This review first appeared in the Comics Journal.
I have enormous affection for writer Andy Helfer’s classic run on DC’s Shadow series in the 80s, so I was intrigued to hear he was working on a series of graphic biographies. Nor have I been disappointed. Helfer’s first effort, on Malcolm X , was, despite the difficulty of the subject matter, neither a hatchet job nor a hagiography, but instead a thoughtful treatment of a difficult man.
The most recent bio, of Ronald Reagan, maintains and even surpasses that high standard. Perhaps it’s because Helfer had a more definite position on the subject, or maybe its because the cartoony art by Steve Buccellato and Joe Staton has a workmanlike wit and clarity that was lacking in Randy DuBurke’s drawings for the earlier volume. In any case, where the Malcolm biography was a little dry, this one has a definite bite. The President’s own words are used extensively throughout, and they reveal Reagan to be a vague but ambitious buffoon, whose glowing oratory and genial delivery thinly covered a thorough and self-satisfied ignorance. A running theme throughout the book is the debacle that resulted whenever Reagan departed from his prepared note cards. Sometimes even sticking to them wasn’t enough to save him. During the Iran-Contra hearings, when asked about a particular missile shipment, Reagan looked down and read, word for word, the instructions his staff had prepared for him: “If the question comes up at the Tower board meeting, you might want to say that you were surprised….”
I’m no fan of Reagan myself, and though I didn’t know every detail, I was well aware of his penchant for petty corruption, his lack of interest in policy, and the multiple disasters which resulted from both. What was a little startling, though, was that I found myself, at points, rather liking the man. Helfer includes a good deal of Reagan’s self-deprecating humor, and it is undoubtedly charming. Even after being shot, the President was unflappable, jokingly admonishing his surgeon, “I hope you’re a Republican.” One of Reagan’s most famous gaffes — quipping that he was about to bomb Russia in front of a mike that he thought was off — comes across, not as a sign of callous insanity, but rather as a tongue-in-cheek bit of self-parody. And while this biography doesn’t suggest that Reagan single-handedly ended the Cold War, it does show that he was, at least at times, able to get out from under his anti-Communist rhetoric and meet Gorbachev half-way when the opportunity presented itself.
In other words, this is a rarity: a simple, short biography of a controversial figure which respects both its subject and its readers. I’m looking forward to Helfer’s next effort — a biography of J. Edgar Hoover.