The History Channel, as it inspired me to do, then the value can perhaps move beyond the narrative (I still think "300" is a great book, if the movie was maybe a bit silly).

DC's somewhat failed Paradox Press published the "Big Book of...", which were like comic book crack. No idea if they're still in print now, but they found an area like "thugs" or "conspiracies", and told all sorts of tales in an anthology sort of format.

I've also picked up a comic that was, it seemed, sort of aimed at a younger audience on Rosa Parks.

While World War II has always provided fodder for comics, it would be nice to see today's writers and artists take on other historical periods, North American or otherwise. Biography seems to lend itself to a more natural flow than, say, trying to shove all of the elements which led to WWII into a single narrative. Other formats which lend themselves to success are looking at smallish pieces of a conflict. Readers may wish to look into Garth Ennis's latest effort "Battelfields: The Night Witches" which observes the German/ Russian conflict during the days of Germany's push into Eastern Russia and the all-female bomber sqaudron which was assigned to the front.

In Conclusion

In short, if comics are a storytelling medium, then comics should be able to expand to embrace more than caped heroes and alien landscapes. Luckily, the maturity of comics has led to serious writers who embrace the medium and use it to share some of the more fascinating characters and events of the past. The advancement from the "Classics Illustrated" approach to Roosevelt in "Rough Riders" to the longform narrative of "Age of Bronze" is a quantum leap in use of the medium.

But we're comic geeks, and we have some strange ideas. Perhaps not any stranger than Nolan's use of Bowie as Tesla in "The Prestige" from a few years back, but we also get a kick out of seeing Cap shake hands with the president and Roosevelt kicking a monster in the teeth. If we're to believe, as our public school educations would tell us, that these figures are larger than life, why not expect to see Superman chumming it up with Neal Armstrong, or Jacquie Kennedy ogling Herbie?

I'd love to see more actual historical protrayals, a la "Age of Bronze", or even shorter items like "The Night WItches". History is literally nothing but the most fascinating most of human history laid out before the reader, so why not explore and re-tell those tales as they happened (or as close as we can get)?

So what's your favorite Historical comic? Biography? Mix of fact and super fiction?



Questions? Comments? Hate mail?

Come on, I can take it.

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Ryan is an Op/Ed columnist for Comic Fodder. He keeps his comics and himself in Austin, Texas where he manages the long running blog League of Melbotis.

He likes Superman.

You can reach Ryan (aka: The League) at theleague.cf@gmail.com