Graphic storytellers spend their days mired in a world of fantasy and intrigue, where heroes and villains are rendered in black and white. In his book, How to Draw Noir Comics, illustrator Shawn Martinbrough broke down the basic artistic elements used to create these shady characters. So when The Root asked graphic novelist Joseph Phillip Illidge to give voice to Shawn’s art in the murky realm of politics, it was a natural transition.


There are no superheroes in the real world. Looking at the American Dream realized in Barack Obama, many Americans see a red cape on his back, flapping in the wind. They imagine him descending from the sky to lift them up, from despair, from poverty, from unemployment, from apathy. Just like the “S” on Superman’s chest, America has created a new icon with our president’s face. Photographed, illustrated, in color, in black and white.

This icon bolsters the sales of newspapers and magazines. It turns an ordinary T-shirt into a collector’s item. It makes people stand on lines outside comic book stores and hunt through eBay like explorers, looking for fictional stories of our president becoming embroiled in the conspiracies of super villains. It propels an artist into superstardom and spawns imitators in the real and virtual worlds.

But after the first 100 days of controversy and tough choices, Obama’s cape has come off, and the gray road ahead is now in plain view.



There are no super villains in the real world. No one considers themselves to be a villain. In fact, every person is the hero of his or her own story.


Michael Steele couldn’t possibly see himself through the lens of his party and peers.

He’s been transformed into a two-faced figure, handsome and articulate on one side while scarred by cowardice and ineptitude on the other. He is a poster boy for contradiction and the voice of disconnectedness.


Steele is both a warrior and an apologist. The man just isn’t cool enough to be a super villain.


Heroes and villains do not appoint themselves. Anyone who builds a monument to their own perceived greatness may be a narcissist or egomaniac, but definitely not a great leader.


Roland Burris has neither a cape nor a cowl. No souped-up car or secret headquarters. No grand, altruistic plan for saving his city and its people. But he does have the uncanny ability to dodge bullets. In his public identity as an Illinois senator, Burris just managed to avoid being ousted by his peers.

However, the chances of his future success are bleak, so do not look for any T-shirts with the face of Roland Burris. He shall not appear in any comic books. No collector’s item value whatsoever.



As the fictional Baltimore politician in HBO’s now-departed, critically acclaimed show The Wire, Clay Davis had all the qualities of a villain. The people loved him, and the politicos hated him. He scammed angels and devils alike. Davis benefited from the money in other people’s pockets, and he used the power of his enemies against them.


With his charisma, nicely tailored costumes and a smile for both the officers of law and agents of iniquity, Davis became a player, a pimp and a legend.

Unlike both Michael Steele and Roland Burris, Clay Davis knew how to dig tunnels through which to escape instead of holes in which to bury himself. He didn’t backpedal or hesitate. His charm was the shield with which to deflect all attacks from his enemies.


His adventures can only be seen on DVD, but he is a reflection of our real gritty, grimy nation.


Clay Davis did not save the people of Baltimore. Roland Burris will not save the people of Illinois. Michael Steele will certainly not save the Republican Party. President Barack Obama will not single-handedly save the United States of America. The hero’s journey begins with a single step and ends at the nearest mirror. Unfortunately, the villain’s journey can end at the same place.


Joseph Phillip Illidge is a writer and editor of graphic novels, having worked for DC Comics and for Milestone Media, the first black-owned comic book company.

Shawn Martinbrough’s illustrations have appeared in Playboy, Vibe, DC Comics, Vertigo and Marvel Comics. He is the author of How to Draw Noir Comics: The Art and Technique of Visual Storytelling. Shawn’s current graphic novel project is the mini series Luke Cage Noir for Marvel Comics a crime thriller set in 1930’s Harlem.