Monday, 23 August 2010

Barack Obama, The Comic Book Biography

...what? Yes, I did read this.

So, a hardcover book published by IDW, covering the life of Barack Obama up to his election as US president, and 100 first days of his administration.
I have an interest in how non-fiction turns into comics. On the area of biographies there's been some great autobiographies in recent years, works like Fun Home and Persepolis, and a bit older Maus belongs to the same group. Of historical biographies I have read and enjoyed among others both poetic treatment Gilbert Hernandez gave to Frida Kahlo and more matter-of-fact stories Roberta Gregory has told of history of feminism.
I am also fascinated by even those educational comics telling about subjects like importance of zinc in everyday life, even if I understand this interest is commonly considered somewhat perverse.

So, how do these artists tell us about Obama? First observation comes from cover: neither front nor back cover reveal who are the artists responsible of the book which is pretty peculiar if you ask me. Cracking the book open reveals the creators: writing by Jeff Mariotte, art by Tom Morgan and covers by J. Scott Campbell. The art both in covers and inside is contemporary superhero style (well, except for people looking more real) and as such functional, even if I did spot occasional gaffes like an incredible shrinking man on the first page, and McCain morphing into a Nixon lookalike later on...

To call the book text-heavy is an understatement. Lots and lots of yellow boxes containing narration, and some big speech balloons, usually large blocks of speeches, this book is definitely tell-don't-show. For the most part the function of the art is to pace the text boxes, it does get to narrate very little by itself. What's more, there are very few scenes extending over two panels or more, and all of these are concentrated on the beginning of the book, scenes which quote Obama's own books. Later on, the writer just puts in the text boxes written in journalistic style, and the artist puts in whatever suitable pictures fit the text.
The style is that of a documentary film, in some ways better because obviously some of those pictures couldn't be replicated in film nor could the iconic qualities of the subjects be emphasized in that way, but in some ways worse, and it is definitely not a good way of making comics.

According to the back cover, the book is "[...] documenting the facts without bias", and to be honest I could have used a bit of bias here. The best parts are in the beginning of the book when Obama gets to tell himself what happened, but later on we get just facts after facts, and while those might work for newscasters or magazine or Wikipedia articles, here it just doesn't.
Cut the facts, tell us what happened.

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