European Union

Comic Bureaucracy

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Watch out, Superman and Wonder Woman. There's a new hero in town, and she's a member of the European Parliament.

In an effort to educate Europe's youth, the European Parliament has published a slick, glossy comic book, Troubled Waters, featuring crusading MEP Irina Vega. Vega is a chic cross between Lara Croft and Nancy Drew, legislating her way through the difficult issue of water rights and the setting of Europe-wide water pollution standards. She whizzes between hearings, meetings, and nighttime events, issuing bon mots such as "we have to reach agreement with the council, if necessary via a conciliation committee" while unraveling a plot to sabotage her legislation by a nefarious chemical company dumping toxic waste in rivers.

"This is a product for young people, and our goal was to try at the same time not to say vague things on the project, but not to be scholarly," says Jacques Hinckxt, of the European Parliament's information directorate general. "We had to find a role where the European Parliament's added value was evident enough, visible to the public. That was why an environment subject fit to a better understanding."

Give credit to the book's designers: They had to wade through 600 pages of documents and debate minutes to come up with the plot, plus create a heroine who was culturally and politically unidentifiable with any of the 15 nations that make up the European Union. With her brunette looks and name, Irina could be southern or eastern European, while her bland assertions about the right of all citizens to clean water are neither Christian-Democrat right nor Socialist left (which, along with the Green Party, comprise most of the European Parliament's members).

Troubled Waters has garnered a lot of comment, not all of it positive. Chemical companies were less than pleased with their portrayal as predatory polluters. Industry representatives sent a blistering letter of complaint to the real-life parliament president. Euroskeptics have taken on the slick portrayal of Brussels-Strasbourg beltway life, and even some MEPs have joined in.

"Reaction of most members has been very positive," Hinckxt says. "But there has been some criticism—one member said we should not be seen as having a life like James Bond."

Others have called the project a waste of taxpayers' money. While British newspapers placed the cost of production anywhere between 3 million and 5 million euros, Hinckxt is quick to point out that the cost was in fact a far more modest 540,000 euros for 780,000 copies. A second print run was planned for April. "You can say it's euro-propaganda," Hinckxt says, "but you can't say it's a waste of money."