08: A Graphic Diary of the Campaign Trail
By Michael Crowley and Dan Goldman
Three Rivers Press
The non-fiction graphic novel has, by most accounts been largely neglected. Those well-received works that have ventured into that world—Maus, Palestine, Perselopis, et al.—have largely been content to bide by independent comics’ fiction with the first-person narrative. This fact takes nothing away from their staggering importance to the medium—all of the above bravely tackled difficult and important issues while bringing comics a new-found level of respect both among the literati and a mainstream readership.
Their fixation with the memoir does, however, point to a seemingly fundamental hang up with the style—illustrated by that troublesome label “graphic novel,” a term which, in its very essence, implies some form of fictionalization, or, at the very least, the sort of first-person storytelling that often designates prose books for the fiction shelves. In a sense, it also points to a problem with scope.
There are few sufficiently educated in the world of sequential art who would argue that the medium presents more limitations its prose counterparts. But as is often the case, it takes an outsider to shake things up. Michael Crowley’s 08 is hardly the first book to prevent a news-styled piece of graphic non-fiction, but it certainly is a member of a far rarer breed than one might reasonably expect.
Of course Crowley’s position as an outsider has its pluses and minuses. The author, a seasoned reporter for mainstream news outlets like The New Republic and MSNBC, approaches the story of the 2008 presidential campaign trails less as a storyteller than as a news writer. As a result the book reads less like a piece of creative non-fiction than it does a rehashing of the events leading up to the election of Barack Obama. As such, the back cover comparison to Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 seems a bit stretched at best.
Rather the book’s text plays out more like a straight rehash of news cycles. The book, it becomes clear, after the first few pages, is meant to be something of a contemporary time capsule of sorts for those who lived through it. Or perhaps a scrapbook is a more apt comparison—pieces collected together as the events unfolded, a mad dash to both make sense of the events and cobble them together with all deliberate speed so that it might hit stands while the events remained fresh in readers’ minds. And while Crowley attempts to bring in two fictional reporters to lend an air of humanity to what is ostensibly a collection of political quotes and newsbytes, they ultimately get lost in the echo chamber.
The book’s scrapbook storytelling elements are echoed clearly in Dan Goldman’s artwork. Relying heavily on the use of lightboards, the author pulls real images of the book’s players, incorporating them into panels that stand on equal footing with 08’s large, thickly letter text. At the same time, however, Goldman’s also serves as the true centerpiece of the book, having sharpened considerabye since the book’s predecessor, Shooting War, a fact made all the clearer by the book constant black and white contrast.
Goldman’s characters are ultimately as disembodied as the text, rarely attached to any concrete setting. Rather than attempting to anchor Crowley’s floating text, the images highlight it, making clear the true nature of 08. The book, in a sense, might appropriately be seen as the first graphic novel of the age of cable news. Shooting War certainly played with the motif with its cutting media satire placing news tickers at the bottom of panels, but 08 is far more successful in getting at the pure essence of 24 hour news networks: talking heads and scrolling words.
In that sense, the book is something new and exciting, though like its television counterpart, the perceived lack of a cohesive whole can sometimes prove frustrating. However, when the book’s status as instant time capsule fades into something approaching an historical document, taken abstractly, it will also offer a more permanent glimpse of the naturally fleeting American media that begat it.