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Politics in the Gutter

American Politicians and Elections in Comic Book Media


Christina M. Knopf


University Press of Mississippi, 2021

Paperback. 278p. ISBN 978-1496834232. $30


Reviewed by Nicolas Labarre

Université Bordeaux Montaigne



Politics in the Gutter examines the intersection between comics and political communication [xviii], by studying exclusively comics which represent “political structures and processes” [xix]. Though Christina M. Knopf notes that comic books and their adaptations have been used by politicians in a variety of ways, from allusions to memes, her goal is not to provide a general interpretation of comic books as political discourse. Doing so enables her to delineate a consistent corpus, instead of trying to account for a whole medium over eight or nine decades. Martin Lund has shown that even a single series such as Marvel’s X-Men has generated extensive misreadings among scholars, due to the difficulty of reading and properly historicizing  nearly sixty years of publications (“The Mutant Problem: X-Men, Confirmation Bias, and the Methodology of Comics and Identity,” 2015). By contrast, Knopf focuses her attention not on politics as an abstraction or on the ideology of comics, but on explicit representations of US politicians and US elections, understood through a variety of disciplinary approaches, including broad surveys and close readings of specific comics.

The book is divided into eleven chapters, starting with historical subjects (the origin of campaign comics, the Cold War) before tackling the presidency, parodies, political journalism, campaigns, gender, race, Donald Trump as a supervillain, and alternate histories. In each chapter, Knopf uses a specific comic book or historical events as an entry point, offers a broad survey of relevant comics, with concise and efficient summaries, before introducing and applying key concepts in political representation or political communication and bringing them to bear on selected examples. For instance, the pivotal chapter on superheroes and the US presidency [ch.3], opens with an examination of the many appearances of John Fitzgerald Kennedy in superhero comics since the early 1960s. Knopf then highlights the parallels between the role of the President, “woven in the fabric of national mythology” (Lawrence and Jewett, 2002, qted. p.39) and that of inspirational superheroes. Studying comic books but also the TV show Arrow¸ adapted from DC's Green Arrow, Knopf then unpacks the tension between the myth of the superheroic presidency, “a crude form of wish-fulfillment” (Noon, 2016, qted. p.49) and the limits placed on law-abiding politicians, real or imagined. As suggested by this example, Knopf rightly chooses to take a broad view of what comics means. Her historical surveys include illustrated books, nod towards political cartoons and frequently mention comic book-adjacent cultural objects in other media. Comic books offer a center of gravity to the book – accounting for newspaper comic strips would have warranted a very different methodology – but they are never treated as a closed corpus.

In her introduction, the author highlights the book’s potential usefulness to students and teachers in addition to scholars. In line with this intended target, Politics in the Gutter aims for clarity. Knopf brings forth examples and theoretical taxonomies with a sure hand, and the conclusions to each of the short chapter briskly recapitulate key findings in one or two paragraphs. For the most part, Politics in the Gutter also strikes an efficient balance between the comic book corpus, historical events and political theory, even though some chapters devote too much space to listing comics (in chapter 7, for instance). Moreover, in spite of the focused and systematic structure of its short chapters, the book succeeds in offering a progression rather than a juxtaposition, revisiting examples and concepts from the third chapter to make sense of representations of Donald Trump as a supervillain, for instance.

What this structure does not allow, however, is a clear sense of the intended audience of specific comics. Knopf discusses major works, including Watchmen (DC Comics), American Flagg (First Comics) or Umbrella Academy (Dark Horse), alongside fairly obscure oddities such as Time Lincoln (Antarctic Press) or Barack the Barbarian (Devil’s Due), without detailing their respective readership or delineating the shape of the comic book market at the time of their publication, even as the political context remains in focus. This refusal to create a clear hierarchy does not invalidate the project, for Knopf never centers a chapter mostly on atypical examples, but it leads to questionable assessments. In the case of Barack the Barbarian, discussed on pp.152-155, Knopf reads Obama’s bare chest and muscular body as an echo of stereotypical representations of black heroes, emphasizing powerful physicality and animalistic traits. While this is a valid cognitive frame to approach this comic book, the fact that it was sold in comic book stores, to a small audience of comic book fans means that the reference to Conan’s typical representation was probably the dominant frame through which the image was processed. The same could not be said of other series mentioned in the book, whose popularity appears to rest mostly on collected editions sold in bookstores (such as the Image series Saucer Country or The Manhattan Project). This lack of contextualization thus obscures the pragmatic ways in which some of these comics may have become sources of political meaning.

The other limitation of the project results from its explicit focus on US politicians and elections, which exclude comics series along which some of the chosen examples would customarily be discussed. This is especially obvious in the final chapter, examining time-travel and alternate histories. The key uchronic work in the comic book canon is undoubtedly Kevin O’Neill and Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, whose politics has been the object of much scholarly inquiry (most notably in Marc Singer’s Breaking the Frames, 2018). Because The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen does not fit into her project – it revolves primarily around Great Britain – Knopf merely echoes some of the issues it has raised when discussing lesser, and apparently derivative works. The  narrow focus thus occasionally leads to a loss of the context of comics consumption, but also of relevant scholarship.

These defects were probably inevitable, to a certain extent. Braiding two disciplinary fields in one slim book, and attempting to provide a survey of political comic books rather than a more selective analysis makes it nearly impossible to firmly position each of the examples. Similarly, refusing to engage important works outside the boundaries of the main corpus was probably necessary to avoid lengthy digressions. These shortcomings may be frustrating, but they are the direct result of the book’s project, rather than an oversight. In spite of these small imperfections, Politics in the Gutter provides a complex and ambitious vision of its subject. Any of its sections could be expanded upon, enriched with other examples and refined with more nuanced contextualization of the chosen comics, but they all offer a strong theoretical framework and a rich survey of fruitful examples. This is a useful book, which should spur further research, and could certainly be used as a textbook in any class examining the intersection of politics and popular culture.



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