Politics in Pop Culture
I know, I know. We are all sick of politics. We are all sick of the mudslinging and the arguing and the people who don’t, blah, blah. Look, me too. Politics can be fun and interesting. Politics can be funny. Politics can be weird. And it all starts with Alfred E. Neuman.
Who the hell is Alfred E. Neuman, you ask? For decades there was a refreshingly counter-culture magazine for kids and slightly weird grow adults called MAD Magazine. MAD is still around and going strong. I highly recommend you pick up a copy or two, if just for the fun Sergio Aragones cartoons. MAD developed the character of Alfred E. Neuman as a sort of stand in for their readers. A kid with a devilish attitude just sitting back, watching the world burn, and asking, “What, me worry?”
In 1956, Alfred E. Neuman appeared on the cover as a write-in candidate for president. For decades, he and Mickey Mouse became the candidate of descent. Hate the choices for mayor? Vote Neuman! Hate the guy who’s running for comptroller? Vote Neuman! Alfred E. Neuman ocassionally gets dragged back out into politics, standing in as a near perfect double for George W. Bush or reminding the country that, hey, you could do worse than Alfred E. Neuman. And we usually do.
Perhaps the highlight (lowlight?) of pop culture and presidential candidacy was DC Comic’s Prez. Prez Rickard jumped over the entire requirement – thanks to a wacky amendment - to have to be 35 years old and became elected the first teen president of these United States. Prez’s adventures spanned 4 issues and included his buddy, Native American stereotype Eagle Free, and Boss Smiley. Boss Smiley was someone distantly related to George Washington or some nonsense. Prez occasionally makes an appearance or comeback since those craptacular early 70’s comics, but obviously none have had much lasting impact. I guess the world isn’t ready for a teenage president. I hold out hope for a big budget political thriller about Prez and Brother Power the Geek, though. Get on that, Warner Brothers!
Comics have had a reasonable long and complicated relationship with politics, and not just Prez. Captain American stormed on the scene punching Hitler.
Congress got involved and decided that comics were seducing the innocent, crushing creativity and the First Amendment with the Comics Code Authority. Disturbing horror comics, sexy women, and homosexual overtones were too much for civility to handle in the early days of the art form and, as a result of political meddling, they suffered and faltered. Back in 1980, Cap did run for president… Maybe he could’ve done more for the American Dream if he would’ve done so before being frozen solid, but that’s neither here nor there. Cap ran for president. Over in DC, Lex Luthor was president for a while. Spider-Man met Barack Obama. And it goes on. Putting real world politics into comics is always a surefire way to get people to at least pick up an issue. “President Reagan is on the cover? And he’s an alien? I better buy two issues!”
And it wasn’t just comic books and MAD Magazine (originally starting in comic book format) that dove straight into political campaigning. Who could forget the riveting President Elect campaign strategy game made in 1981 for the virgin home computer system? Everyone, that’s who. It was less of an action adventure than a simulation game and, quite frankly, isn’t much fun for anyone outside of political nerdom. Since that 1981 sim game, political campaign games have expanded and become more in depth than ever, perhaps culminating in the sadly unreleased Socks the Cat Rocks the Hill.
Yes, the Clinton’s cat almost got a fairly decently designed political satire game back in 1993. For reasons unknown to me, it was never released which is sad for those of us who enjoy the weirdest crap we can find. Could Socks the Cat have saved the world? I don’t know, but I do know that I was a bad enough dude to save the president back in the 1980’s. Yes, that was a Bad Dudes reference.
Cartoons have frequently gotten on board the political satire train. The Simpsons have had many, many episodes and jokes about people from all sides the isles. One of the best early episodes deals with Lisa becoming disenchanted because of corruption on Capitol Hill. Later, we’d see Mr. Burns unsuccessfully run for governor, introducing beloved mutant Blinky until the world.
The Simpsons would sadly predict a Trump run for president and even more sadly have a failed prediction of a Ralph Wiggum run for president. And in the future we see a Lisa presidency, Homer searching for Lincoln’s gold, and Bart as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. All thanks to Homer’s refusal to let Bart see the Itchy and Scratchy Movie.
Many, many more cartoons have taken a stab at politics. The Transformers dealt with evil military dictator Abdul Fakkadi, jerk and Decepticon buddy. This evil Arab stereotype also made Casey Kasem drop out of the show. Over on G.I. Joe, the Joes constantly battled the evil paramilitary organization Cobra, whose schemes ranged from the political to fronting a fake rock band to fake fast food. I can’t think of any real political organization that stuck missiles in fast food restaurants, but, hey, that could happen.
It’s also safe to assume that every show about kids in history has had someone running unsuccessfully for class president. That was just how it worked in the 80’s. There was probably an episode of Small Wonder where the robot girl ran for country commissioner because recycled plots.
Politics can be a drudge and many folks feel the same way about politics as they do religion: they have their ideas and nothing can change their mind, but they are still going to berate you for voting for the other guy. As the beloved President Kang once said, “My fellow Americans. As a young boy, I dreamed of being a baseball; but tonight I say, we must move forward, not backward; upward, not forward; and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom!” I have no idea what that means but isn’t that what political rhetoric is about? Just know that when Zack Morris and Jessie Spano are running for office again, vote Jessie. Zack just wants a free trip.