Biographies walk a tenuous line between objective depiction (or at least the attempt to be objective) and biased redefinition of their subject. The larger the personality, the more the choice to write about that person reflects upon the time and place the biography is being written. That is, often the biography is a mirror into the world of the biographer and the subject is merely a tool for creating or representing contemporary issues through a past figure. Since Hill and Wang chose Ronald Reagan as their second in their series of graphic biographies, one must consider what their motivation is in this choice—especially when their first book for the series was Malcolm X.
Some would only remark that this biography is just part of the industry’s way of exploring recently deceased cultural icons, since Reagan only died in 2004. Yet, others will speculate (and how can one not do so) about comparing the last Republican President to serve two terms and the kind of fanfare that came with his presidency and the current president. All this needs to be considered before one can even open up a subjectively graphic depiction of the man, Ronald Reagan.
Here, the term, “subjectively graphic” is meant to speak to the medium, in that in depicting a once-living human being on a two-dimensional plane with drawing tools undeniably means that how Reagan is depicted cannot escape symbolic interpretation on a level much more scrutinizing than if the biography were mere words with photographs. This idea is no more powerfully present than on the cover of the book. Dominating most of the cover is a split-shot of Reagan’s face. The left half depicts in a grayscale of coloring, a younger Reagan (perhaps in at his inauguration), with slight baggage under his eye and a straight look upon his face. By stock contrast, the right side of this picture inverts the color scheme so that the drawn lines are white and everything else is black. Additionally, Reagan’s face is much more haggard and aged. Wrinkles and flapping skin abound on this time-worn face and he seems to be donning a smile. However, the white on the black panel make what could be a genial old man smiling into a rather sinister implication into Reagan’s nature.
The storyline of this biography overall attempts to walk the middle line of objectivity, but fans and critics will both find it doesn’t do enough. And that’s okay. Given that these graphic biographies don’t go much beyond one hundred pages, they are not meant to be the definitive texts that some biographies purport to be. Rather, these prove great introductory tools for youth and adults to further understand these people. Though the art does present caricatures at times more than characters (Jimmy Carter is a glowing example), it still works to tell a decent, if abridged, understanding of Reagan’s life.
Certainly, the rise in graphic nonfiction deems some further research about nonfiction and symbolic representation (comics, essentially). Ronald Reagan does reveal, though, that graphic nonfiction can incorporate voluminous sources of information into a coherent visually-depicted narrative. Critics may argue about the specified content, but they are unlikely to deny the book its capabilities.