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Comics on the Depression: Art vs Corporate Propaganda

Kings in Disguise and On the Ropes–by James Vance and Dan E. Burr–are two of the best graphic novels I’ve ever read. They convey the essence of Depression America: the very real presence of the predatory capitalism that caused the Depression, as well as the too-often suppressed tale of the communists and other leftists who struggled against the super-rich men Langston Hughes called “the gangsters of the world.” Vance and Burr’s heart-wrenching picaresque epic stars Fred Bloch, a hobo child who witnesses and participates in the great political and economic struggles of his time. Far from a pedantic history, these two comics are dramatic page-turners that pull no punches, evoking the likes of Steinbeck without imitating him in any way. While they’re novels I’d recommend them to anyone who wants to understand that turbulent moment in our history.

Like some kind of antimatter, The Forgotten Man: Graphic Edition comes out next month. Based on the right-wing agit-prop of ALEC toady Amity Shlaes, this comic emits what Tom Engelhardt called “the dominant whine” by railing against the New Deal programs that pulled millions out of hunger and hardship. According to the artist, Paul Rivoche:

Among many things, it examines ideas of government redistributionism — i.e., programs that started in the New Deal that take from some citizens and give to others, which of course have continued to this day. It’s now commonly seen as “fair” or “justice” to take by governmental edict, i.e., force, from those who have earned it and give to those who haven’t. But the book asks the question, who is the REAL forgotten man in this process? Is it the one always spoken of — the highly visible, poor homeless person upon whom a government bestows charity, or is the person, usually middle class and also “forgotten,” from whom the necessary wealth is forcibly and increasingly extracted? Along the way, the book also shows how these “big government” programs rarely worked in the fashion intended — the wealth rarely trickled down to the actual homeless person, and certainly did not change their collective destinies in the long run, and often killed the goose laying the eggs, as the saying goes.

So says the comic book artist. Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman, on the other hand, criticized Shlaes for her faulty research methods (like cherry-picking statistics that fit her agenda while ignoring the most authoritative sources on the matter ). Krugman writes that there’s “a whole intellectual industry, mainly operating out of right-wing think tanks, devoted to propagating the idea that F.D.R. actually made the Depression worse.”

The argument is basically this: putting unemployed poor people to work is bad. Social Security harms the middle class. We would have been better off letting the invisible hand of the market run the show…Yeah, right. What addle-brained fool would lap this crap up? Apparently two wingnut refugees from the spandex brigade: Chuck Dixon and Paul Rivoche. Dixon’s best known for creating Bane–thus confirming my opinion of Nolan’s latest Batman film–which did its best to smear the Occupy movement. Rivoche, whom I’ve come across as a fan of Alex Toth, likewise lends his talents in the cause of attacking collectivism and government programs in order to allow capitalism to have even more unlimited power. Bravo, lapdogs, you perform your tricks at the table admirably.

These two works say a lot to me about the nature of art and about comics, specifically. The only kind of comics worth reading for me are ones that have both compelling draftsmanship + a message that advances our struggle to envision a more just, compassionate, and peaceful world. Craft without compassion, technique without truth-telling–is not art. It’s the antithesis of it.


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