Posted Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2012, at 3:41 PM
Let’s start with a confession: I sort of turned down this book. Ten-odd months ago, the journalists David Axe and Corey Hutchins contacted me about a graphic novel that would trace “the Forrest Gump-like rise (and fall) of Alvin Greene” after his “unlikely entrance into American politics.” Greene, in case you’ve forgotten, was the unemployed veteran who shocked the Democratic party by becoming its nominee for the U.S. Senate in South Carolina a couple years ago—the first African-American major-party nominee ever for that seat. Would a story like that find a home at Slate? I checked with my editor, who gonged the idea. And I didn’t push back. One year on, did people want to re-live the pathetic tale of a quiet oddball who ended up embarrassing himself in front of every national media outlet?
Two years on I’ve changed my mind. The Accidental Candidate turned into a funny, sad, and compact story of American democracy and media at their worst. Blue Delliquanti’s art is uncluttered and evocative, giving Greene little tics and emotional cues that the camera never captured. The Axe-Hutchins script gives us an accurate micro-history of the Tea Party, plus colorful details from the events Hutchins covered, all wrapped in an oddly optimistic personal story. Greene evolves from a sad man with delusions of grandeur to a happy, delusional guy who thinks he’s achieved grandeur—as he waits for a hearing on his felony charge, he tells Hutchins he’s the “greatest individual” alive.
I talked to Axe and Hutchins about how they put it all together.
Slate: The Greene story turned into a media frenzy, and unlike a lot of people who covered it, you were on the ground in South Carolina and frequently in touch with the candidate. Did you consider other ways to turn this story into a larger project?
Corey Hutchins: I shot some video for the documentary Who is Alvin Greene? that David Garrett (Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo, Corky Romano) and Leslie Beaumont produced. I’d thought of writing a nonfiction book about the campaign after it was all over, but one drunken winter night at a bar called The Whig in Columbia, David Axe convinced me that a graphic novel might be the way to go. I’d seen the stuff he’d done in the past, so I was sold. Since then it’s been suggested that we turn it into a screenplay. We’ll see.
Slate: Why a comic? (I ask as somebody who really likes comics.) What can you convey here that you couldn’t convey with just text?
David Axe: Why not comics? In principle, you can tell almost any story in comic form. There are graphic novel adaptations of the 9/11 report and the Affordable Care Act. As a matter of fact, our artist Blue Delliquanti worked on the Obamacare comic. Her style is particularly, ahem, COMIC. And that lends itself to Greene’s story, which is weird, absurd, and funny.
Hutchins: I’d never written a graphic novel before and was excited by the challenge. For me it was easier and faster to produce than a 250-page nonfiction current affairs book would have been. Axe and I worked out an outline and then the process went like this: Axe would tell me to picture how I wanted a whole page to look in my head, consisting of around four panels. I’d write that out, explaining to him how I pictured it—with text and narrator boxes—he’d edit it into a comprehensible format for the artist. Nearly every time it came back to me finished it was as if the artist had been spelunking in my head, swinging around taking pictures. It was fascinating.
Slate: One of the big national narratives about this race was: “Did Republicans steal the primary for Greene?” Rep. James Clyburn outright suggested as much. But you don’t resolve those questions here. What’s your theory of how Greene won? Is there reason to believe it wasn’t legit?
Hutchins: As the story unfolded it was easy to believe in any number of conspiracy theories about how Alvin Greene, who didn’t campaign, beat a former lawmaker, judge, and current public official who campaigned throughout the state. Did Republicans pay him to run? State Law Enforcement examined his bank records and found he’d paid the $10,440 filing fee himself. Were the voting machines rigged? The Democratic Party Executive Committee voted not to overturn his election because they didn’t believe that.
Personally, I think his election was legit in the technical sense. He won more votes, legitimately, than his opponent Vic Rawl. Why? People weren’t paying attention, they didn’t know who either candidate was, and, for whatever reason, they voted for the guy named Alvin Greene. South Carolina voters, though, have a history of voting for patsies that are set up to run in partisan primaries. Look further back and you’ll see that in 1990 a GOP operative paid an unemployed black fisherman to run in a primary to scare white voters to the polls. The operative paid the man’s filing fee, got busted for it, and now doing something like that is illegal. But it seems Alvin Greene-syndrome is not confined to South Carolina. Take a look at this Mark Clayton guy the Democrats just nominated in Tennessee.
Axe: I share Corey’s view that Greene was what he appeared to be: a strange, somewhat silly man who blundered into the nomination not because of some vast conspiracy, but because of a confluence of little things, all in the context of voters who didn’t seem to take the whole thing very seriously.
Slate: Vic Rawl, the actual politician who lost the primary to Greene, comes off awfully well. Did you come away thinking that Rawl could have given a stiff challenge to DeMint?
Hutchins: No, I don’t think any Democrat in South Carolina could have beaten DeMint in 2010 unless they had a check from George Soros for $10 million and used every trick in the book. And this might sound harsh, but let’s face it, Rawl couldn’t beat Alvin Greene in a primary. That’s not saying he didn’t deserve to. Personally, I would have liked to see Rawl run against DeMint because he articulated a good liberal philosophical message against him. Rawl name-dropped Naomi Klein when he announced his candidacy. You don’t see liberal messages often in big statewide Democratic campaigns in South Carolina. What you tend to see are Republican-light candidates offering a Republican-light message. So that would have been exciting. Perhaps not as exciting as Alvin Greene vs. Jim DeMint, though. And I don’t think I would have written a book about Vic Rawl, even though I think he’s a really cool guy.
Slate: You keep up with Greene long after the national media had abandoned him. Did his approach or disposition change once he got to know a reporter?
Hutchins: No. Alvin Greene didn’t appear to understand the role of a reporter in his campaign. He’d accused me of not being supportive, which perhaps he thought was my job. He literally ran from me one time. He hung up on me a lot. Another time, in the courtroom at one of his hearings, he threatened to sue me, rather loudly, if I wrote about the proceedings. He indicated that the court bailiff would be his witness. Other times he’d sit and let me ask him anything I wanted and answer any question. I was doing a radio interview about the book recently and the host had called Alvin to see if he wanted to talk about it. Alvin apparently said he didn’t even want to listen to the show. He did, however, have a good relationship with his documentarians during the time they were filming.
Slate: Has he seen the book?
Hutchins: I’m not sure. It was always hard for me to tell if he’d been keeping up online with what everyone was writing about him during the campaign or not. Sometimes it seemed like he was. Or maybe he was just being told what others had written. His former advisers reached out to us during the production of our book about doing some kind of collaboration that would somehow maybe include Greene, but by then we already finished.
Axe: We briefly corresponded with Greene’s advisers, but things got kind of weird after they proposed somehow teaming up on a book for the educational market—i.e., a textbook. I don’t understand what they were driving at or why we should have been involved. It was... odd.
Slate: What disturbed me about the coverage in 2010 was the sense that the national media was exploiting a troubled guy because it made for a wacky, reality show-like story. How did you avoid exploiting Greene?
Hutchins: Just dead-panned it right down the middle, really. One thing Axe told me during the first couple drafts was that I didn’t have to try and make the book funny. He said the story was funny enough as it is and to just play it straight. Some who have read it say they can’t tell if it’s a comedy or a tragedy. We really didn’t nudge it one way or another too much, I don’t think. Beyond that, it’s written in a comic book format anyway.
Axe: I hope we’re totally fair to Greene. He’s actually a very sympathetic guy—an apparently lonely man without much support, and also with huge ambitions. He even showed glimpses of charisma—although his grasp of politics is tentative at best and he had a tendency to be a bit self-aggrandizing.