Review: ’08’ by Michael Crowley and Dan Goldman
08: A Graphic Diary of the Campaign Trail
By Michael Crowley and Dan Goldman
Three Rivers Press, January 2009, $17.95
Typically, there are two kinds of non-fiction books about big events – first are the quick-and-dirty ones that come out almost immediately, pulled together from news reports or written on the fly or just knocked out by a writer with lightning fingers. The other is the “think piece” – longer, more measured, with time for distance and clarity. They each have their strengths: the quick books can crystallize a mood, and remind us of what we felt at the time, while the slower books tend to be the ones that last. It happens with all kinds of nonfictional topics, from biographies (the quickies come out after the personage has done something major, such as died) to political scandals to social movements.
But the area that attracts more quick books than any other is high-level politics – since the energy available to be expended on political arguments, thoughts, and post-mortems is effectively infinite; the winners are always happy to relive their victories and the losers are desperate to know how to win the next time. So every four years there’s a wave of books about the US presidential race: it starts slow, about a year out, with potted campaign biographies and thinly disguised position papers and various attempts to influence the debate. Once the race gets going in earnest, the Swift Boats start running – quick-and-dirty books (usually as dirty as possible) aimed at real or perceived weaknesses, plus new or updated versions of the first kind of books. And then there’s another rush after the election is done, praising or damning the winner, and explaining how everything will be utterly different, unless it’s going to be completely the same. At the same time, reporters bash their campaign columns into shape and shove them out the door as books, or quickly explain for posterity how they knew all of the important things all along. Finally, the slower, more thoughtful books – things like [[[What It Takes]]] and [[[The Selling of the President]]] – come along a year or so later…just as the machine starts to gear up for the next time around.
08 is smack in the middle of that tradition; it’s an account of the just-completed election season by a connected political reporter (Michael Crowley, a senior editor for the left-leaning [[[New Republic]]] as well as a commentator on politics for MSNBC), published as quickly as possible while it’s still fresh in everyone’s minds. The art is by Dan Goldman, who did last year’s critically-acclaimed [[[Shooting War]]], and here he brings an urgent, clip art-meets-scratchboard look, with oceans of deep black, lots of clashing textures, and frantically changing panel sizes. He draws the candidates and others in the visual equivalent of soundbites – those moments and poses you still vaguely remember a year later – to freeze them for posterity forever.
The story is the 2008 presidential election, of course – starting just after the midterm elections in 2006, with the early candidates jockeying for position and donations, and continuing on through the long quiet slog of 2007 and the increasingly more frenetic and desperate race through the primary elections of 2008. The text is in a big, bold sans serif font, which grabs attention, and runs as long captions between, above, and through panels as well as in the speech balloons of the various players. It gets bigger and smaller to fit the space: some captions are so loud they feel like shouting. (And the font always feels loud and strident; it’s not a face for quiet thoughts and deep musings, but for quick declarations and denunciations.)
08 is written in past tense, but has a present-tense feel: Crowley is trying to channel the spiky energy of a political campaign, where everything changes every day and candidates are at the mercy of the news cycle for subjects, feedback, and attention. It’s a reasonable strategy, but his tone reads as if the ending is in doubt – and we do all already know how this story ends. It’s not clear if 08 was created during the campaign, in part or in whole, but it doesn’t seem that way – the details and focus are on things that will be important later, not the aimless random news-get-of-the-day that characterizes the middles of actual campaigns.
At the same time, 08 is in the much newer tradition of comics-as-explainer-of-history, following the example of [[[The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation]]]. This is certainly a happier piece of history – even for Republicans – but it’s less necessary. The presidential campaign didn’t happen in secret; it didn’t need to be pieced together later. So 08 is, like so many books before it, essentially a memento of the campaign. It doesn’t have any particular bias, so it’s equally useful for fans of Obama and of all of the losers of both parties. I’m still not sure that’s all that useful, for any of them, but then again I feel that way about many political books that aren’t in comics form. 08 is completely respectable; it could easily become the semi-official [[[Making of the President]]] of this past election cycle.
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
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