BOOK REVIEW/Kristian Williams

Crash Comics Course in Economics

It seems that everyone is having trouble making sense of the economy, especially since The Crash. But lucid explanations -- and trenchant critiques -- are showing up in an unusual place: comic books.

Two books from last year, Understating the Crash and The Adventures of Unemployed Man, employ very different narrative and representative strategies, but both use comics to put forward economic theories, and both use our present circumstances to mount radical attacks against capitalism.

Erich Origen and Gan Golan's Adventures of Unemployed Man [Little, Brown and Co., 80 pp., paperback, $14.99] works simultaneously as a parody of superhero comics and as a clever deconstruction of the ideology of contemporary capitalism. Practically overnight the prosperous, self-satisfied, middle-class hero The Ultimatum unexpectedly becomes Unemployed Man.

The story walks us through the unfortunate hero's odyssey as he moves from his adventures cluelessly lecturing the poor on the value of hard work and the importance of positive thinking, to confronting the realities of the market economy, struggling to survive without a salary or a meaningful social safety net, and ultimately teaming up with other down-and-out heroes to change things for the better.

The story provides real-world economic explanations alongside hilarious satire, mapping our economic jargon onto superhero clichés with astonishing success. The result is something like a medieval allegory, with heroes named Wonder Mother, Plan B, and Everyman, facing villains like The Outsourcerer, the Free Marketeers, and The Invisible Hand. The result is both humorous and astute, and engaging in a way little economic reporting and sadly few superhero stories ever are.

The satire consistently hits its mark: The book's self-conscious and over-the-top absurdity is never too cute or cloying. It comes, instead, as a kind of relief, an acknowledgment of the insanity of our economic system.

While operating in the same comics medium, Seth Tobocman, Eric Laursen and Jessica Wehrle take a very different approach in Understanding the Crash [Soft Skull Press, 116 pp., paperback, $15.95]. The book alternates between broad economic explanations and the personal stories of real people effected by the crisis.

Such stylistic choices have their own politics. In Understanding the Crash, abstractions become metaphors -- often, predatory animals or destructive machines -- while individual people are depicted realistically, and thus humanized.

The images pull our sympathies in the direction of the real, identifiable people, and make visible not just the injustice but also the absurdity of a system that would allow a family to be forced out of their home because some shady arrangement between giant institutions failed to manifest a profit.

Unemployed Man, in contrast, portrays everything is symbolic terms. In this universe, everyone is a hero, or a villain. No one is merely ordinary, no one is a passive victim. And powerful social forces are personified, strongly suggesting that, behind the abstractions and the rhetoric, there are actual people who, willing or not, are responsible for this mess.

In terms of solutions, neither book looks much past some version of a new New Deal -- banking regulations, debt relief, unemployment insurance, universal health are, and so on. Such demands seem like common-sense, and are surely worth pursuing. But there is also something of a mis-match between the causes of the crisis and the agenda on offer. Tobocman and company portray the present crisis as a direct result of class conflict, tracing its roots as far back as the 1970s. And, at the end of Unemployed Man, the heroes are only too aware of how tentative their victory is: "We may have blown up the machinery, but the mentality is still there -- waiting for another chance to plot against us."

But more important than the specific policy aims, one thing both books agree on is that any recovery worth having will necessarily come as the result of struggle. The final chapter of Understanding the Crash profiles anti-eviction activists in Cleveland and Take Back the Land's campaign of organized squatting in Miami.

Elsewhere, the book is frank: "There is a lot the government could be doing to get us out of this crisis and prevent another one. But it's not likely that tomorrow morning elected officials will wake up and decide to do the right thing.

“Because in Washington, Wall Street speaks louder than Main Street.

“We have a government of, by, and for the wealthy. And this is not going to change until those of us on Main Street start to make some noise. We need a militant mass movement against the banks and big business."

Likewise, at the end of Unemployed Man, victory comes, not through approved channels or even individual heroics, but via “Everyman's power to summon millions!” Fellowman predicts, "We're about to see what a wave of collective action can do."

Kristian Williams is author of Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America and he is a regular contributor to The Comics Journal (

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2011

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