Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Action Presidents, Books 3 & 4

I reviewed the first two volumes in this series last year, but they have recently been re-issued in color, to coincide with these two new, full-color releases.

In that review, I wrote, "Not only do these books present distinct portraits of both men, it also situates their lives and actions in historical and governmental contexts. They are great resources for learning about the US government, policies, and laws, and I was very impressed by how many of the social studies they entailed. Also, there is also a good dose of humor throughout the volumes, embodied by the narrator, a pardoned turkey named Noah (the Historkey), and not a few fart jokes. Sometimes those instances felt a little like "sugar to make the medicine go down," but overall I feel the tone and content of these books was spot-on. I heartily recommend either (better, both!) volume to any class library."
I feel that the same words apply to these two new volumes in the series, but without fart jokes. But I am also more conflicted about these books, especially the fourth one, because I found some huge issues with representation, as you will read below.
As you can see, Book 3 is about Theodore Roosevelt, and it is framed by the Historkey meeting up with a couple of children who got lost on a camping expedition. The set-up helps get at some of the naturalistic aspects of the president's life. This book introduces TR as a privileged, if sickly, member of a rich and powerful family. It goes on to show how he was simultaneously an adventurer who got himself into some sticky situations (including being a rancher out west and soldier) and also accomplished a number of Progressive accomplishments, including breaking down monopolies, fighting government corruption, and establishing a number of pro-environmental policies. He also played a large part in shifting political powers to the presidency via executive orders, a legacy that lasts to present day.
There are also a number of other common stories in the mix, like the famous teddy bear episode as well as the Rough Riders and their role in battles in Cuba, which included quite a few more facts than I was familiar with. The teddy bear story ended up being a bit more gruesome than I remembered, and the Rough Riders' adventures were slightly less heroic also. So overall, I think that this portrait of TR is a fairly even-handed one, with him being cast as an unlikely hero who had some character flaws. My only quibble is a matter of representation of some peoples. I get that this books uses graphic shorthand to communicate, and I am not so sure of how well researched the garb of native peoples was, but it seemed stereotypical to me. More so with the representation of the Spanish government as a toreador.
Book 4 focuses on John F. Kennedy, and in contrast with TR, he came from a family of immigrants who fought hard to establish themselves in the USA in legal and illegal manner. The framing sequence here is of a couple of children (one apparently Pakistani and the other more a generically depicted Asian) who are isolated from the main group of children during a trip to the Kennedy Space Center because their lunches "smell weird." The theme of immigration and integration runs throughout the book, with the ethos of the USA being a place of opportunity for all being reinforced by JFK's story as a model for those two children. I don't know if I am being cynical or if I am being affected by the immense anti-immigrant agenda I see in the US government and society right now, but something about this message just seemed a bit too pat and color-blind. Like my colleague Dr. Laura Jimenez recently wrote, I expect a little more in this day and age. 
A lot of US history is affected by whiteness, which conveys the dominant narrative, and in hindsight I think that is a major blind-spot the books in this series books have, as well-meant as they are. Perhaps it is the perception that younger readers should be protected from these more complex, oppressive views of history, and maybe I am asking a lot of a series of books narrated by a talking turkey, but I still felt they came up short in the area of representation. 
This disparity really hit me in the JFK volume. The two children who are held up at the end of the book as the resilient hope for our future simply do not enjoy the same built-in advantages as the four Christian white men (Washington, Lincoln, TR, and JFK) spurring them on. I get the drive to extend from JFK's famous exhortation to "Ask not what your country can do for you...," but I also get that systemic racism goes well beyond children being mean to each other at lunchtime (though that may be a relatable and apparent symptom to younger people). This ending puts all the onus to adapt and effect change on the young people, and I think that is a huge burden that is not acknowledged. Also, it ignores the fact that it is the very system being celebrated that is doing the oppressing. Thus, the ending seems pat and disingenuous to me.
Regarding the rest of the book, it is chock full of historical information. It offers a look at the many aspects of JFK's life and how it was affected by his father's drive to involve his children in politics, serving in Wold War II, dealing with the Cold War, getting elected to the Senate and then President, and the many conflicts he had to deal with, including those with Cuba and the Soviet Union. There is also a good bit about the Civil Rights movement of the time, with its accomplishments and accompanying violence. Ironically, all this work took place in the past and is not really explicitly tied to the present-day plight of the two children. This to me is a lost opportunity to make the connection to the ongoing battle for civil rights, implying that those battles were fought (and won) in the past. This book also gets into the Camelot period of his presidency, though it is not exalted as much as I have seen in other works. 

As you might tell by now, I was not as taken by this book as I was the others from this series. In terms of history and government, this book covers a lot of ground. In some ways, I think this left me a bit breathless, and I wonder how much context unfamiliar readers would need to deal with the text. It is an ambitious book, and perhaps that drive to do so much detracts from other areas, like the framing sequence where I feel perhaps the two children should have been a bit more fleshed out so as not to seem generic types that feed into the same sorts of stereotypes the book tries to transcend.

These books are the product of Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey, frequent collaborators who both have numerous comics credits for multiple publishers. They have collaborated on two prior historical comics projects, Action Philosophers! and The Comic Book History of Comics. Currently the duo are working on The Comic Book History of Animation, which I helped fund via their Kickstarter.

I have not been able to locate any reviews of these two books yet, but the TR one has a 3.67 (out of star rating on Goodreads, and the JFK one has a 3 star rating (as of this post).

Action Presidents! were published by Harper Collins, and there is more information about all the books in the series here.

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