It's a year of superheroes in Hollywood, with the big-budget epics of Batman, Iron Man and the Hulk, but a big-budget production out of Washington, D.C., is carving a niche in the animation trend.
Presumptive nominees John McCain and Barack Obama will star this fall in their own comic books put out by IDW Publishing, a San Diego-based publisher better known for telling the stories of robots (“The Transformers”) and vampires (“30 Days of Night”).
Don't expect Captain America-versus-Superman hijinks or super-villains threatening the electoral process. Trading sound bites for word balloons, the books purport to tell McCain and Obama's life stories, independently researched and illustrated by a veteran team of writers and artists.
“We're not doing anything that is sensational here,” said IDW special projects editor Scott Dunbier, adding that neither campaign was involved in the development of the books. “We're sticking to the facts.”
On Oct. 8, the books will be released in comic book shops and go on sale online and for reading on cell phones.
Comic book biographies have been written before — Marvel Comics had a best-seller in 1982 with a biography of Pope John Paul II. But Dunbier said the company is breaking new ground getting out fully researched comics on two candidates before Election Day.
Dunbier said the nontraditional style of storytelling and visuals in comics may reach some voters more effectively than other types of media can.
“We're not in the business of doing textbooks, but I think comic books really do have the great potential to inform and teach and do more than just standard superhero comics,” he said.
Customers can pre-order the books over the Internet through IDW, which also will sell them through cell phones with the help of Kansas City-based uClick, the digital arm of newspaper feature distributor Universal Press Syndicate.
uClick already sells a service allowing customers to view comics over their phones but the presidential comics will be part of a push to begin allowing customers to order whole books over their phone, said Jeff Webber, vice president of product development.
“We'll be looking at how many people download to phones versus read them in print, which IDW should find interesting, as well as which (book) gets downloaded the most,” Webber said. “This is a great opportunity to show people that there are comics on the phone.”
The McCain book, with art by Stephen Thompson, is being written by Andy Helfer, a veteran comic-book author who helped develop the books that later became the movies “Road to Perdition” and “A History of Violence.” He also has written comic-book biographies of Ronald Reagan and Malcolm X.
Obama's biography is being written by novelist Jeff Mariotte, who has also done comics on Superman, Spider-Man and Star Trek. Tom Morgan is doing the art.
J. Scott Campbell did both covers; each features its candidate in the classic superhero pose of squared shoulders and fists on hips with an American flag in the background.
Campbell said it was probably inevitable that the covers are already generating controversy on the Internet as supporters of the two candidates look for signs of bias. For example, some posters say that the reddish tinge to the sky behind a smiling McCain looks ominous while Obama followers are unhappy their candidate's expression is stern.
Campbell said he based his depiction of McCain and Obama on photographs of them he found on the Internet and that in those, typically, McCain is smiling while Obama is not. As for the red sky, he said that's the standard color associated with Republicans while Obama's cover is Democrat blue.
“I was really trying to go out of my way to be extra sensitive to the fact that I didn't want anything like that (bias) to come across,” he said. “That wasn't the purpose of the book.”
Helfer and Mariotte said they did extensive research, reading the candidates' own books, books written by others, newspaper articles and other sources — including a documentary Helfer found on YouTube of a disastrous fire aboard the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal in 1967, during the Vietnam War.
Helfer said he couldn't help but be moved by McCain's war experience, including being imprisoned by the Vietnamese. But he said he also included less-flattering experiences from McCain's youth as well as political setbacks during his time in Congress.
“My objectivity is in finding support, multiple kinds of support, for whatever I state,” he said, adding that both books will include a full section of annotations. “I'm trying to create — as much as you can in 28 pages — a portrait of a human being. I think it's a balanced portrait of the guy.”
Mariotte said he too kept to specific scenes in Obama's life, although he said he sometimes touched on some of the rumors of Obama's past that continue to resonate among his critics.
“I think anyone who reads it will see it's heavy on facts, light on opinion,” he said. “I did kind of glance off some of those rumors just to point out this happened and this didn't, but I didn't dwell on those.”