Reaching the Youth — With Comics!

irina_80.gifI was looking through the picture books in the back of a bookstore where I sometimes work, when a woman came over with her son and slid out one I had snorted at earlier, Pete Sanders’ What Do You Know About Bullying? With Illustrated Storylines.  And she said something I knew someone would, “Oh, it’s a comic!  Isn’t that cool?

No, It’s not cool.

It’s not that I disagree with the message. Bullying is something we need to talk about. It’s the assumption that the medium is appealing to kids regardless of the content.

When I was little, I felt fooled by didactic picture books and comics. They remind me of desperately feeding my animation jones watching Davey and Goliath Sunday mornings. (Davey and Goliath now adds depth to my Moral Orel experience). But long, long ago, in the glorious heyday of educational filmstrips, children would’ve been shown What Do You Know About Bullying? frame by beeping frame. That sounds kind of cool, but that might be a matter of the medium. I expect didacticism in a filmstrip; I don’t expect it in a comic

Unfortunately, some adults liked all that, or they’ve isolated the experience in their minds along with paste-eating and dookie jokes they used to find hilarious. The saddest thing about the European Union-sponsored comic, Troubled Waters, by Dominique David, Rudi Miel and Christina Cuadra Garcia, is that the EU really did think it would appeal to young people.

TroubledWaters.jpgAvailable in 23 languages, Troubled Waters is about a feisty, nationally, ethnically and politically unspecific European Parliament Member, Irina Vega, who promotes pollution control and water rights legislation. Meanwhile, an unscrupulous corporation schemes. But this isn’t Chinatown. Turns out that a comic just doesn’t convey the thrill of parliamentary life. Worse yet, turns out there’s a real life Irina Vega and she’s not a less than hopping School House Rock character; she’s a porn star from Barcelona. Kinda takes the shine off educating the kids about the Euro-Parliament’s co-legislating powers. Poor civics-minded MEP Irina Vega just can’t compete.

In his introduction to the American Civil Liberties Union’s graphic novel, Defenders of Freedom, Executive Director Anthony Romero’s avatar says, “We are not trying to disguise a civics lesson in a comic book…. These are real issues and we need real people to defend freedom. Real people, like you and me. No capes or shields. No supernatural powers, just our voices and our actions.”

But, suspicion about them aside, there are capes and superpowers in both stories. Matthew K. Manning and Mark Badger’s “A Question of Obligation” concerns a Daredevil-ian quandary between being both a crime-fighting superhero and a civil liberties lawyer. Jimmy Palmiotti and Rick Burchett’s “Blue Collar” is about a man assaulted by a cop for Driving While Black. The Defenders—not to be confused with The Defenders—use their powers to make the cop realize his issues and fess up to violating the victim’s rights.

Romero should’ve followed his instinct. “Blue Collar” doesn’t clunk along like “A Question of Obligation,” but the mix of superpowered fixes and real world problems make the resolution—the cop’s realization that he’s acting out, for example—insubtantial and saccharine. I can see how recent comics with social and political content inspire the people at the ACLU. Their press release mentions Marvel’s Civil War and Maus. They’ve commissioned work from Art Spiegelman. In the end, though, the graphic novel leaves me with the taste of Necco hearts in my mouth. I hate to be shallow, but discovering Irina Vega’s alternate life was way more entertaining.

I can’t say that about Mike Mackey and Donny Lin’s Liberality For All. Billed as the “First Conservative Comic Book” at the publisher’s website, Liberality For All is presented by Mackey as a hypothetical scenario. In a world where Al Gore became president and the “Coulter Laws” have made conservative talk radio a crime, former Fox News host, current cyborg Sean Hannity runs The Freedom of Information League (“F.O.I.L.”), an underground voice of resistance to rampant extremist ultra-liberalism. By 2021, President Chelsea Clinton and Vice-President Michael Moore have surrendered governance to the United Nations. Only Hannity and the “bio-mechanically enhanced” G. Gordon Liddy and Oliver North can prevent UN Ambassador Usama bin Laden from nuking America. For me, the saddest part of this comic is not its pernicious and paranoid fantasy of an enemy within; it’s that Sean Hannity’s the hero. Though choosing Hannity reveals a hidden sincere inspiration, an actual enthusiasm, I’d much rather it was all about G. Gordon Liddy. Liddy wouldn’t coyly hide behind satire. His propaganda would be upfront.

