Life in Politics Can Be Comic

Cory Bennett
National Journal

Darren Davis paused when he saw the name on his caller ID: the William Clinton Foundation.

It was 2009. Davis’s independent comic-book and graphic-novel company, Bluewater Productions, was still a fledgling operation. It had just published a comic-book biography of Hillary Rodham Clinton under its Female Force series, with Clinton dominating the cover, arms confidently locked in a Superwoman pose.

Why was the foundation calling? Did it have an issue with the portrayal? “It was this personal assistant asking for a copy of the comic book,” Davis said, laughing. “I’m thinking, ‘Why don’t they go buy it? Go buy it yourself!’ ”

Today, Davis displays signed comic books not just from Clinton but from many other political subjects—including Sarah Palin and Ron Paul—on the walls of his office in Vancouver, Wash. What started as a whim during the 2008 campaign has turned into one of Bluewater’s defining traits and driving forces. That first 32-page Clinton comic has spawned roughly 45 other political biographies, with another dozen or so in the works, including former presidential candidate Herman Cain, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and CNN newsman Anderson Cooper.

While tens of thousands of people, from pollsters to media buyers, make a living in politics, Davis seems to have discovered a niche in political comics. Thousands of libraries, and approximately a dozen schools, now carry Bluewater books. The White House gift shop even stocks the Bo Obama graphic novel, White House Tails.

“Did we invent the wheel with a biography comic book? No, they’ve been around since the ’40s,” Davis said. “But we’re the next generation to it.”

Davis and business partner Jason Schultz cofounded Bluewater in 2006, using the success of Davis’s original comics, 10th Muse and The Legend of Isis, as a platform. But while those popular titles were selling about 4,000 copies per issue, the comic-book biographies took off, with early titles topping the 12,000 mark. When Bluewater tackled Michelle Obama—17 months before its take on President Obama—the comic sold out within a day, eventually topping 100,000 in sales.

“It was just kind of a fluke,” Davis said. But in many ways, it has been a natural progression for Davis, 44. After attending California State University, Davis worked for several years in marketing for cable channels E! and USA Network before pursuing publishing with Wildstorm Studios, a division of comic-book behemoth DC Comics. Later, as president of Beyond Entertainment, Davis created some of his most popular titles, including 10th Muse, which follows the modern-day daughter of Zeus.

“A lot of my fiction books have a female lead and a female empowerment [aspect],” he said. So, powerful women in politics—often overlooked or unfairly judged by appearance and clothes, Davis thought—seemed a perfect fit. “We don’t overdo ‘T and A’ in our books.”

But they do balance serious biography with sly humor—a talking penguin narrates Al Gore’s comic bio—and adolescent humor. A factually challenged, bubblegum-chewing ditz in the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s comic bio asks, “Kennedy? Like, is he the dude that had Madonna’s mom sing happy birthday to him or whatever?”

Davis also doesn’t shy away from controversy: Monica Lewinsky’s infamous blue dress fills a full frame in Hillary Clinton’s comic bio, and Kennedy lounges on a boat next to a topless sunbather. But for Republicans and Democrats alike, the controversy is mentioned in the context of how each person responded to it. Clinton was wounded but resilient. Kennedy was honest about his personal shortcomings but was held back politically.

While Bluewater sells many of its books to a more traditional superhero-loving comic-book crowd, Davis said many political comics are sold to people who collect political memorabilia. And though the bulk of sales come from the Midwest, Bluewater gets the most media attention inside the Beltway. Most recently, schools and libraries have begun picking up on the educational potential of the political biographies.

“As a kid there’s nothing worse than reading something that’s going to bore me. You gotta keep it fun,” Davis said. “For me personally, I was a reluctant reader, and comic books helped my reading skills grow.”

Davis and Schultz brainstorm ideas for subjects, then hire a writer—often a journalist—to put together a written bio before a penciller, inker, colorer, and letterer bring it to life on the page. This small team can turn a book around in one to three months. But there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. Bluewater has dipped into history with Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, gone outside the U.S. with Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and Nelson Mandela, and covered media personalities such as Jon Stewart and Glenn Beck.

Davis, who says he has been “flambéed by people on both sides,” prefers not to disclose his own political leanings. “For people like Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton to sign a copy,” he said, “we are doing something right.”