Rand Paul almost has the superhero thing down. There’s his unlikely rise as a Tea Party champion. The family legacy pushing him to fight for free markets. Some shadowy questions lingering over his origin story. And crucially, the overarching quest for glory: On April 7, he announced his campaign for the White House. All he needs is some theme music, and maybe some larger guiding heroism.
Thanks to Bluewater Productions, Paul now has his own comic book. Political Power: Rand Paul, a pocket biography in graphic-novel form, illustrates the journey of the junior senator from Kentucky—as well as the rogue’s gallery that has helped define him. This far out from the election, while Republicans are struggling to distinguish themselves, a comic book provides a vivid frame for telling a candidate’s story. Whether it helps Rand Paul is a different question.
Rand Paul is the latest entry in a series of comics that Bluewater intends to publish on the 2016 candidates. In past cycles, its Political Power line has published comic-book biographies of such political luminaries as Colin Powell, Michele Bachmann, and Jon Stewart—even Rand’s father, Ron Paul. Female Force: Hillary Clinton, Road to the White House, due out in May, is a followup to her 2008 graphic novel debut. Comic books for Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Elizabeth Warren (does Bluewater know something the rest of us don’t?) are planned for this summer.
Like any traditional superhero comic, Rand Paul deploys backstory to capture the protagonist’s moral arc. The book opens on the Rand family home in Lake Jackson, Texas, in October 1973. Young Rand Paul is learning one of the governing lessons of the world from his father, Ron Paul. “Randy, we’ve discussed this. An allowance is akin to a handout,” says Paul père. “Your chores, should you choose to do them, are your own. You must earn your way in this world. Be your own man.”
From there, the comic tracks Rand Paul’s life as a young conservative in Texas being his own man. As a schoolboy, he passes out flyers for his father’s run for Texas’ 22nd congressional district. He spreads the word about dad’s Foundation for Rational Economics and Education, as kids do. During one family dinner—as Rand Paul summarizes the tenets of Objectivism—the ghostly visage of Ayn Rand hovers over the Rand family dining table.
Yet it’s when the comic book takes the reader to Baylor University that things really get supernatural. Michael L. Frizell, the comic’s author, relates a story from the senator’s college years that Rand Paul might rather we’d never heard: the tale of Aqua Buddha and the NoZe Brotherhood. In costume, Paul and his secret-society brothers kidnap a woman friend from her apartment. “You are addressing the Lorde Mayor, bearer of the Enlightening Rod of Elmo!” one of Paul’s fraternal buddies tells the young woman. Paul asks her to address him as “the Cunning Linguist.” She is unimpressed.
The NoZe bozos carry the young blindfolded woman to a remote spot, where they introduce her to their god: the Aqua Buddha, a happy, Siddhārtha-shaped bong. In the comic-book retelling, Rand Paul recalls the story as a jocular flashback from his fun-loving college days. But in real life, where the episode was first revealed by Jason Zengerle, a GQ correspondent, the story was an eye-opener, one that nearly prompted legal action from Paul. It helped to cement the liberal media as a favorite foil for Paul.
Fast forward to the senator’s wedding. A giant splash page frames Rand Paul and Kelley Ashby as they walk out of the doors of a church, man and wife. (Behind them, inside the chapel, floats another Ayn Rand vision—this time of the suffering titan from the cover of Atlas Shrugged—which might overstate ever so slightly the significance of Objectivism in his personal cosmology.) As illustrations tell the story of the couple’s courtship in a flashback, Paul talks about his views on women and the GOP in floating text. “I don’t see that women are downtrodden; I see women rising up and doing great things,” reads one snippet—a quote taken nearly verbatim from an appearance on Meet the Press.
In the comic’s most dramatic segment, Paul challenges Senator Hillary Clinton during a 2013 hearing on—what else?—Benghazi. Comic text bubbles of Paul’s scathing questions (featuring quotes drawn from his testimony) annotate a scene of militants burning the American consulate in Libya. “Had I been president at the time, and I found that you did not read the cables from Benghazi, you did not read the cables from Ambassador [Chris] Stevens, I would have relieved you of your post,” his testimony reads. “I think it’s inexcusable.”
By the end of the the comic, it remains unclear whether Rand Paul has all the mystical powers of The Fountainhead’s Howard Roark. Or if he has the wherewithal to face down his enemies, including Clinton, Obamacare, and the press. The book makes a good-faith effort to turn Paul into a compelling character. But, on the whole, it fails.
It would be one thing if Paul’s comic-book biography simply didn’t live up to, say, the neat moralism imparted by Spider-Man. If you’ll recall, young Peter Parker fails to use his new-found spider-powers to stop a petty burglar. When the same thief later kills Parker’s beloved Uncle Ben, his uncle’s words come back to haunt him: “With great power there must also come—great responsibility.” Comic books are often painted with a broad brush, exaggerating to illuminate underlying conflicts. Life is rarely so neat.
The Rand Paul comic book, though, faces the opposite problem. Paul’s life and views are already so colorful that they prove difficult to caricature. The faithful-if-simplified recap of his life runs the weird gamut: Benghazi preoccupation, goldbug rhetoric, and Aqua Buddha, blended with a fierce commitment to civil liberties and small government. Even the language he uses requires little exaggeration. A splash page featuring a weary-looking President Obama and a quote comparing Obamacare to the rise of Hitler isn’t editorial license; the quote is taken from Paul’s 2010 profile in GQ.
These qualities are what have already made Rand Paul a superhero to his supporters, even without the aid of a comic book. To some, he follows in the mold of Iron Man: Just as Tony Stark used his father’s weapons fortune to advance the Armored Avenger, Rand will build on his father’s achievements to ascend to the presidency. To others, he’s the Man Without Fear of Feminism, or the candidate fighting for Truth, Justice, and the Return to the Gold Standard.
The Bluewater books are not partisan, but that doesn’t mean they pull their punches. The forthcoming book on Jeb Bush, for example, features the candidate nearly crushed under giant stone letters that spell out his family name. The Rand Paul comic reveals him as perhaps the edgiest character in the race for 2016, a figure who seems almost like a hero from an alt-universe—simply by showing him as he is.