All money is a matter of belief.
There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.
Even a system that calls itself a democracy can become an oligarchy if power becomes concentrated in the hands of a few very wealthy people – a corporate and financial elite.
There is not much to say about the year 2020 that has not already been covered by memes found while doomscrolling on any social media platform, so I’ll skip the prologue. It sucks, we get it. Instead, there’s an unforeseen hiccup at the eye of the storm that I’d like to elaborate on.
We have been living in a great pause, and within it there’s a tremendous amount of opportunity. As the machinery of day-to-day life nearly grinds to a halt, we can all finally take the time to examine things more thoroughly. The faulty components are laid bare for all to see: the social and civil rights issues, the health crises, and the abuses of power. We were vaguely aware of their presence before. Now, however, it’s easier than ever to see how they connect, and how they are driven by a larger, underlying system. I’m referring to our economic demiurge: Capitalism.
We can debate all day on the nuances, on what particular breed this dog and pony show is, but it is responsible for everything, some arguably good and most incontrovertibly bad, we have known for the past several hundred years. At its heart is ownership and accumulation, and the aggregation of wealth for the few, which provides power and control that is then directed against the many — those very same masses whose labor produces the wealth in the first place.
So, is a full-blown revolution in the works to dismantle this inequitable, antiquated behemoth and replace it with something better? I certainly hope so. With that sentiment in mind, let’s talk about art’s role in all this. Specifically storytelling mediums like comic books. Stories serve a variety of functions beyond basic entertainment. They inform, educate, evoke, and scrutinize, sometimes unintentionally. As a result, horizons expand, thoughts are provoked, and darkness gets hosed down with some light. The stories in comic books have been exceptionally good at this, since they can be made and sold relatively inexpensively by impecunious little rabble-rousers with a burning desire to get a few good yawps out into the void. They tend to move a little faster from start to finish, and thus get some more zeitgeist stink on them.
Here are some comics that I believe best encapsulate our highly dysfunctional relationship with a world under modern Capitalism. They communicate feelings of overwhelming desperation, despair, and even blind acceptance, using subversive combinations of satire, horror, surrealism, and the tried and true cautionary tale. They may not move you to confront the Federal goon squads out on the streets, but they will at least get you thinking about the shape of things, the trajectory, and your place in it all. And that’s a start.
Shoplifters Will Be Liquidated
Written by Patrick Kindlon
Art by Stefano Simeone
Lettering by Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou
No oppressive system flourishes without legions of the indoctrinated and complicit. Nussbaum, Loss Prevention Specialist for the retail juggernaut Caucasus Superstore, is among them. All he knows is his life of patrolling the aisles and responding to alleged thefts with an obscene amount of violence. He recites the company’s mission statements like a mantra as he protects the interests of a corporation that only sees him as an appendage honed for maximum efficiency and minimum negative press.
This routine is disrupted when he stumbles across an entire underground society existing in caverns below Caucasus. Built from scraps of the mass-produced cornucopia over their heads, it is home to a variety of personalities that have taken different approaches to living off the grid, and expound upon those philosophies like Texans in a Richard Linklater film. It’s certainly stimulating on its own, but in case you’re not the contemplative type, this all occurs during chases and shootouts.
The supporting cast of characters in this not-so-implausible world of runaway consumerism illustrate the many side effects of life above and below the cracked facade of the “perfect shopping experience.” Middle management hatches a scheme to get rich from insider trading, the head of the company is so hollowed out that he tries to kill himself in public, and the people living one hundred feet down have already begun breaking off into stratified classes. Nussbaum’s journey gives us a view that is pulled so far back that it exposes an entire theater of the absurd, and it performs for the kind of laughs that only bubble out of existential dread.
What really helps drive home the outlandish, irreverent tone of the book is Stefano Simeone’s distinctive artwork. Caucasus is rendered with all the slick gaudiness of 70s art deco, and the characters that populate it have the kinetic, expressive look of modern animation. There is brilliant use of a limited color palette here, which not only establishes a team red vs. team blue motif, but also makes it very easy to read while the madcap chaos unfolds. A big shout-out needs to go to letterer Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou as well, who is one of the few in his field that is constantly crafting the best fonts and balloons for the story that’s being told.
Shoplifters Will Be Liquidated is some of the most effective satire that I’ve seen in comics. It skewers every last target anywhere near its subject, and does it without cheap shots or being overly didactic. I’ve come away with new insights after each reading, but the undercurrent of commodified emptiness and fruitless schisms slams home adroitly by the final page each time without fail.
