Random Musings: Eagle is a first-rate political thriller

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         A Democratic U.S. senator of an ethnic background seeks the White House, with many believing he hasn’t a chance against his Washington insider primary opponent.

         Barack Obama in 2008?

         No, Sen. Kenneth Yamaoka (D- NY) in 2000.

         Eagle: The Making of an Asian-American President is a 2,000+ page manga by Kaiji Kawaguchi (English adaptation by Carl Gustav Horn), published between 2000 and 2002. The story of a dark horse candidate’s quest for the presidency is collected in 22 monthly volumes of C. 100 pages each, and five compendium volumes, ranging from 400 to 600 pages each.

    Eagle

         Yamaoka, who announced his candidacy a month before the New Hampshire primary, is challenging Vice President Albert Noah, the man everyone believes will secure the nomination. Japanese reporter Takashi Jo has been asked to cover the senator’s campaign, despite politics not being his field, and much of the story is told through Jo’s eyes.

         I’ve been meaning to read Eagle for years, and I’m glad I finally did (I read the compendium volumes), because this is an excellent, page-turning story of political intrigue.

         Jo soon learns the surprising reason why he was chosen to cover the Yamaoka campaign. He’s also given total access, with only one caveat: don’t publish anything until after the election.

         Kenneth Yamaoka is a third generation Japanese-American who went to Vietnam after his older brother died there, and almost died himself. Ever since, he’s been working toward one goal: to become president. Jo learns these facts from the senator, his family and his staff, each with a different perspective on the man and his ideals. But he also learns that however idealistic Yamaoka might be, the senator is also ruthless. Blackmail, bribes, and other political shenanigans are all part of the Yamaoka playbook.

         Of course, the Noah campaign isn’t above taking the low road, either. Especially when it becomes clear that Yamaoka presents a real threat to Noah’s own political ambitions.

         The term “graphic novel” is often used to describe comics in hardcover or trade paperback format, whether the story be initially published in said formats, or collected individual issues. In most cases the word “novel” is a bit of stretch. But at more than 2,000 pages, Eagle fits that description beyond any doubt. As the story of Yamaoka’s quest for the presidency unfolds, we not only meet his family and members of his campaign staff (seen primarily through Jo’s eyes), but also members of the Noah campaign, and other political players. These include influential African American New York Mayor Gilbert Blackburn, who has been in office 20 years, and whose support is being courted by both the Yamaoka and Noah campaigns; the incumbent president, Bill, and his politically ambitious wife, Ellery, who want to influence the next administration; Republican candidate Richard Grant, senator from Colorado, former astronaut and lt. general, USAF reserves; Yamaoka’s former CO in Vietnam, General Kerrigan; Yamaoka’s old-money father-in-law, William Hampton; and ordinary citizens who see Yamaoka as either a hope or a threat.

         The more Takashi Jo gets to know Kenneth Yamaoka, the more he wonders about the man. True, the senator is charismatic, and able to win over previously hostile audiences; but how far will Yamaoka go to become president? How far has he gone to get where he is now? Jo, who has become anything but an objective, neutral observer, has information that could derail Yamaoka’s campaign, but should he use that information? Will he?

         In an interview printed in Vol. 2 of the compendium editions, Kawaguchi said he wanted the story to have a realistic feel. That it does. Had Kenneth Yamaoka and Albert Noah actually existed and been competitors for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000, their primary battles might well have unfolded in much the same way as those political chess matches depicted in Eagle.

         The medium of comics— like books, TV shows and movies— can include any number of genres. Americans have only recently begun to understand that, while the Japanese have known it for decades. As Horn writes in the postscript of the first of the compendium volumes, manga (the Japanese term for comics) are “comic books as mass media, comic books that compete with top-rated TV shows for the eyes of a hundred million people.” He also writes that in Japan, comics are the mainstream media.

         If you like a well-written political thriller, you can’t go wrong with Eagle. That it happens to combine words and pictures doesn’t make it any less of a page-turner.

    Copyright 2012 Patrick Keating

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