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Teddy Roosevelt recommends that you speak softly and carry (and read) his big comic book – The Rough Rider

October 17, 2012

The mustache. The big teeth frozen in a warm predator-like smile. The pince-nez glasses. A face designed not only for enshrinement in stone, but loving caricature as a Charlie Brownish baseball mascot. Theodore Roosevelt: The Man, The Myth, The Legend.

If you had to choose one American President to get some special comic book treatment, you wouldn’t have to look any farther than Teddy. The youngest man ever to hold that high office, an outdoorsman, top cop, governor, soldier and scholar, he was the most renaissance of renaissance men to sit in the big chair since Thomas Jefferson. The first chief executive to combine force of personality with the stature of his office, and thereby wrest the reins of American government away from Congress, Roosevelt and his century-opening tenure was a harbinger of political things to come.

The Imperial Presidency is lamented by some, but TR couldn’t have done it any other way.

If there was ever a man who could truly be said to have “occupied” the office, it was Roosevelt. He was a whirling dervish of energy, lurching from one program to the next, from one initiative to another, always ready to wade into the arena of public debate. Being president was the culmination of a forceful life, one that came while Roosevelt was still in his physical and intellectual prime. He had packed in a hell of a lot of living into his forty-two years up to that point, and he’s rightly remembered just as much for his verve as his time at the head of American — and world — affairs.

And you can’t fail to grasp how outsized that life was when you read this comic. This THICK comic.

Another of the Classics Illustrated Special Issues (we’ve looked at a paean to atomic energy here before), 1957’s The Rough Rider was produced in cooperation with the Theodore Roosevelt Centennial Commission, which worked to commemorate the hundred years since Roosevelt’s birth by spreading the Gospel of Teddy. (It sounds like a nice organizational title people could put on their C.V. without having to do much work.) You want a mission statement from Director Hermann Hagehorn for this book? Of course you do:

Please note his use of the phrase “picture book” to describe what follows. For me, and I think this is true of most people, a picture book is a children’s book with one picture on every page with some limited amount of simple text accompanying it. Something a school librarian would read and show to a bunch of kids sitting Indian style on the floor. Where the Wild Things Are. The Cat in the Hat. That sort of thing. This, however, is a comic book — panels, word balloons, etc. Either Mr. Hagehorn was misinformed about what he was writing about, or he shared a common layperson’s distaste for “comic” books. If so, he surely could have made use of our modern term to gussy up a popular but regarded-as-trashy medium: “graphic novel.” But I digress.

Whatever you call it — and I call it a comic book — this thing is big. It’s a 96-page monstrosity, one of those square-bound old-timey books that looks like it should collapse in upon itself like a dying star. As it is, there’s more than enough room for a running account of all the highlights of Roosevelt’s life and times, as Mr. Hagehorn’s statement delineates (I shall not discuss them all or show them all, because I don’t have a month free to do this). Let’s look at a few.

Here Roosevelt is as a weak, asthmatic child, one feeble enough to be snicker-snagged by his peers:

Of course, all that changed. Born into great wealth’s lap of luxury, Roosevelt nevertheless seized on a rugged outdoor life as the elixir to improve his frail health, and it did. As he grew up, was educated at Harvard, wrote books and entered politics, he always found time to retreat for rides, hunting and hiking in the American wilderness. He spent long stretches (sometimes to escape great personal pain, like the death of his first wife) in the Dakotas, in still somewhat lawless stretches that lived up to their Badlands appellation. BUT THERE WOULD BE NO MORE SNICKER-SNAGS FOR ROOSEVELT:


The years as a New York City police commissioner (he and Jim Gordon do share an aesthetic, come to think of it) and the term as New York’s Governor all get their time, but nothing made Roosevelt his national name more than his service in the Spanish-American War and his combat time in Cuba. And what’s the title of his centennial comic book, after all? The Rough Riders’ charge up San Juan Hill was indeed his crowded hour:

We have to pause here to note that this book, like almost all other biographical comics, is absolute hagiography. There isn’t a great deal of Roosevelt’s dark side on display. Granted, most accounts hold that he was very much a good man, but, like all people, there were things in his life that dinged his armor. I always think back to his relationship with his brother Elliot (Eleanor’s father). They were close as children, but when Elliot developed a drinking problem later in life and entered a harrowing downward spiral, Theodore cut off all contact with him, condemning him to exile. Elliot killed himself at the age of 34. It was another time and such things were handled differently (alcoholism and depression were weaknesses, not illnesses), and it’s always touchy ground to quarterback other people’s family relationships, but it’s hard to read the letters from the future president to his younger brother and not find them cruel.

You’ll find none of that here.

Another retroactively eyebrow-arching part of Roosevelt’s life, one that gets a front and center display in the comic, is his life-long lust for hunting. Once again, it was a different time, one where a naturalist like Roosevelt would find it perfectly acceptable to kill, stuff and mount nature’s bounty in order to celebrate it. One of the more jaw-dropping elements of Edmund Morris’ masterly The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt is the tallies he offers for every hunt. Even factoring in that Roosevelt and his companions were eating much of their haul, the sheer numbers involved are jaw-dropping. That’s all well-chronicled here, as Roosevelt takes time to shoot anything that walks on four legs — INCLUDING BABY LIONS:

Our hero, ladies and gentlemen. Vegans and card-carrying PETA members are fainting as we speak.

Even with the almost totally unalloyed admiration, even with “mercy” killings of young, cute, big-pawed lions, there are more than enough special moments from Roosevelt’s life to fill out the comic and make you understand what a larger than life character he was. Like oh, say, the time he got shot and decided to go give a speech anyway:

Let’s see Obama or Romney do THAT. (Actually, let’s not — no shooting of anyone anymore, please.)

This comic has its problems. It glosses over a lot. It doesn’t deeply delve into anything. But its sheer size, and that it never once breaks down into the “tell, don’t show” morass of Michelle Obama’s comic, makes it a decent read. You feel like you’re at least taking in the entire width and breadth of Roosevelt’s life, from birth to death, and that’s really the whole point of such an effort. It’s decent primer for young readers, though you have to imagine they’d lose a bit of focus somewhere around page 50. “Are there capes?”

Bottom line: I like Teddy. Most of us like Teddy. That makes perusing this comic rather enjoyable. A DEE-LIGHT, as it were.

But don’t take my word for it, take the word(s) of people you’ve never heard of from organizations you’ve never heard of:

As the man himself would say: BULLY!

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