Something different for Comics Corner this week, as we delve into the world of biographical comics.
It’s somewhat of a niche field – while there are plenty of autobiographical works from creators telling their own stories, such as Tom Beland’s True Story, Swear to God, or works inspired by or based on real people or events, such as Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell, focussing on the murders of Jack the Ripper, comics aiming to provide a purely historical telling of a person’s life are much rarer.
Enter, then, Political Power: Pete Buttigieg, a one-shot from publisher TidalWave Productions. The Political Power series has been running for a few years now, showcasing figures on both sides of the American political divide, and even people outside of politics entirely who still influence it, such as satirist Jon Stewart.
The Buttigieg special stands out – for Gayming Mag in particular – in that it’s the first to spotlight an openly gay politician. Buttigieg came out in 2015, during his campaign for re-election as the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and married his husband, Chasten Glezman, while in office. Buttigieg also made history as the first openly gay man to run for the office of President of the United States, although ultimately pulling out of the running in March 2020, despite some early successes in state caucuses.
Oddly, Political Power doesn’t really cover much of Buttigieg’s run for the US Presidency – that’s largely resigned to a last-page coda, discussing those early success in the Democratic Party run-offs before his decision to pull out. Instead, it weaves in and out of “Mayor Pete’s” life, non-chronologically, and with a few flashbacks to Buttigieg’s childhood thrown in for good measure. It can make for a somewhat challenging narrative – starting in 2003 as Buttigieg protests the Iraq War, jumping further back to his childhood, then forward to university years, then hopping around his political career and military stint in Afghanistan in 2014.
Told in first person narration, it’s also not always clear how much is Buttigieg’s own thoughts and reflections, collated from interviews and essays elsewhere, and how much is embellishment or opinion on the part of the comic’s writer Michael Frizell. Still, the reader is left with a good sense of who Buttigieg is as a person – quiet, contemplative, and often torn between notions of civic duty and personal identity.
What stands out throughout though is Buttigieg’s struggle with his sexuality – an honest and raw examination of something that many gay men still grapple with. At multiple points, he reflects on his battles coming to terms with being gay, with powerful language such as “if you could have offered me a pill that could make me straight, I would have swallowed it before you could give me a swig of water”, and “if you had shown me exactly what it was that made me gay, I would have cut it out with a knife.” – and those are indeed direct quotes from Buttigeig himself. Coupled with Buttigieg’s doubts over whether his South Bend constituents would reject him on re-election after he’d come out as gay – thankfully, they didn’t; Buttigieg won with over 80% of the vote – it’s a powerful reminder that coming out can still be a momentous decision for any individual.
However, there are also moments that may feel too idolising of the figure the comic is chronicling. Comparisons of Harvard, where Buttigieg majored in history and literature, to Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, and his fellow students to the X-Men with a host of unique skills, feel a little trite and forced, while a point of Buttigieg benefitting electorally from the “ethnically ambiguous” nature of his surname hits perhaps more as cynical and politically manipulative than the unifying message it was going for.
The aspect of Buttigieg’s life readers are most likely to leave confused over is his military service – having enlisted in the US Navy Reserve in 2009 and trained in naval intelligence, Buttigieg was deployed to Afghanistan for seven months in 2014. However, juxtaposed against both the opening pages seeing him protesting war, and his background coming from a military family, this feels poorly explained. There’s no insight into how or why Buttigieg squared justifying war in Afghanistan while opposing war in Iraq, especially as the two conflicts bled into and influenced each other, nor is there any indication of how he felt about the US military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy forbidding openly LGBTQ+ personnel from enlisting – a policy that wasn’t repealed until 2011, two years after Buttigieg enlisted. Some more examination on these points would have been welcome.
For anyone coming to this from the world of superhero comics, the biggest stumbling block may be the art. Juan José Pereyra’s work here has little of the panel flow of more traditional comics, instead each panel seeming more a snapshot in time to accompany the narration. The blend of styles being used also takes some getting used to – a mix of sometimes jarring photo reference, conventional pencil and ink work, and digital painting makes for unusual pages and layouts.
While Political Power paints a sometimes conflicted image of Buttigieg, it’s also an honest one. Buttigieg isn’t particularly radical as a gay man and definitely isn’t flamboyant or colourful – something he’s been attacked and, equally, repeatedly and fairly defended for by other LGBTQ+ people, and something the comic wisely doesn’t take a side on – but his personal brand of quietness, for want of a better term, is just as valid an expression of LGBTQ+ identity as any other. The underlying message here is ultimately that Buttigieg’s successes to date show that American politics, gradually but firmly, is becoming more inclusive than it may sometimes appear from the relentless doom-cycle of 24-hour news – and that’s a great feeling to be walking away from any comic with.
Political Power: Pete Buttigieg is on sale 16th December, published by TidalWave Productions.