As a cartoonist I specialize in imagery, so let me paint a picture for you...
Remember that time when the once mighty hero is utterly trounced by a stronger, more vicious challenger? You know, a shadow of his younger, more virile self, worked to exhaustion, only to be decimated and humiliated in a fight he should have easily won, and has won in the past? The brazen challenger who takes full advantage of his opponent's lethargy, sending attack after attack, before finally leaving our hero broken and done?
Remember that? I certainly do, it's the climax of the first part of the "Knightfall" story arc in the DC Batman comics. The Breaking of the Bat, captured in a now-iconic full-page panel, with the mighty Bane bringing the body of Batman down over one knee to almost snap him in two ("KRAKT!" apparently being the sound one hears when someone's getting their back broken). It's the same panel I have chosen to replicate for this blog's cartoon, so I hope the geeks out there appreciate the nostalgia.
But for most of my American friends, particularly those who would identify themselves as Democrats, that image is far more recently ingrained in their minds, because it happened about a week ago in the first Presidential Debate between incumbent Barack Obama and the Republican challenger Mitt Romney. It was a beating, a humiliation, the breaking of a hero....
Well, maybe not quite that dramatic, but bear with me...
Popular culture is a constant tug of war between Aspiration and Schadenfreude.
I got my first ever job as a political cartoonist, working for the No 1. Newspaper in the United Kingdom, in the year 2008, just in time to cover the historic American election. Though I am English, I had fond memories of being a child in the US, and have always been thrilled by its politics, and that year was certainly no exception.
And oh, how things have changed. This time around the voters get that rare beast, a genuinely tense and close race. The challenger looks less enfeebled and more emboldened, and now the voters are treated to an altogether different Obama: an Obama with something to lose.
But that first debate, along with Obama's blistering performance in the second, has actually caused me to think more and more about the attitudes of the viewer, about the power of iconography, when it comes to "heroes" of our world; The public figures, the celebrities, and the politicians.
American popular culture, as it stands today, seems to be a constant tug of war between Aspiration and Schadenfreude (the latter being the pleasure derived from the misfortune of others). Don't get me wrong Americans, it happens in all the other Western countries, but you guys make it into a fine art. And the election is as high-stakes as it gets, the chance to watch someone get offered the greatest job in the world, but more pleasingly, the chance to watch someone else get DENIED it. It's not enough to watch someone succeed, you have to see the other guy fail big-time...
It is that fascination that turns 90 minutes of a debate into a comic book panel. At least it does for me.
So I want to offer a little commentary from these first two debates, but not on the candidates (there's been plenty of that from other's far more knowledgeable than myself). Instead, I want to think a little about the viewers. And here's what I've been able to glean:
1) It's fun to watch them win, but it's gripping to watch them fall: The First Debate.
The humbling and destroying of legends carries through many comics. Curiously the "Knightfall" story arc came out around the same time (though not connected) to DC's "Death of Superman". Without Kryptonite Superman is an annoyingly unbeatable good guy, and even then he was always able to somehow find a way around it, and so finding the nerve to actually kill off the jewel in the DC crown was a watershed moment in comics.
In fact, "Death of Superman" and "Return of Superman" brought in millions of new DC readers, gaining international exposure and topping comics sales charts. The overwhelming success of the storyline, along with the similarly effective "Knightfall" arc, demonstrates the hypnotic power of tearing down a legend, and the ripple effect it has amongst its audience.
But more than that, it speaks to our mentality as a society to derive pleasure from seeing the denizens of said society fall, either by unjust assassination, or their own flaws or by public overthrow.
The last one on that list is the one that has been helped the most by the advances in technology and popular culture in this century. Never before has it been so easy to turn on our heroes.
Stay in power too long and people will resent you. By the time a President's two terms are up, providing they've gotten two, the country is usually about ready to can the political party and try the other brand. Memories are short, and attention spans low. And if there's one thing we hate, it's a winner.
No, but we love winners right? We idolize them, because we all want to win ourselves. No, no, we LOVE winners, love them...provided they don't win for too long. Then they become insipid, smug, resting on their laurels, plutocratic elitists who have sat too long on their ivory towers, "out of touch" with the rest of us mortals...no, we hate winners. At least, we hate winners who stay winners.
