Wednesday, November 9, 2011

FYC Replay: Top Shelf Comix's Veeps with Bill Kelter

The final of my archived "For Your Consideration" columns. This was the only book profiled that was an actual "book" book, and we were able to get the piece up for election day of 2008, which was a nice bit of scheduling on Jen Contino's part. If you ever thought that a book on the Vice Presidents of the United States would be boring, you were completely wrong. Take a look, and read the book, if you get a chance. It's a fun and interesting read.


For Your Consideration: Veeps: Profiles in Insignificance

By Chris Beckett

FRONT PAGE: We’re all tired of the election cycle. But if you want something a bit lighter in tone, that will prove to be educational, and involve politics too, the newest book from Topshelf is for you. Veeps: Profiles in Insignificance from author Bill Kelter and artist Wayne Shellabarger is a showcase for all of those individuals that have been “honored” with the title Vice President of the United States, and the absurdity that has attended them.

The 411:

Veeps: Profiles in Insignificance

Written by Bill Kelter

Art by Wayne Shellabarger

296pp. non-fiction hardcover


Topshelf Productions

What It Is (with apologies to Dave the Thune):

There are some people who would call this election year one of the more interesting in recent memory. Though with the internet and 24-hour news channels like CNN and Fox News reporting, analyzing, and dissecting every bit of minutiae, there may be many more who would term this election year overwhelming and tiring. And yet, for all the information disseminated to the public by the pundits, journalists, and talk show hosts, it’s not really known how either of these men will govern the country. Suppositions can be made, but until Senator Obama or Senator McCain accedes to the White House, it’s still a guessing game.

One of the most anticipated decisions for both of these candidates was their choice of running mate. Wading through the rhetoric and slogans is challenging, and with the damage that has been done to our political process by those officials willing to lie, steal, and subvert the system for their own personal gain, it is difficult to trust in what our candidates say. That’s why the choice of a Vice Presidential nominee is so important. It’s a decision with consequences – What will the public vetting by the press bring to light? How will the V.P. nominee handle the televised debate? What do they bring to the ticket? – sometimes devastating a candidacy as Tom Eagleton’s choice as running mate did to George McGovern’s 1972 Presidential bid or placing the right person in the right place at the right time as when FDR dropped Henry Wallace for Harry Truman leading into Roosevelt’s final days as President. Providing insights into how a candidate views the Presidency, it is one of the few aspects of the interminable election season that opens a window into the candidates’ governing style.

And yet, for as much importance attributed to the choice of a Vice Presidential nominee, the office itself really is little more than a glorified place holder. Illuminated by the public spotlight during the final weeks of an election cycle, the Vice President invariably recedes into the background and is rarely heard from again.

That is, until now.

Writer Bill Kelter and illustrator Wayne Shellabarger have created the new book, Veeps: Profiles in Insignificance, which could not come at a better time. Published by Topshelf – known more for graphic novels like From Hell, The Surrogates, and Blankets – this book of non-fiction prose elucidates for a contemporary audience the 46 personages that have warmed the seat in the Vice President’s office along with some notable also-rans.

Highlighting the ignominy of those who have held the office of Vice President, Kelter delves into the stories behind the choosing process while also excavating the pathetic and embarrassing moments that seem, almost without exception, to attend the Vice President. Did you know that our fourth V.P., George Clinton, served under Thomas Jefferson and James Madison from 1805-1812 despite removing himself from public life in 1795 due to “the declining condition of [his] health?” And was it taught in your school that GOP powerbrokers, angered at then-New York governor Teddy Roosevelt’s civil service reforms and corporate tax initiatives, decided to exile him to the one place where he would find it difficult to achieve any legislative reforms – the Vice Presidency. Six months into his term, TR ascended to the highest seat in the land as President William McKinley succumbed to a gunshot wound suffered at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. And we all know of J. Danforth Quayle's spelling miscue with potato(e), but that was only the tip of the iceberg. The number of quotable gaffes that can be attributed to the first President Bush’s running mate are multitude. As a teaser: when speaking about the National Aeronautic and Space Agency, Quayle said, “For NASA, space is still a very high priority” – a fine example of the piercing analytical mind of our 44th Vice President.

Kelter peppers each Vice Presidential profile with anecdotes like these – some unbelievable, others pathetic, but all humorous. Giving over a few pages to each Vice President, it becomes clear early on that these men – at least many of them – are deserving of the black hole of history into which they have fallen. But even with the humorous aspects of this book, the subject matter is such that, in the hands of a different writer, the reading could become as stale as those history books everyone remembers from grade school. Thankfully, Kelter laces his prose with a subtle wit and a biting analysis that will bring a smile to the face of any reader. It’s this comfortable prose coupled with the absurdity of the facts that elevates this book and makes it a must-have for any political junkie.

Wayne Shellabarger ably assists Kelter in his undertaking by creating pen and ink portraits of each of the men who have called the Vice President’s office home. With a style reminiscent of classic comic illustrators, Shellabarger deftly brings these Veeps to life without losing any of his own style. One will easily recognize Teddy Roosevelt or his cousin FDR, and our most recent Vice President’s mug is as pugilistic as ever. But there’s also another side to Shellabarger as he includes smaller, more cartoonish re-creations of events within the lives of many of these Vice Presidents – sometimes literal, but more often symbolic. Whether it be John Tyler playing marbles as he learned he was the new President or the many incidents that accompanied Richard Nixon’s turn as Ike’s V.P. (if his life were fiction, some might call this heavy-handed foreshadowing), these fit nicely with the tone that Kelter is bringing to the prose and adds another dimension to an already enjoyable book.

