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The Father of Political Comics

This is the ninth installment of an ongoing series written for the blog by Richard Graham. Richard is an associate professor and media services librarian at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he studies the educational use of comics and serves as the film and art history liaison. His posts examine UNL’s, Nebraska’s, and the larger literary world’s connections with the comics medium.

“All comic books are political” --Alan Moore

Normally, now would have been a good time to discuss the neatest item a trick-or–treater could ever have received this past Halloween, the Chick Tract, but something a bit spookier has taken place that should take precedence: the Election!

As sophisticated readers, you probably aren’t limited to thoughts of Spider-Man, Superman, or other tightly-clothed superheroes when comics are mentioned in conversation. Certainly, prevalent political themes would not be uncommon to you. Superman stands for “truth, justice, and the American way.” Captain America has had to deal with the fickle politics of our nation. Lex Luthor ran for the presidency (as a Republican!) and super-heroes had to register themselves in the Marvel Universe. Recently, Archie, fresh after a visit from President Barack Obama, occupied Riverdale. But it may be surprising to know that a wide range of political figures, from Franklin Roosevelt to Sarah Palin, have all been central characters in their very own comic series. Some of these comics were used as a way to communicate a candidate’s biography, while others were used as satirical weapons that mocked an opponent. There’s one person we can consider the father of the political comic book, and that is Malcolm Ater. In 1948 he approached the G.O.P., offering to produce comic books for them as campaign materials. “I thought that if anybody needed comic books--and could afford them--it was the Republicans,” he later reflected. Instead he was rebuffed with the criticism that the idea was "too undignified." Undaunted, he took his ideas to the Democratic National Committee, who liked the idea well enough to eventually buy three million copies of a biography of Harry Truman. Doubtless there have been uses of cartoons and comics before in elections, but this was the first use of a comic book in a national election. Ater, a Democrat but also a wise business man, would eventually get the Republicans to hop on the comics bandwagon to produce a comic for the Eisenhower and Nixon ticket during the 1956 presidential election.

During the course of his career, Malcolm Ater’s Commercial Comics produced political comics for Senator Scott Lucas, Connecticut Governor Chester Bowles, Senator Brien McMahon, Congressman Al Loveland, and more famously, for George Wallace. By Malcolm’s retelling, Wallace leaned across his desk and stated “I don't see how a damn Yankee like you can come down here to Alabama and help me get elected.” Ater replied “Well, Judge, if you’ll recall, I came down here a few years ago and worked for John Patterson and helped defeat you!” Wallace and he became friends and the result was the comic Alabama Needs the Little Judge, George Wallace for the Big Job. The book is pro-segragationist: in it Wallace promises to send “back north every freedom rider, sit-in, and every other troublemaker” sent south by NAACP.

Gradually, Commercial Comics began to publish more educational informational comics funded by non-profit organizations and the federal government--which expanded its sub-contracting opportunities. This change in content and funding was fine with Ater, as he’d come to see politicians as hypocrites, though he still enjoyed the friendship of George Wallace, who by this time had recanted his racist views and was seen by Ater as a straight shooting realist.

Ater’s heir apparent could be found in Darren Davis and Jason Schultz. They are the president and executive vice president for business development of Bluewater Productions, a Washington state-based comic book company that began giving politicians starring roles in their illustrated stories since 2009. “Back during the last election, we noticed how unfair Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton were being treated in the media. People were commenting more on their clothes than their actual résumés,” Davis said. So, defying that perceived stereotype, Bluewater produced comic books starring Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton, with more than 25,000 copies of both sold. Davis and Schultz haven’t looked back since, going on to produce comic books on political figures such as Colin Powell, Ronald Reagan, Bill O’Reilly, Caroline Kennedy, Al Franken, Jon Stewart and Gen. David Petraeus.

While Bluewater’s President has stated, “We don’t want to put our agendas into it because we don’t have an agenda,” let’s be real. They do have an agenda, just like Malcolm Ater did: To make money. And, to their good fortune, current political comic books have been a surprising success, with a price of about $4 each. Imagine that, companies playing both sides in order to achieve financial gain!