And then comes the backlash. Anyone who's ever succeeded at anything will be familiar with the backlash. In fact, it's almost the easiest way of knowing if you are a success. With the advent of social media and the internet, memes and tweets can forward bile and ridicule faster than the brain can even process the emotions. As an online species we are frighteningly susceptible, and even worse, vocal.
In that way, I can easily empathize with Obama's frustration in that first debate. For one thing, the very issue that got him elected, the economy, is now the issue that could see him given the boot. What was once his strength as a contender is now his weakness as the victor. In the 2008 debates he could have read the phone book and been home free, this time he might as well have read the phone book for all the impact he made in his performance. The sheer surreality of suddenly being the maligned one, the one in charge, the thankless winner, clearly grated on him.
Romney saw his moment, and leapt at it with the zeal of someone who'd been building up to this moment for six years...and, well...
2) Everyone craves the catharsis of a comeback: The Second Debate.
As with all superheroes, the fall is never really about the fall. It's about the return. Even Superman can't stay dead, and Batman can't stay a paraplegic. That wouldn't be giving the viewers what they really want, which is the catharsis of a comeback.
Comebacks are about going back to formula. A less obvious purpose of "Knightfall" was that one of its central plot-lines served to counter more violent, morally bankrupt superheroes in comics, a trend that had become popular at the time, hence the character of Jean-Paul Valley, aka Azrael, who took over the cape and cowl but did not adhere to Batman's strict "no killing" rule. This character was created so that when the Dark Knight inevitably returned, his first order of business would be the toppling of the pretender to the throne, ushering in a return to the traditional, non-lethal hero. In that respect, "Knightfall" is actually the re-invigoration of a brand.
This is where Aspiration and Schadenfreude actually work together, because popular culture loves a comeback. Popstars and actors who suffer a fall from grace in the public eye invariably wind up being welcomed back with open arms, and with a greater degree of grandeur. The most successful movie biopics follow life narratives where the hero who was truly tested halfway through only to emerge victorious (like that of boxer Jimmy Braddock who rose to stardom, lost it all in the Depression, then won it all back again).
If you want to talk extremes for Aspiration and Schadenfreude, try this simple excerise: See if you can name any astronaut who DIDN'T fly in either Apollo 11 or Apollo 13. Anyone? I certainly can't...If you want to make a ripple in the public consciousness as an astronaut, it would seem you have to either land on the moon before everyone else, or nearly get blown out of the sky trying.
Either way, it's all about the landing.
Now, obviously I don't believe it was ever Obama's intention to deliver a poor performance in that first debate, it was a mistake that he will not soon forget. But at the same time, I think it afforded him an opportunity he has not had since becoming Commander and Chief, and that is to be the underdog again. If I had to attribute a sound effect to the moment the President marched into his first answer of the night, it would be the sound of a vintage Apple computer rebooting...pleasing and familiar.
This was Obama back to formula. And when he came back swinging, reminding all the downtrodden Democrats that the Obama brand was still breathing, he reinvigorated himself as a candidate. Precisely because he had something to lose.
The right brush with disaster can reinvigorate a brand. You can win an Oscar, become a working class hero in the Depression, or put NASA on TV again. And you can remind people why they voted for you in the first place.
Winning is fun. Falling is gripping. But falling and rising again, now that is entertainment.
And if you want to ask whether the public likes a comeback kid in political office, just ask the last Democrat to sit behind the resolute desk.
But isn't this me being far too simplistic?
Yes, of course. But isn't that what a presidential debate is? Simplification?
The voters being courted by these televised slug-fests, many of them undecided, are not going to gain a lot of depth from the interplay between these two candidates.
Instead they will see a right and a wrong, a stronger and a weaker, a winner and a loser. That is the world that we filter our politics through, in manageable panels even a casual reader can navigate. A boxing match, a comic book fight, painted in primary colours with as few big words as possible.
Now, I have no idea what to expect from this final debate. Will Obama stick his landing? Will Romney finally administer that elusive K.O.? Or will it be the voters themselves who walk away from this election with black eyes? I don't have answers to these questions, All I know is that I'll be watching the debate with the glee of someone sitting ringside in Madison Square Garden...
But perhaps amidst the chaos of polling and punditry and all that other hulabaloo, the real battle is going on in all of us.
Cheer for the hero....
Gloat at the villain...
Turn the page....