Sarah Gailey’s Eat the Rich comic book series, with art by Pius Bak and coloring by Roman Titov, is a topical psychological horror story that articulates the fears of those living under contemporary capitalism. The five-issue series, published last fall and winter, has recently been collected and published in one volume by BOOM! Studios. It’s a satirical take on the widely touted anti-capitalism slogan, “eat the rich”, whose origins can be traced back to French Revolutionary figure Jean Jacques Rousseau. The full quote reads: “When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich.”
This series is one of the latest entries into the capitalism horror genre, a relatively new horror subgenre that is becoming increasingly popular. Horror is an incredibly effective vehicle for exploring capitalism, which is arguably a horror story all on its own. The series follows Joey, a middle-class law student, on a summer trip to meet her boyfriend’s obscenely wealthy family and rub elbows with the wealthy class. She is awkward and out-of-place in the idyllic, affluent perfection of Crestfalls Bluffs, but is intent on carving out a space for herself among the rich and the beautiful. As it turns out, Joey soon has bigger things to worry about than social faux pas.
Joey’s first night in Crestfalls Bluffs is spent accompanying her boyfriend, Astor, to the retirement party of an elderly groundskeeper. The entire town gathering to send a retiring employee on his way seems sweet, but things take a dark turn when Joey leaves the party to clear her head. She unwittingly witnesses the groundskeeper being hunted down and dismembered, like a deer being slaughtered and neatly divided into consumable portions. On the barbecue, Joey spies a severed hand being roasted among the flames. In Crestfalls Bluffs, it seems, retirement is of the permanent sort.
It’s unclear if Gailey has read Karl Marx, but the story evokes themes that are reminiscent of his magnum opus Capital. Marx frequently drew on the language and imagery of the monstrous and horrific while articulating the exploitation of workers under capitalism. In one chapter he writes: “The capital given in exchange for labour-power is converted into necessaries, by the consumption of which the muscles, nerves, bones, and brains of existing labourers are reproduced, and new labourers are begotten.”
Marx described the bourgeoisie as vampiric in nature, a class of monsters whose existence is fed by the blood of the working class. In the words of Frederich Engles, the capitalist would not lose its hold on workers “so long as there is a muscle, a nerve, a drop of blood to be exploited.” The contract between worker and employer is a death pact in Marx’s eyes, inescapable until the worker had been wrung dry of their labor. Marx went so far as to compare capitalism with the act of cannibalism itself, which is apt considering the plot of Eat the Rich.
Marx’s death pact is made literal in Eat the Rich. After witnessing the savage killing of the groundskeeper, Joey tries in vain to warn Petal, the family’s live-in nanny, about the butchery and discovers an even more terrible truth: the staff not only knows but actively sign contracts sealing their fate. “I was going to die anyway,” Petal tells Joey. She details an all-too-familiar tragic story about being chronically ill and not able to afford healthcare. To her, signing away her life is worth the health insurance and pain medication she is provided. “This is how the world works,” Petal says. “Sorry you had to find out.” Gailey peels back the murky layers of the social contract to expose the absurd deal with the devil we have made — extreme wealth at the cost of staggering economic inequality.
And so, Eat the Rich introduces us to a moral quandary vis à vis Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones That Walk Away from Omelas” (1973). In Le Guin’s short story, we discover that the protagonist’s blissful, utopian society is dependent on the eternal suffering of one individual. There is no utopia without suffering. In Eat the Rich, that suffering is not just explicit and obvious, but contractually enforced in an absurd bureaucratic arrangement between the elite and their employees; everyone’s in on it – and the staff isn’t the only ones that are eaten.
Le Guin’s silent question to the reader is explored more fully in Gailey’s series: What would you do in the protagonist’s shoes? Joey is already trapped by this point in the story. She has unknowingly partaken of the flesh, so to speak, by accidentally eating some of the employees that have been killed. She believes she has no choice but to eat or starve, so she plays the role she is expected to: she dons the sleek dresses, attends the lavish parties, and doesn’t bat an eye when her boyfriend is called away to “help” another employee retire — at least until certain events unfold that push Joey to the brink of tolerance. The story then becomes that of the cog in the machine — will it rebel and try to break the machine? Or will it keep turning?
As this is only a five-issue series, Gailey eschews a more nuanced, complicated examination of capitalism for a shorter, punchier story peppered with sly humor. It’s at once heavy-handed, yet still remarkably subtle. She doesn’t wade too deep into political theory here, but still drops enough nuggets of information to hint at the monster lurking beneath the surface, without outright naming it. Eat the Rich manages to be a remarkably fun comic for such dark subject matter, and despite this, Gailey still succeeds in delivering searing social commentary on the true cost of wealth and the suffering that is tolerated in the name of accruing it.
Beer, Tommy. “Top 1% Of U.S. Households Hold 15 Times More Wealth Than Bottom 50% Combined”. Forbes. 8 October 2020.
Lavin, Talia. “How ‘Eat the Rich‘ Became the Rallying Cry for the Digital Generation”. GQ. 5 November 2019.
Marx, Karl. Das Capital. 1867.