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  • C.M.Knopf

Throw Your Hat Into the Ring... Literally.

| On the Stump and Campaigners give the Right a jab, the Left a hook. |

I don't know how I missed the release of Image Comics' On the Stump from Eisner-nominated writer Chuck Brown, artist Prenzy, and letterer Clayton Cowles in February 2020. It might have had something to do with the pandemic panic that started shortly after, but Politics in the Gutters is definitely poorer for my late discovery of it. Fortunately, Library Con Live! 2020, from School Library Journal, turned me onto this title in time for the November 2020 release of trade paperback.


The publisher describes the comic

In the On the Stump universe, history diverged in 1868 when a pivotal presidential debate turned violent. Today, elections are decided by highly publicized hand-to-hand combat in arenas called Stumps. Unfortunately, the violence doesn’t end in the ring, and powerful people can still get away with murder. Senator Jack Hammer and FBI Agent Anna Bell Lister are teaming up to bring it all down.

There are so many layers to unpack in the title and premise alone. Traditionally, "on the stump" refers to political speech making in campaigns. A "stump speech" is a speech that is made many times by a politician while traveling to different places during a campaign for election. It's a term that came into common and then popular usage in the 1840s and 1850s, and referred to speaking while standing on a tree stump (a rural version of speaking from atop a soapbox, as was more common in urban settings).


The idea of hand-to-hand combat as integral to the American campaign has similar folksy roots. Sporting events provide a common point of reference, or frame, for discussing elections. Reporters invariably frame elections as races between two teams, focusing on who is ahead or behind at any moment. This “horse race” interpretation is the most-used political story type, outnumbering reports on policy positions by two-to-one, because it is easy and it sells. Other sporting- metaphors also abound: Candidates “throw their hats into the ring” to enter the political “playing field” or “arena.” From bar-room boxing to athletic contests in ancient Greece, such metaphors call to mind contests of physical prowess.


Though in reality, Horatio Seymour never assaulted Ulysses S. Grant during a political debate in 1868, as Brown's speculative fiction imagines, Seymour was known for violence - specifically for supporting mob violence against Blacks, and positioned himself as the "White Man's" Republican candidate in contrast to Grant as the Republican's "N----r candidate." This is significant because it adds a richness to On the Stump as a story of a "world full of countless injustices, and people who have to fight for their place in it" told by a Black comics creator.


And as long as we're discussing comics that blend hyper-violence and politics, I have to mention the 2016 digital comic Campaigners: Presidential Deathmatch 2076 (which did get a passing reference in Politics in the Gutters). Though Campaigners lacks the historical grounding of On the Stump, it similarly imagines American politics devolving from verbal to physical violence. In a dystopic 2076 (the 300th birthday of the United States), Presidential debates have been replaced with fights to the death between candidates. New voter, 18-year-old Kydra, denounces the practice as barbaric and soon finds herself at the center of massive social upheaval.


To be clear, the violence these comics imagine is not fictional. Critics charged Donald Trump's campaign and presidential rhetoric as incitements to violence. The country geared up for election violence in 2020 and Trump's post-election complaints were feared for the possibility of triggering violence. And let's not forget the real, systemic violence done to peoples and to the environment throughout the history of the U.S. of A. - as well as the violence done to the democratic system itself, as suggested by a November 20, 2020 editorial cartoon from Bruce Plante.

~Christina M. Knopf

19 November 2020