Dark Horse Comics/Berger Books
Written by Christopher Cantwell
Art by I.N.J. Culbard
Lettering by Steve Wands
If you dwell too long on the concept of “everything” you are most likely going to be crushed and exhausted, and that sort of oppression looms over every panel in this comic. It’s there in the background of every awkward interaction, every long establishing shot, every mock advertisement. It’s in many ways the main character of the story, and it is a byproduct of the new department store that has just opened in Holland, Michigan in 1980.
Everything is a store with a singular purpose: to make everyone happy. It will accept nothing less, even as some of the locals mysteriously die or get ill, insects behave strangely, and ominous sounds and colors threaten those who aren’t receptive to them. Mr. Gooder, his store, and his peculiar workers will make you a member of the family, whether you want it or not. That is, unless a few meddlesome citizens can manage to stop them.
In this age of eighties nostalgia, a lot of the feeling gets overlooked in favor of obvious brand touchstones, but series artist I.N.J. Culbard completely nails the inverse. Despite a plot focused on consumerism, we see no familiar logos or mascots. What’s important here is the world those wares inhabited: the endless panel ceilings, the hazy fluorescent lighting, the frumpy clothes, the boxy vehicles. Somehow he has locked on to the colors of all which is mundane in the Western world, and then juxtaposed it with the glow of cosmic horror. It is a painfully honest retro aesthetic that I’ve only seen previously in the work of Panos Cosmatos.
These five issues (part one of a larger story) are a rewarding slow burn, and a litany of emotional stressors, and I adore them for that. They are not afraid to stare off into the distance. They have no choice but to take deep breaths. The panels of each page are rigid, organized boxes. The illustrations inside are all clean, crisp lines. Everything must be in its right place, until the pressure that’s built up has nowhere left to go. Cigarette smoke billows off the top of a two-page spread. Musical notes dance across the gutters. An entire conversation occurs in hexadecimal code. This narrative will cling to you like an insipid jingle.
The Black Monday Murders
Written by Jonathan Hickman
Art by Tomm Coker
Lettering by Rus Wooton
Coloring by Michael Garland
Jonathan Hickman has never been one to sugarcoat his messages or give you easy answers, and this certainly remains true in The Black Monday Murders. This noir-ish occult horror story is the stuff of cynics and conspiracy theorists, laying bare a world built on magic and wealth, and the power they grant those who can manipulate them successfully. There are constantly warring families, with schools built around them, influencing the markets and power structures connected to their sphere of influence. Behind the scenes are literal gods and familiars, and trapped within all their scheming are the small, everyday people and their everyday lives.
Not all of those people are blissfully unaware, however. There are always seekers, and NYPD detective Theo Dumas is among them. He begins the story investigating a murder involving a powerful member of the Rothschild family, and by the conclusion of the eighth issue is in a very different place. Along the way he will see deeper into the mystery than he ever thought possible, discovering the link between every major market event in history and the shadowy figures who conspire to benefit from them.
So much of the real world is presented in this book that even at its most outlandish, what you see on the page is never anything but convincingly terrifying, and a lot of the credit goes to the art team of Tomm Coker and Michael Garland. Everything is drawn in a photorealistic style, awash in shadow and subtle muted color, as if these ghoulish figures and their intentions can never truly be seen clearly. There are spatters of ink and fuzzy textures all over, making it seem like what you’re actually looking at is grainy film footage of each interaction, clandestinely obtained from rival factions.
Interspersed between chapters are other bits of relevant information: redacted documents and emails, diary entries, news clippings, and Hickman’s signature stylized charts and symbol-based text, outlining the various financial schools around the globe and the infernal language they share. These elements emphasize the investigative aspect that Dumas brings to the story, and give the reader a feeling a discovery as we progress through each issue. There’s even a cheeky little phrase on the back of each cover, proclaiming “ALL HAIL GOD MAMMON” directly above the bar code.
Besides being a hell of an entertaining read, The Black Monday Murders is bleakness delivered in a cold, matter-of-fact style which warns you that there is no going back once it shares its governing precepts with you. The seductive, all-consuming lure of wealth and power demands blood. You will think of this every time you see Viktor Eresko’s demonically grinning face looking right up at yours, regarding you only as a slave.
In a more sane timeline, stories like these would stand in stark contrast to the real world that they’re based on. Perhaps in ours they’ll at least provide some of the sagacity and even empathetic comfort needed for us to one day revisit them as works of mere fiction. Comic books have traditionally been escapist in the more derogatory sense of the word, but just like their prose cousins, they do have the potential to illuminate a more meaningful way out. So go forth (to your local comic shop or library), drink deep, and let’s all try to make the most of this moment we’ve found ourselves in.