Michael Frizell has a tall order: He’s trying to boil down the complex lives of leading Democratic presidential candidates into 22-page comic books.
Frizell, the director of student learning services at Missouri State University, moonlights as a comic writer, and he relishes researching the lives of famous American figures, from Christopher Reeve to Sheryl Sandberg, as well as President Donald Trump.
Frizell wrote the 2016 bio-comic “Female Force: Elizabeth Warren” for TidalWave Productions, and his forthcoming “Political Power” comics for the Oregon-based publisher will profile two former mayors: Indiana’s Pete Buttigieg of South Bend (the title is set to arrive in April) and New York’s Mike Bloomberg (May).
TidalWave’s comics paint their biographic subjects as neither superheroes nor saints, though the stories tend toward an appealing glow. The profiles are designed for readers of all ages, and TidalWave wants them unbiased and positive, Frizell says.
“I mention some of the more incendiary things about each candidate but don’t really flesh those moments out to their fullest,” he says.
Instead, he tries for a universal and relatable aspect about a life story. “Sometimes, it’s a moment from their childhood,” he says. “At other times, something happens in their career that drives the narrative [that] humanizes them and makes their stories accessible.”
Writing about Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Frizell looked to her tougher times from her Oklahoma childhood. “The fact that her father was sick for a while, and the family was cash-strapped, helped me unlock her story,” the writer says. “Her mother was forced to work, and the family car was repossessed. Moments like that are simultaneously terrifying and confusing for children.
“Perhaps this is the origin of her battle with big banks and medical debt? Who’s to say? I certainly believe moments like this shape a person.”
Frizell says he was fascinated by Buttigieg’s educational background, including being the son of a professor. Yet it was the politician’s private journey that he found especially resonant.
“Buttigieg knew that he was gay at an early age and, as someone who was now in the spotlight and enduring relentless scrutiny by the media, found himself in a place where he had to admit who he was in a public way,” Frizell says. “It was risky, especially in the Midwest, where old-fashioned notions are valued and traditions are harbored.
“I found his coming-out story to be the angle I needed to understand him, and it was inspiring to see that he was able to overcome prejudices and succeed.”
What about Frizell’s newest political project? “Mike Bloomberg was the hardest one to relate to,” the author says. “While I admire his ability to build a vast fortune from so little, he certainly seemed to accumulate a lot of baggage along the way.” He says it took him a while to find an angle but finally settled on Bloomberg’s ongoing public battle with Trump.
“By contrasting the two men, I was able to find a way to access Bloomberg’s story that I hope appeals to readers,” says Frizell, who worked on one TidalWave Trump book. (The first book in the publisher’s Trump series, 2012’s “Political Power: Donald Trump,” notably features Joe Phillips’ cover art imagining Trump’s presidential swearing-in — five years before it became reality.)
It was the allure of political figures that launched TidalWave, formerly known as Bluewater Productions, a dozen years ago.
After the publisher IDW released comic books about then-Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., during the 2008 election cycle, TidalWave editor Darren Davis says he thought: Why not do a “Female Force” series about the candidates Democrat Hillary Clinton and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, a Republican? Since then, the company has released about 300 titles, with books about Clinton and former first lady Michelle Obama among its most popular, selling in the tens of thousands.
Davis says there is no partisanship at play when choosing his biography subjects — “I don’t want anyone to know who I vote for, and that shows in the comic books,” he says — and that he aims for an all-ages audience so the books can appeal to schools and libraries.
“There are some titles in which a politician has done things that I don’t know if I would want my kid to read,” Davis notes, “but that is up to the parents to monitor what the kids are reading.”
Davis says he believes he has “a responsibility to create a comic book that does not focus on the negative and slam a person,” and he says he is proud that many people featured in the books have let them know they were pleased with what they did. “I have signed copies of our books from Hillary Clinton, (former GOP Sen.) Ron Paul and Sarah Palin,” he says.
There’s a chance the 2020 subjects will be out of the race before their books come out. But Davis also emphasizes that he strives for his comics to have a shelf life well after a candidate has dropped out of a race.
“We still plan on creating the Kamala Harris comic book,” Davis says, because the senator from California “is a viable force in politics.”