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McCain Vs Obama: The graphic comic book

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From the Irish Independent, 4 November 2008

McCain Vs Obama: The graphic comic bookEdit

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Americans decide on their new president today and quite a few of them have learned about the candidates from a comic drawn by an Irishman. Joe Griffin reports

The media frenzy surrounding this year's American Presidential race has yielded some entertaining results. We've seen McCain and Obama on the campaign trail, in acres of newspaper cartoons and even on the talk show circuit. Now we're even seeing them in their own comic books.

IDW Publishing, best known for comics of CSI, Star Trek and Buffy, has released Presidential Material, biographical graphic novels of both McCain and Obama -- available individually or as a set of two. They've caused a media stir Stateside, and these comics take the form of straight biogs -- devoid of satire and cartoon caricature.

Dubliner Stephen Thompson, a graduate of Senior College, Ballyfermot, is the artist who worked on the McCain book. The 29-year-old from Bayside got his big break years ago at San Diego's Comic Con (America's biggest comic convention) by "showing a portfolio around".

Then only 22, he was hired by publishers Dark Horse to work on a Star Wars comic. Currently based in Dublin, he now does a lot of work for the Californian IDW Publishing. "My editor, Scott Dunbier, asked if I'd like to draw the McCain comic after I finished up the Star Trek series. I thought it'd be an interesting change of pace."

In fact, Thompson soon found that Star Trek was surprisingly good preparation. "They both involved likenesses; one of actors, the other of politicians," he says. "On one I had to accurately reference spaceships; on the other I was referencing jets from McCain's days as a navy pilot. In fact, I actually drew the Enterprise for both jobs; one the starship, and the other the aircraft carrier!"

Dunbier says that the idea was first proposed tongue-in-cheek: "It was me making a joke in an editorial meeting. After the laughter died down, the more I turned it over in my head the more it struck me as something we should consider."

He has said that the project is decidedly non-partisan: "These stories had to be told in a balanced fashion, and everything needed to be credible and verifiable -- we weren't doing a parody of the two candidates, but actual graphic biographies -- they would have to hold up under scrutiny or there'd be no hope to be taken seriously."

Despite almost a decade of success in the comic industry, Presidential Material has been very challenging for IDW Publishing. "The biggest difficulty," says Thompson, "would've been missing the deadline, which was set in stone by the election itself. It's hard enough to sell a comic that doesn't contain superheroes, so they needed to be available in the month before the elections to really benefit from the whirlwind of attention surrounding them."

And, Dunbier says that the research was extremely arduous: "They had so many facts stretching over several decades that took many long hours to verify and fact-check. I can honestly say these were the toughest books that I've ever worked on."

The imagery had to be true to life as well. "The main problem," Thompson says, "was trying to find reference for some of the situations and people from McCain's past. Although the generalities of his life are well known, it's surprising how little detail there can be, even for some of the more dramatic events of his life."

"While McCain was a pilot," Thompson continues, "he crashed quite a few planes, but it was almost impossible to find out what types they were, which is kind of important if you're trying to draw them. Also, I spent about 12 hours on the internet one day looking for a single photo of the entrance to the naval flight school in Pensacola, Florida, circa the 1960s."

This is not actually the first serious comic biography of a public figure. Ronald Reagan , J Edgar Hoover and even Pope John Paul II have had the serious graphic biography treatment and Che Guevara has turned up in a number of comics. Even the 9/11 Report has turned up as a fully illustrated graphic novel. Presidential Material, however, is notable in its topicality. It's probably also the highest profile production of its kind to date, having been covered by newspapers and TV networks in the US.

For Thompson, portraying real people ("actors don't count") is a big responsibility, but he's used to public scrutiny: "The job is an odd mix of low and high profile. A comic about politicians is decidedly low- profile in the comic industry. If you mess up on a Star Trek comic, you're going to hear about it from the fans! On the other hand, in the wider world our little comic was getting high-profile attention from national media that most comics would never get. Seeing your artwork on CNN really does pour on the pressure to get the details right."

Today's voter turn-out in the election is predicted to be the highest in years, especially among young Americans. So it makes sense that a typically young person's medium would chime in on the subject. "I'm hoping people who wouldn't normally read anything about these candidates would give them a try, especially younger Americans who may not know much about these men," Thompson has admitted.

"Knowing something about their personal histories might pique their interest in the election. In a fairly concise 28 pages they cover a lot of ground, and in McCain's case it's very interesting ground. He's led a bizarre and eventful life."

Also, a broadcaster such as CNN doesn't typically broadcast stories about comics, so the subject matter may appeal to those who haven't read one since childhood. "I'd be chuffed if anyone who may not normally read a comic book would give them a look," Thompson says. "It's always nice to broaden people's concepts of what kind of subject matter comics can tackle."

Presidential Material is available on

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