[2 December 2010]
It’s always startling to read a satire and find oneself in it, but that’s what happened to me. Twenty-eight pages into The Adventures of Unemployed Man, an uncannily perfect comic book retelling of the country’s current economic hard times, the reader meets the character called Master of Degrees. A self-described “Road Scholar”, MoD spends his days “forced to drive hours between colleges, just to teach one or two classes at leach one.” At first I chuckled at the characterization, until I realized: Hey, that’s me!
Such moments of recognition are likely to hit most readers in one way or another. Written by Erich Origen and Gan Golen with artistic contributions by a bevy of artists including Ramona Fradon, Rick Veitch and Michael Netzer, the story operates on numerous levels, but most of all it’s a perfect assessment of the economic difficulties in which many of us find ourselves. The book also manages to satirize the government’s policies—or lack of them—in facing the crisis, as well as the men and corporations who find a way to profit from it. Finally, the book is both lovingly reminiscent of the comic book circa 1975 and a searing parody of the form.
Ultimatum is a Batman-esque costumed superhero sporting a large U on his chest who helpfully fights crime while supporting the status quo. Criminals, thugs and bullies are dispatched with sharp blows to the jaw, accompanied by such morale-raising platitudes as “In America, we don’t beg and steal. We get a job,” and “It’s not the economy, stupid! It’s you!” Secure in his conviction that laziness and lack of ambition are the real causes of poverty, Ultimatum serves as the perfect arbiter of justice.
Needless to say, this can’t last. Soon Ultimatum is fired by his employer, Painecorp, which leads to a bout of superheroic soul-searching. Ultimatum winds up amid the shanty tents of Cape Town, USA, where he meets up with numerous other superheroes: Fellowman, Wonder Mother, White Rage, and the abovementioned Master of Degrees. These caped crusaders take it upon themselves to educate The Hero Formerly Known as Ultimatum, and at their urging he takes up the mantle to fight for the economically oppressed as… Unemployed Man.
The superhero tropes will be familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of comics, and readers like me who grew up on Silver Age will experience jolt after jolt of recognition. While Wonder Mother is an obvious play on Wonder Woman, and White Rage is a nightmare version of the Hulk, nearly every oversized page is crammed with inside jokes and references to the DC and Marvel universes of the ‘60s and ‘70s. (The book is slender, but there is a lot packed into it.) Interstellar strongman Galactus here metamorphoses into Kollectus—“I regret to inform you that your grace period has expired”—while the Joker is represented as the Broker, part of the evil Just Us League that works in concert with arch-villain The Invisible Hand.
White Rage is typical of Origen and Golan’s twist on classic comics. Sharing his origin story with the other heroes, he explains, “I was bombarded by an accidental overdose of Fox News rays. Now, whenever I feel threatened, fearful, or angry, a startling metamorphosis occurs.” The Hulk-like figure is filled with such anger that he “Must… smash… enemy… gay… alien… socialist… government!”
It’s not only comics that come under the satiric knife. The Just Us League is filled with creepy figures such as Golden Sack, Stern Bear, and the Free Marketeers. There’s even a cameo from the Just us League’s mentor from outer space, Alien Greenspan. Childish? Maybe, but memorable nonetheless, and it gets the point across.
To put it mildly, this story is not without bias. What economics polemic is? The position of the writer is obvious from the start, and free-market disciples are not likely to be amused, although the rest of us can enjoy the combination of spot-on comics parody and on-point economic commentary. Readers who believe that it is good policy to drive wages down and relocate manufacturing overseas in order to remain competitive with, say, China, while simultaneously rewarding CEOs with ever-larger incentives and slashing social programs—they’re unlikely to appreciate the message.
Speaking of messages, another delicious aspect of Unemployed Man is the abundance of parody advertisements throughout. The story is broken into chapters, with ads interspersed hawking everything from Inaction Comics (featuring Unemployed Man) to Self-Pulling Bootstraps to the Political Science Kit (“Have Fun Discovering the Properties of Reaganite! Clintonite! Dubyanite! Obamanite!”) Perfectly conceived in both tone and design, the ads perfectly catch the ‘70s vibe of real comics advertising.
The story’s outcome is unlikely to surprise many readers. In classic comics fashion, the heroes confront the villains in a way that rarely happens in real life—okay, never happens in real life—and a measure of justice is served. The outcome is designed to deliver hope to those who agree with the story’s diagnosis of the situation; the ending is less likely to satisfy those who feel that the poor really do get more or less what they deserve.