Despite its 296 pages, Veeps is a very quick read. With engaging material and a wry sense of humor that I enjoy, I found this to be one of the best books I have read in some time, and as far as non-fiction goes, it is high on my personal list of favorites. This is also a book that one can enjoy in small chunks, making it a perfect book to have on one’s nightstand. Retiring early, one could pore through a few decades worth of Veeps, or – if one were settling into bed at the very end of the day – one could still have enough time to read about one or two of these historical “giants.” Regardless, Veeps is a book well worth checking out whether one is a history buff or not.

An Interview with Bill Kelter:

I imagine the creation of Veeps was a long process. What was the inspiration for this book, and what was it about the project that kept you motivated through its creation?

Kelter: As for the motivation, writing it was just plain fun. Granted, it got a little less fun when my marriage started collapsing, but before that, there was a two-month period when my business was plummeting and it became clear that a career change was in the offing. In the meantime, while my wife was at work, I’d transition from my business at about 4:00 PM, pick up a few tall beers from the store, and spend the next several hours researching and writing the book. I was clearing about a chapter a day, four or five days a week.

I finished a huge amount of the book by the spring of 2007, which was good, because living through an imploding marriage is a full-time job, and takes a lot of bounce out of your step. For about eight months, the last thing I felt like doing at the end of every day was sitting down and trying to be eloquent and entertaining.

Wayne was still reeling from his own divorce, so most of our conversations through the end of 2007 tended to tilt heavily towards supporting each other and how to successfully endure the chainsaw-through-the-chest-plate that is marital dissolution. But through it all, we knew we had a book waiting for us when the sun finally came out again. Veeps was our touchstone, and the big steak and a milkshake that was going to wait for us after time did its work and we got through the emotional mop-up.

With so much research to wade through, how did you keep your focus and make decisions on what to include and what to leave out?

Kelter: I’ve had to try, often without success, to adhere to the “less is more” maxim over the years, but writing Veeps I got a little better at using the hatchet where necessary. If something was tangentially funny but not on-point as far as the Vice Presidency was concerned, it wound up on the floor with the peanut shells and cigarette butts. Sometimes I needed some prodding. We had two great passages—one about Teddy Roosevelt’s amazing daughter, Alice, who was probably the most colorful and outspoken woman that Washington has ever seen; and the 1944 Democratic party roll call that was orchestrated by FDR’s adherents within the party and executed by a phantom chant started from the bowels of the convention hall by the Chicago Superintendent of Sewers that helped seal FDR’s fourth nomination. I wanted to keep both but our editor, Robert Venditti, laid down a little tough love and said, “Funny, but off the reservation. Drop ‘em.”

But the blog makes a nice remainders section for things like that.

The subtitle of the book is “Profiles in Insignificance.” Was the book tagged this way from the beginning or a description that became apparent as the research piled up?

Kelter: We started without a subtitle. We didn’t even have the title Veeps at first. But by the time we were about 70% done with the book, “insignificance” seemed to be a relentless, recurring theme throughout the stories of these dozens of pallid men who had held the office. In the back and forth between Wayne and I, and the frequent email and telephone debriefings we held together as the book was starting to grow its fingers and toes, we locked onto “Profiles in Insignificance,” not just as a subtitle, but as a theme that would pervade the book, the site, the blog, and, ultimately, the movie.

How did you and Mr. Shellabarger come together on this project, and what was it about his work that made him the right choice for this book?

Kelter: Wayne and I have been friends since the waning days of the Reagan years. We went to the same high school together (though we missed each other by a year). We met finally at U of O in 1987. We had great creative chemistry from the word go and our senses of humor ran several shades darker than what most people in polite society could generally appreciate (our first project together was a parody of the Peanuts characters as Manson Family members). We dabbled in a few other things through the years, but we got busy with our lives and never saw anything through to fruition. Mainly we just remained great friends and maintained our creative efforts through our correspondence (one of my favorite gifts ever from anyone is a Donner Party Sno-Globe Wayne made for me ten or so years ago).

After a few years fascinating over the dubious character of many of the men the country has chosen through the years to sit one mortal tragedy away from the highest office in the land, I had a drunken epiphany in the bathroom of my rental flat one Saturday morning in 1999. A previous girlfriend had installed a pattern of alternating 10” x 10” inch vinyl tiles on the bathroom floor. The stark white tiles looked like they were begging to be filled with something visual, and at that foggy moment, for reasons I’ve still never come to properly fathom, it occurred to me that an elegant Vice Presidential portrait, with an off-color fact or quote about each, would fit the bill perfectly. The next week I got to work.

Wayne visited a few years later and was really taken with the misguided but sincere obsession I’d devoted to the project, snapped some pictures of the floor, and stowed them away for a few years.

He had already had a book of his concert poster art that he’d published with Top Shelf Production in 1996 (I’m Totally Helpless). He mentioned to his friend and publisher, Brett Warnock, that we were thinking of putting out a deck of VP playing cards. Brett was excited with the concept and suggested a book instead.

It took a few more years of back and forth, but in January 2007, Brett and Chris Staros at Top Shelf greenlit the book, and Wayne and I were to the races on a long-overdue collaboration. And with a publisher behind us, this was a project we were actually going to see through to completion.

Do you have any future projects that you might like to – or would be able to – share with readers?

Kelter: I don’t want to talk too much about the Chester Arthur musical until we’re a little further along.

I will say that we’re not even letting the ink dry on Veeps before we’re rolling up our sleeves and getting back to work. It took us 20 years for our first collaboration to hit the shelves. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

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