Capital may be stalling. But watch out for Capital.
The first Capital is, of course, the anti-wealth bestseller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, by the French professor Thomas Piketty. As much projectile as book, Capital was hurtling forward, seemingly unstoppably, until journalists and scholars began to discover flaws in its data. Still, around the time many pundits expect Capital to wipe out — i.e., within a couple of weeks — a second Capital will be entering the intellectual marketplace. This one is Haymarket Books’ new illustrated edition of Das Kapital, by Karl Marx. In other words, Piketty can rest easy: Marx’s Capital Illustrated will continue his class war even if he himself flags. Haymarket Books confirms as much when it describes this volume as “economics for the 99 percent.”
Serious cartoon books like Marx’s Capital Illustrated have been around for a while. For years now teachers have relied on a cartoon version of A People’s History of American Empire, the 1980 book by the progressive historian Howard Zinn. Lately, however, such cartoon books have been proliferating wildly, becoming so numerous that they now can claim to their own category, the oddly named genre of the “graphic novel.”
Counterintuitive as it may sound, these graphic novels not only feature nonfiction but also lend themselves enviably to difficult nonfiction topics. Take Persepolis, a mauve-and-grey depiction of a girl’s life in the Iranian Revolution. Artist Marjane Satrapi depicts the habits of the Shah’s SAVAK officers and their terrifying successors, Khomeini’s PERFUMED police, better than any print history of Iran and certainly better than, say, the film Argo. Maus, another graphic novel, takes on a yet touchier subject, the Holocaust, and somehow manages to convey what happened without exploiting or reducing the record. What’s more, these long cartoon books have much the same capacity as films to entice the reader to delve deeper. As Bill Bennett, one who gets the medium, noted recently: “After reading the comic of The Iliad, then I read the children’s edition of The Iliad, and then I read The Iliad.”
In short, graphic novels are “a gateway drug to content,” as an artist once put it to me. And demand for that drug, from both teachers and students, is exploding. One-third of all teachers of English as a Second Language report that they use comics. Publishers Weekly rates the graphic-novel genre “the hottest section in the library.” Teachers have found that kids who start with manga, the Japanese fantasy style, switch easily to cartoons about history or economics.
What was and is troubling, therefore, is that the many of the more serious graphic novels are like Marx’s Capital — reinforcement weapons for progressive, or even outright Marxist, messages. Children who read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of American Empire come away thinking U.S. history dragged sadly from Wounded Knee to the Iran–Contra scandal without anything but similar humiliations in between. Palestine, by artist Joe Sacco and historian Edward Said, is yet worse: Its main character complains about the sympathetic treatment generally accorded Leon Klinghoffer, the American tourist murdered and thrown overboard in 1985 when terrorists boarded his cruise ship.
And what about the books in the genre that try to explain economics? Some are likable and harmless cousins to the popular behavioralist books on the bestseller list. They appeal simply to the geek, essentially asking, “Aren’t markets neat?” But other graphic novels lionize redistributionists and revolutionaries. Marx’s Capital falls into this class. So does Bohemians, co-authored by Occupy Wall Street activist David Berger. So does The Adventures of Unemployed Man, a hilarious but anti-capital comic in which Unemployed Man, the superhero, fights villains including the Human Resource, the Toxic Debt Blob, and the Invisible Hand. My favorite character is, you guessed it, Pink Slip, “the attractive lady who will never talk to you — until the moment the Man sends her in to let you know your position has been eliminated.”
Both general histories and economic histories tend to the problematic when it comes to the New Deal, the paradigm for government intervention to this day. Zinn-like, the graphic books covering the key decade of the 1930s either omit key economic facts or just plain mislead. Example: In the early 1930s new government policies such as the Davis-Bacon Act made it harder for employers to cut wages. Roosevelt made cutting wages even harder when he signed the Wagner Act, a tiger that forced Detroit into unionization and, one can argue, the very bankruptcy it endures today. The result was perverse: Since employers could not cut pay, they simply laid people off, or refused to rehire. Hence the abiding unemployment.
In Economix, the best of these economic histories, author Michael Goodwin simply ignores that reality by divorcing policy from effect: “It may seem odd that it can be easier to fire people than make them take a pay cut,” he comments blandly, “but there you have it.” Yet other books are more explicit. “Now we ask: How well did the New Deal work?” Larry Gonick, the author of The Cartoon History of the United States, asks in classic rhetorical fashion. “And we answer: Government spending did stimulate the economy, create jobs, build bridges, dams, and art deco post offices.” Gonick later qualifies this analysis, sort of, but obscurely enough that no high-school student would notice. And Gonick’s book, like several others, has been in print for a full two decades; I found a copy of Gonick at Barnes and Noble just this week.
But where are the conservative mangas and graphic novels? More than half a century ago, General Motors, smarting from the very labor policies described above, produced a graphic version of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom and published it in Look magazine. But since that period, there haven’t been many new contributions, especially of the nonfiction type.
One explanation for the missing graphic novels is the political bent of the artists themselves. A number of these talents — some of the best, in fact — study and draw together in White River Junction, Vermont, not too far from the home of President Coolidge. A few years ago I traveled up to this cartoon heaven to find someone to draw my own print book, Forgotten Man, or even to help illustrate a bio of the local president, Coolidge. The artists had to work to live, clearly. But this kind of work, they let me know, and in the politest way, they would not take. I left impressed: At least they lived by their convictions.
A second obvious explanation is that conservatives themselves have expressed no demand for graphic novels: After all, they have plenty of lively content of their own. Yet a third explanation is a kind of intellectual hesitation: Giving in to the graphic style is perceived as dumbing down, and offends conservatives’ inner librarian. Many conservatives prefer to read print books, and prefer that their grandchildren do so, as well.
But this attitude, high-minded though it be, is itself a bit of a manga. After all, almost nobody reads books these days. Not radio hosts, not newspaper editors, not union officials, not politicians, and certainly not children. By turning their collective nose up at graphic books, conservatives surrender education ground to the more artful progressives. In the case of economics, conservatives leave fans of markets, not to mention fans of balanced history, unequipped to rebut when the progressive cartoon books come along. In the end, I finally found the artist, a brave and talented Canadian maestro named Paul Rivoche, to produce a graphic version of Forgotten Man. The book is out this week, which is what provoked this column. But many other illustrated histories are necessary too. Where is the new cartoon Animal Farm? And where is Paul Johnson’s illustrated Modern Times, which would look so fine in Tintin style? The graphic novel is a genre that can serve conservatives as well as it does progressives. But only if those conservatives can picture that.
— Amity Shlaes chairs the board of the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation.