A Race in Graphic Detail

2008 Campaign Shows Up in Cartoon Form

Posted January 12, 2009 at 3:51pm

With President-elect Barack Obama preparing to take the oath of office in a matter of days, this is the perfect time to look back on a tumultuous and riveting presidential campaign. In their new graphic novel “08: A Graphic Diary of the Campaign Trail,” New Republic senior editor Michael Crowley and artist Dan Goldman re-create the story lines, gaffes and drama-charged moments that made this contest for the White House especially compelling.

The graphic novel is emerging as a vibrant literary genre, as the medium once confined to the pulpy realms of action heroes has gained increased legitimacy with works such as Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Maus.”

Translating the campaign into graphic art offered Goldman a way to condense “an entire campaign’s worth of information” into a smaller space. Comics are “a really vibrant form of communication,” he said.

The story of “08” is told through the (fictional) eyes of seasoned political reporter Harlan Jessop and his young associate, Jason Newbury. They follow the campaign’s trajectory as the packed field in the early days of the primaries winnows to the contentious nomination battle between Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), and finally to the general election showdown between Obama and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

When public figures in the novel speak — whether politicians, journalists or people posing questions at debates — their words are usually actual comments that people made during the campaign. Crowley said there were instances in which he grammatically edited or condensed quotes but was cautious “always to maintain careful substantive accuracy” and keep the original intent unaltered.

This reliance on factual accuracy, blended with storytelling techniques advanced by the graphic novel format, produced something that was neither a work of literature nor a piece of journalism, but a combination.

“This is the true story of the campaign,” Crowley said. “But the form is something new and different. … It’s a hybrid, but it has core journalistic integrity.”

Crowley said the “real challenge” of the project was the tendency of the campaign’s often unpredictable turns of events — such as Clinton’s upset win in the New Hampshire primary — to disrupt his narrative expectations as he wrote the script while covering the campaign.

“As anyone who has written in narrative form would tell you, stories move in arcs and have key plot points, and it’s really hard to figure out what the arc is when you’re in the middle of it,” he said. “The amazing moment was going into Feb. 5 and thinking, ‘What type of book are we going to wake up to on Feb. 6?’”

In a telephone interview, Goldman said the book is not just about the political storyline but also “the narrative of the race as it develops” and is shaped by the media. He recounted going to New Hampshire and observing politicians while they repeated stump speeches. As candidates interacted with one another, the audiences and the media, “it becomes this circular conversation that repeats and repeats, and in that way, it changes,” Goldman said.

The visual features of “08” underscore this point, with text resembling banner headlines and the paneling reflecting a “magazine type of layout,” Goldman said.

Goldman and Crowley spoke of the difficulties of reducing the variety and complexity of the campaign into a couple hundred pages.

“It was important not to simplify it but to put all these different elements together and see how the events affected each other,” Goldman said.

Although the different politicians making appearances are easily identifiable, the book’s artwork was created digitally, without pen and paper. Paired with a black and white composition, the effect is to lend a stylized film noir grittiness to the work, with politicians’ faces alternately illuminated or obscured by shadows.

Crowley and Goldman take advantage of the graphic novel format to conjure up images that recurred throughout the campaign and will be immediately recognizable to readers. For example, it opens with a copy of the widely circulated photo of Obama as a child being embraced by his mother.

“When things circulate the way they do, and given the speed and constant barrage of the media, there are these images that are reflected back at us and bury themselves in our minds as the important points,” Goldman said.

The benefit of pairing images with text is that the authors are able to place an otherwise unimportant snapshot in its proper context while also providing an element of foreshadowing, as Obama’s mother intones, “Your Daddy’s not coming back, Barry … but you and I are going to do big things in this world.”

Fictional reporters Jessop and Newbury view the unfolding events through a journalist’s critical lens, which helps them to deconstruct the political stratagems that they observe at press conferences and on television. This allows “08” to take a step back and try to cut through some of the spin and contradictions that marked a nearly two-year ordeal.

Crowley characterized the two as “mostly products of Dan’s imagination,” and although a more elaborate subplot was written, it was subsequently abandoned. However, he said the characters communicate the media culture surrounding a campaign by voicing a “metacommentary of what’s happening on the trail.”

Although “08” is based on real events and draws on direct quotes, the graphic element supplies a specific tone and interpretation. Crowley said one of the aims of the graphic novel format is to present the campaign truthfully but from an angle different than the one to which readers are accustomed.

“I hope it gives [readers] a new way to think about it, a new way to experience it,” he said. “We’ve all been inundated with pictures and articles, but an artistic representation makes you think differently about it. Choosing certain moments and lingering on them elicits emotions or responses that people might not otherwise get from newspapers and magazines and blogs.”

Ultimately, the novel does a good job of not endorsing or focusing disproportionately on any single candidate. It also eschews any sort of moralization; “08” is not about which issue is more important or which candidate is more qualified. It is a fairly faithful rendering of the events of one of the most closely watched campaigns in U.S. history. If heroes and villains seem to emerge in a way that parallels the graphic novel’s comic book forebears, then it’s safe to assume that that’s just politics.