As for doing good, pamphlets, informational websites and TV PSA’s might be better. There are certain kinds of information I’m happy to receive in the form of a 4-color fold out letting me know that emergency exits are located at the front and rear of the compartment. I’m more interested in the entertainment value than the morality or the meaning, which is cause for quiet reflection. My response is exactly why people with messages to convey, a desire to reach the youth or to influence the culture choose comics. Still, I can’t help wanting to see G. Gordon Liddy battle his arch-nemesis, Spanish porn star and Euro-parliamentarian, Irina Vega over clean water legislation.


These are real comics and we need real people to write about them.  Real people, like you and Carol Borden. She doesn’t use capes or shields or supernatural powers to do it.

8 replies »

  1. hey everyone–
    we had some problems at the site last month and lost recent comments from some articles. if yours disappeared, we didn’t delete it and we’d sure appreciate if you reposted any of your comments that were eaten.


  2. I have fond memories (for some reason) of the comic book version of The Cross and the Switchblade, adapted by strange Archie Comics staffer Al Hartley (who, after working on the adult strip The Adventures of Pussycat became a born-again Christian and also gave us such gems as Archie’s Parables, Hello, I’m Johnny Cash, and Hansi, The Girl Who Loved the Swastika. Learn more here. (You might have to cut and paste. You can’t make this stuff up).
    What really strikes me here, though, is how bland the cover of Troubled Waters is. It would never pass the Julius Schwartz test, as outlined in Secret Origins #40. He believed that certain elements, placed on the cover of a comic, would improve sales. These included gorillas or other apes, dinosaurs, motorcyles, fires, the color purple and direct questions to the buyer. Carmine Infantino maintained that sales would also increase if the hero were crying on the cover. Now, if Irina Vega were wearing a skin-tight purple jumpsuit while riding a motorcycle through a burning EU parliament, with a gorilla in the sidecar, and being chased by a dinosaur – and if she were looking right at us and asking, tears streaming down her face, “How did it come to this?” – then we might have something.
    Just so long as it wasn’t written by Warren Ellis.


  3. i never knew about the cross and the switchblade. it’s like there’s a whole new world opening before me. thanks!
    and maybe you should send your alternate cover idea to the e.u. tell’em it has some pep and the kids like pep. then again, i think they’re looking for something more like what they have and less like modesty blaise.


  4. you know, i’ve been thinking about what to say about Captain Awareness. and i just don’t know. it’s messed up, and it’s relevant. thanks!


  5. I’m super amused that there’s also a porn star with that name. Do you happen to know which came first? That seems like the sort of thing you might want to look up…
    Have you read the comic book version of the 9/11 report?


  6. Hi Carol,
    This was a waltz through the pathetic and horrible, by which I mean “Thank you.” I am reminded both of Jack Chick’s evangelizing comics and of a film strip I got stuck watching in middle school, “Captain Condom vs. the VD Gang.” What I wouldn’t give for a copy of that now.


  7. i’m not sure which irina vega came first. i’d guess the porn star but she doesn’t give a lot of biographical information at her website. might ruin the fantasy. a reader wrote me privately to say that a czech porn star campaigned to become a member of the EU parliament and that there had been a number of porn stars who either ran for or became members of the italian parlieament; the most famous is la ciccolina/iljona staller.
    and, yeah, i’ve read the comic version of the 9/11 report. somehow it doesn’t quite fit in with the others. i’m not sure why, but i think figuring that out would take another whole piece. so would jack chick.
    and, my god, “captain condom vs. the vd gang”… it can’t be as good as its title!


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