Graphic novel provides engaging introduction to economics

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One of the best things about comics in the 21st century is that non-superhero comics are rising to commercial success alongside mainstream superhero offerings from DC and Marvel. Artists in the medium have even begun exploring non-fiction with such hits as “Persepolis,” “Blankets” and now “Economix: How and Why Our Economy Works (and Doesn’t Work) in Words and Pictures,” written by Michael Goodwin and illustrated by Dan E. Burr.

“Economix” is a crash course in the history of the economy and the study of economics, beginning with Adam Smith and ending with the current credit crunch. Thinkers from Karl Marx to Milton Friedman appear as characters, along with economic movers and shakers like Andrew Carnegie, Otto von Bismarck and Joseph Stalin.

Since it covers so much history in only 300 pages, “Economix” is very dense, albeit not bloated or incomprehensible. Goodwin’s writing is clear, concise and entertaining, but it’s a lot of information to absorb. There is a lot of text and a huge amount of information on each page, so I found it most comfortable to limit myself to one chapter in a sitting and wait awhile for the information to sink in before starting the next chapter. 

A major highlight of “Economix” is the artwork by Dan E. Burr. Though the illustrations are simple black-and-white cartoons without much technical detail, they are suited to the book and are very effective at conveying ideas. The diagrams and flow charts are wonderfully intuitive, even when tackling difficult ideas, and the visuals work well in tandem with the text.

In addition to the diagrams, the illustrated characters add a lot of personality and color to the narrative, even in small vignettes. For example, when Exxon and Mobil (the two biggest pieces of Standard Oil) merge during the Clinton administration, the accompanying panel shows John Rockefeller’s spirit sitting on a cloud in the afterlife and sticking his tongue out at a cherubic Teddy Roosevelt.

“Economix” brought up certain recurring themes by using personified versions of two key characters, the government (drawn as Uncle Sam) and big business (drawn as a boxy skyscraper with smokestacks and a frowny face). As one might expect, these two characters appear together a lot, often in panels that require one to give the other a large bag emblazoned with a dollar sign. Other personifications like farmers, soldiers and the classic elephant and donkey appear to drive home their various metaphors, which they do remarkably clearly.

Most of the distant past is presented as factual, though the author occasionally inserts himself to make opinionated remarks, and Goodwin does a good job of separating consensus from his own observations. For most of the book, he is content to let the caricatured economists and politicians of the past duke it out with summaries, quotes and diagrams while the reader watches them prevail or collapse.

The last two chapters cover the last 30 years, including the early Obama presidency, and, as Goodwin points out, there really isn’t a single consensus. It’s certainly true that Goodwin doesn’t spare any party or ideology from criticism, but I think it’s fair to say that his politics (at least economically) are left-of-center.

A lot of the points raised after page 200 are harsh criticisms of Reaganomics, big business and the International Monetary Fund. He continues using his author avatar to make it clear when he is inserting his own take on the issues, but the last third of the book is still highly opinionated.

That said, at the beginning of the chapter “The Revolt of the Rich,” Goodwin makes it clear that “for now, many people disagree, which means this book is about to get more controversial. So be it.”

Despite the possibility of offending the economically conservative, “Economix” is a strong intro-level book about its subject and an excellent use of the comics medium. I award it 5 out of 5 stars.

Brian Hampel is a senior in architecture. Please send comments to [email protected]

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