There is something particularly disconcerting about malevolence when it is being discussed in the form of a comic. That feeling of being disconnected from what is being revealed crops up time and again when one reads Darryl Cunningham’s interesting new book on the lives and times of America’s billionaires. It’s as if the illustrations are at odds with the text, in ways that cushion us from the horror of what these pages are examining.
His publishers, D+Q, describe the book as “an informative and funny deconstruction of how the giants of American capitalism shape our world.” (Billionaires is published in the UK by Myriad Editions). That simply didn’t prepare me for the shock and dismay I felt, reading about what these men had spent much of their lives doing. These feelings were also compounded by the realization that their actions and decisions had made an impact not just on my own career and way of living, but on my generation and the lives of millions to come.
The topic is far from a departure for Cunningham, who has tended to focus on commerce as well as science in the past, most noticeably on Supercrash, his acclaimed investigation on the global economy and financial crash of 2008. It is, presumably, his early work that allows him to bring a certain no-nonsense rigour to these pithy biographies of Rupert Murdoch, the Koch brothers, and Jeff Bezos.
Each of the book’s three chapters relies heavily on biographical material and news reports, as the list of references at the back attests to. This isn’t to say they make for dry reading though, because Cunningham sifts through a lot of information to pick just the right kind of nuggets that feed his portraits of corporate greed and avarice. Everything he reveals has always existed in the public domain for anyone interested to dig into, so it is a testament to his skill as a writer and illustrator that he still manages to make these stories seem new.
The nicest thing he does is get out of the way, a trick that takes writers a long time to master. He focuses on reportage rather than commentary, explaining how these billionaires came into their wealth, why they chose the paths they walk along, and what their actions have meant for governance, individual rights and freedoms, the environment, and consumerism. The rare moments of personal intervention appear in his illustrations with a wry kind of humour. The other panels are, for the most part, drawn in a straightforward manner that acknowledges the importance of what is being said rather than how it is being depicted.
Billionaires is the kind of book that should be made required reading for young people more than anyone else, because it serves as a warning that is hard to ignore. Adults reading it may nod in agreement at things they have known about for decades and felt powerless to do anything about. As the age of these particular billionaires comes to a close though, and new ones prepare to take their place, it may be only the generation to come that now stands a chance of pulling the rest of us back from the brink.
Darryl Cunningham (W/A) • Drawn & Quarterly/Myriad Editions, $29.95 CAD/$24.95 USD/£16.99
Also available from Gosh! Comics here
Review by Lindsay Pereira