"Government Issue: Comics for the People, 1940s-2000s" by Richard L. Graham (Abrams)
In uncovering the history of government-produced comic books, Richard L. Graham's "Government Issue" has an unexpected effect -- by the end, you can't help but wonder if the comic form might still be useful in getting information across.
In fact, it's possible that comic books could elevate the level of actual information intake versus misinformation. For instance, when Mitt Romney wants to lower your taxes, it's because it saves him millions even as it saves you hundreds or even less -- surely that's something we could utilize "Hagar the Horrible" or "Dilbert" to explain to voters.
The history of government-created comics is the story of stiff officials trying to relate to the citizenry regardless of what kind of information they are trying to pass on -- and too often in spite of the talent that might have been enlisted to make the information come to life.
That's not quite the case of creators like Walt Kelly, who lends his talents to booklets, and Denis Kitchen, who fashioned a lively consumer information book for the Wisconsin Department of Justice, but personality is less forthcoming in most of the works. More often than not, it's as if Jack Webb scripted a number of these stories.
Split into convenient sections -- military; employment and economics; civil defense, safety and health; and landscapes and lifestyles -- Graham does well in documenting the areas in which the government has rightfully or wrongfully butted its nose into our business. Would a Ron Paul led government approve of informational funnies about your rights to Social Security or Medicare? Certainly not, especially when it involves the soap opera of migrant workers. It might approve, however, of 1981's "The Story of Inflation" from the Federal Reserve, though I'm not sure if Paul would exactly agree.
The military comics run the gamut -- anything from how to clean your guns and maintain your fighter planes to what opportunities women have in the service and the specifics of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell Procedures" -- but it's in civil defense, health and safety that the book really comes alive with Dragnet-style narratives. Yes, this is where the anti-drug comics are, and though a reprint of 1967's classic "Hooked!" stands out as a more-depressing version of "Reefer Madness," it's actually in other areas of public safety that the real allure lies. For instance, 1957's "Johnny Gets The Word," traces Johnny's evolution from syphilis victim to anti-VD proselytizer and portrays intercourse as "like playing around with a loaded gun."
Even better in this section is the bicycle safety Fellini-esque epic 1972's "Danny and the Demoncycle," in which our anti-hero Danny spends his time knocking over the elderly and causing cars to smash into trees before he gets into an accident that sends him into a coma. It's in this dream world that he encounters Satan himself, looking suspiciously like Leonard Nimoy, who gives Danny a spiffy devil bike that careens out of control as he tries to master it.
The lesson? A horrible bike accident in a dream as caused by the Devil will teach you a lesson faster than an actual one that lands you in the hospital.
There's also one amazing revelation here: In 1968, Charlie Brown's sister, Sally, was revealed to have a lazy eye and had to wear an eye patch. I don't remember the "Amblyopia" storyline from my childhood.
There's plenty more to entertain even as it sort of informs, from the late ‘90s curiosity "Abstinence Comix," which looks like it was produced by a 10-year-old with color pencils, to the wacky 1968 explanation of how ZIP codes work, which I imagine is still enlightening for many. It's a bizarre potpourri of official ephemera, masquerading as pop culture, and a wonderful history of what the government felt you should know, but didn't.