Government Issue: Comics for the People, 1940s to 2000s

Government Issue: Comics for the People, 1940s to 2000s

When I was a wee lad, one of the favorite books on my shelves was Free Stuff for Kids, a slim, square-shaped paperback full of details about places where, for the cost of postcard postage (remember when people actually mailed postcards?), you could get lots of … well, free junk, including comic books. I was enough of a geek in my youth that the thought of receiving comic books in my mailbox, regardless of quality, was enough to make me giddy, and I would thus cheerfully request copies of Michael Recycle, Sprocketman, or whatever four-color funnies various nonprofit organizations and government agencies had printed up for my benefit.

The thing is, most of those comics were really, really boring, boasting uninspired, stiff artwork draped over exposition-heavy treatises on why you shouldn’t litter, disobey street signs or generally do bad things. Presented at the level of a third-grade textbook, with about the same amount of dynamism, even as a youth I was fully aware that these comics weren’t going to set the world on fire anytime soon, much less inspire youths to some sort of social or community activism.

If nothing else, I can be thankful to Government Issue, a healthy sampling of comics published or otherwise sponsored by the U.S. government and various state offices, for underscoring my initial impressions and showing me I wasn’t missing out on much.

In other words, the bulk of the material contained in this book is deadly dreary and rote, to put it mildly, featuring numerous pages of (notably white and middle class) people framed at waist level, facing each other and droning on about this or that subject. Some of the comics even fail to excel at even a basic competence, exhibiting sub-par art and storytelling skills. The two-page sampling of Abstinence Comix seems to have been drawn by a 13-year-old (which, actually, might explain a lot about the choice of subject matter).

Many of these comics do help break down complex issues, such as inflation, social security and the workings of the federal government, and I suppose judged on that basic level they are a success since that was their main, perhaps only, goal. But the fact remains that, despite editor Richard L. Graham’s efforts to suggest the contrary,  being able to effectively disseminate information does not ipso facto make a work worthy of praise.

The novelty here lies more in the variety of subject matters being discussed than the skill at which they delved into. Look, here’s a comic about syphilis! Here’s one about the zip code! Here’s one about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell! Here’s another on surviving a nuclear explosion! But that enthusiasm quickly fades when one is forced to actively engage the work in question.

There are exceptions of course. Denis Kitchen, Peter Loft, and Pete Poplaski provide some engagingly cartoonish strips on being a smart consumer. Jack Sparling and Malcolm Ater contribute a highly entertaining, literally nightmarish story about bad bicycle behavior. And I would love to have seen more of Al Wiseman’s Dennis the Menace comic about the dangers of household poisons.

Easily the best comic of the bunch is Walt Kelly’s “Pogo Primer for Parents”, a visual lecture on the importance of properly monitoring your child’s television habits that is so charming and funny that it only serves to underscore how drab and lifeless all the other excerpts are by comparison.

Government Issue is a book that will mainly interest scholars and historians. Certainly you can learn a lot about what Americans in various time periods valued and feared by perusing these comics. But beyond that there’s little here to engage or delight the casual reader. There’s a reason most of these comics were originally available for free.