J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Inaugural Issue of Action Presidents!

The first issue of the new Action Presidents! comic debuts today on ComiXology, and it naturally tackles the towering figure of the first President, George Washington.

This comic book comes from Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey, the team behind Action Philosophers! and (a series I like even more) The Comic Book History of Comics. The Action Philosophers! series dissected the lives and ideas of famous thinkers in comic-book form, the tropes of superhero action often satirizing the subject matter. In contrast, some of the Action Presidents!, including Washington, really were quite active men.

Van Lente structures the story around Washington’s quest for self-control, at first for himself and then for the Continental Army and ultimately for the young U.S. of A. Washington undoubtedly had great ambitions, and he struggled to maintain the calm that his culture demanded of gentlemen.
As you see, Dunlavey’s approach to the art owes a lot to the satiric approach of the 1960s “underground” comics and Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History books. His undisciplined American soldiers, for example, look much like a certain trio of mid-20th-century movie comedians. Because Action Presidents! is being published first in digital form, we see Dunlavey’s art in color, not just black and white as in the previous series.

Naturally, a 20-page comic has to skip a lot of Washington’s life. Among the major aspects left behind was his support for a new Constitution in the late 1780s. Readers would never know from these pages that he chaired the Constitutional Convention, providing its product with far more legitimacy than if he had stayed home. Instead, the comic emphasizes Washington’s wish that someone else could lead the country and let him stay home at Mount Vernon—not that he ever suggested any other man take the job of first President.
The lower panel above shows one repeated lapse of the comic: facial hair on eighteenth-century American men. This is a common mistake among cartoonists trying to produce a variety of male faces in yore; at least Dunlavey’s style means no reader can take those portrayals as realistic.

The comic starts with Washington’s birth in Virginia’s slave-owning aristocracy, noting how upper-class his family was; it could have said more about how precarious his own perch in that upper class was after his father’s death. We see some of Washington’s challenges in the French and Indian War, though not what a grasping young man he was until he married Martha Custis. Overall, however, it does a good job of highlighting the tensions between Washington, the ideal gentleman he wanted to be, and the paragon that American culture has often portrayed him as.

The Action Presidents! narrative of the Revolutionary War is the standard popular American account: New York to Trenton, Valley Forge and the Fabian strategy, the French alliance and Yorktown. That of course leaves out a lot of events, including the Boston campaign, the loss of the nation’s capital in 1777, the long warfare outside New York, and the campaigns Washington oversaw from afar in the north and south. But again, Van Lente and Dunlavey have only twenty pages, and they still have to get to the Presidency.

In that Presidency, the comic focuses rather narrowly on Alexander Hamilton’s fiscal policy, the Whiskey Rebellion, and Washington’s personal response to that unrest. Again, many other aspects of the first administration go unexplored. But that series of episodes raises interesting questions about President Washington and how he interpreted his job. It fits well into the overall theme of this short and, to be sure, active biography.

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