Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Commerce Above All

August 30th, 2011 · 6 Comments

Those who’ve been keeping score might have noticed a recent Microkhan obsession with visual communication—particularly the way in which simple illustrated material can be used to convey complex messages. This is an interest that dates back to my first exposure to Chick tracts, and has now ramped up with all the energy I’ve been pouring into evaluating the efficacy of wartime propaganda.

My latest discovery on this front raises a different, more philosophical issue: how some people are able to divorce their personal beliefs from their business, and some are not. Comic-book creator Malcolm Ater certainly fits into the former category. His Commercial Comics Company seemed perfectly willing to create tales for any paying customer, from the American Gas Association to the Congress of Industrial Organizations to George Wallace (above). The story of how the Illinois-bred Ater eagerly spread Wallace’s odious message is recounted here:

In 1960 Ater traveled to Alabama to meet with George Wallace, who was running for governor. By Malcolm’s retelling, Wallace leaned across his desk and stated “I don’t see how a damn Yankee like you can come down here to Alabama and help me get elected.” Ater replied “Well, Judge, if you’ll recall, I came down here a few years ago and worked for John Patterson and helped defeat you!” Wallace and he became friends and the result was the comic Alabama Needs the Little Judge, George Wallace for the Big Job. This book is pro segragationist and in it Wallace promises to send “back north every freedom rider, sit-in, and every other troublemaker” sent by NAACP.

There is no hint anywhere in Ater’s biography that he harbored political views that were anything like Wallace’s—if they were, I very much doubt he would have volunteered his services to Madonna in the mid-1980s. And so I find myself wondering whether there was ever a moment’s doubt in Ater’s mind as to whether he should take the Wallace gig, or if there really is a breed of human who can banish all personal thoughts in the service of commerce.

In a sense, Ater reminds me of the late Lee Atwater, who reportedly only became a Republican in order to rebel against the fact that he was surrounded by Democrats while growing up in South Carolina. The story goes that Atwater didn’t care a whit about the issues his candidates espoused—he only cared about winning elections, much as Ater only cared about getting paid to create comics. Is there something quintessentially American about that approach to business?

Another classic (and notorious) Ater comic here. If I had been a schoolkid in Grenada in 1984, I would’ve been damn terrified of those Cuban monsters.


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6 Comments so far ↓

  • Jordan

    That comic definitely buries the lede.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: +1. Nay, +100.

    Also, your site really makes me wish I had a well-made Manhattan by my side right now…

  • Jordan

    Seriously, I’m reading the comic and it’s all good for a few panels. Even sounds like a guy I could support. Then WHAM!

    I’ve been drinking straight whiskey a lot lately. Much easier to pour a dram when I’ve got other things to worry about instead of putting together some complicated tiki drink. Old Fashioneds are a pretty close second as they don’t take a lot more time to put together and Knob Creek was on sale this month.

  • Malcolm Ater, Jr.

    I enjoyed reading your article about my father. He worked for tons of politicians and, yes, if they had the money, he’d write their story (although he drew the line when necessary). There were a lot of politicians that my father didn’t respect, many others he did. I have his personal letters and you can easily tell from them what he thought of each man.

    My dad became very good friends with both John Patterson and George Wallace, and one reason was that both men changed their way of thinking towards segregation (my dad was even working with Wallace when he was running for president before he got shot). One thing that people must remember: it was a different era back in the early to mid 60’s when these comics came out, and running on a platform of “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever” (George Wallace) was one way to get elected because that’s what the majority of the people wanted to hear. They didn’t want change and they wanted to maintain the status quo.

    But many of the great politicians who would end up helping the blacks win new rights and freedoms were the same politicians who spoke out against them ten years earlier because that’s they way things were. A great example is the former governor of Mississippi that my dad did a comic for (William Winter), but he became a huge benefactor of blacks years later and was even honored by them before his death.

    Please don’t think my dad was a racist. Sure, he wanted to sell comics, but he also wrote what he was asked to write, and I know he did his best to choose his words carefully. He worked for presidents Truman, Kennedy, and Reagan (which included the CIA sponsored Grenada comic), and also did the official White House magazines for Presidents Ford and Carter. The fact that he worked for republicans and democrats alike attest to the fact that his writing and craft were held in high esteem by both parties, and that people realized he was just “doing his job.” And my dad was the best at what he did!

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Malcolm Ater Jr.: Thanks a million for the comment. One of the great pleasures of running this project is hearing from the folks we write about (or their kin and colleagues).

    I wasn’t trying to imply that your dad was a racist. I was just interested in the phenomenon of professionals (particularly artists) who have the ability to set aside their personal politics in order to tackle political assignments. Maybe this is something that was easier to do in the era before such strict political polarization. Though that said, I’m not convinced that Wallace’s pro-segregation stance in the ’60s was merely for show–my sense is that he earnestly believed in the principle, and that it was his later transformation that was for the cameras. I’m open to being swayed in the other direction, though, if presented with convincing evidence.

    As you can probably tell from perusing the site, I tend to raise questions more than offer answers here.

    BTW, I’d be curious to know which well-known politicians your father didn’t respect, and why. What was the one flaw of character or intelligence that he couldn’t forgive?

  • Jose María

    @Malcom Ater Jr.: Could you tell us more about your father’s work? I’m very interested in the story of this kind of comics.