Q&A WITH THE AUTHORS
I think you've got to have the ability to engage in creative laughter in order to live amid difficulties and tension. If you can't laugh at life, you're a very miserable human being. And I think a great deal of truth often comes through laughter. Some people have developed the talent to get this truth over to many people, by laughing the truth into them and out of them, so that I think humor is most important in getting at truth and getting people to understand and often to rise above the despair which can surround them.
—The Rev. Martin Luther King
Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, the power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts.
WHY UNEMPLOYED SUPERHEROES?
Erich Origen: As we began writing this story, we saw the advent of the "jobless recovery," and we started to think about its causes—the many longstanding structural flaws within our economy. We saw how the Great Recession traced its roots to the demise of the Great Prosperity, which ran from the late 1940s to the late 1970s. Americans invented superheroes in the Great Depression; they rose to power, like America, during the Great Prosperity—a time when the common good was a cherished ideal, prosperity was achieved on a much broader scale, and anything seemed possible. Their stories are uniquely American symbols of our hopes and dreams. By showing unemployed and downtrodden superheroes, we're showing how far we've fallen since the Great Prosperity. Our book is a story of ordinary superheroes, down but not out, struggling to make their way in a world where the old truths still apply... but only for those at the very top.
Gan Golan: We also understood the importance of using story and humor to get at the truth in ways that documentary can't. The underlying story shows how heroic everyday people have been disempowered by economic forces and ideologies—as represented by the villains. Today, Superman is displaced by Supercapitalism and Superlotto and Supermax. Villains are ascendant. And yet, the villains think of themselves as the actual superheroes! So to begin our daring escape from the Great Recession, we as a society must name and confront the sinister villains of our time. But we also need to laugh, to cry, and to gain power over the story that dominates our lives—so we can reclaim our true superpowers.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE DISTINCTIONS BETWEEN REGULAR SUPERHERO STORIES AND THE ADVENTURES OF UNEMPLOYED MAN?
Golan: In our book, everyone you see is a superhero of some kind. Everyone has their own comic book—just like people having their own website and Facebook and Twitter feed in reality.
Origen: Since everyone has their own comic book, we can ennoble anyone’s experience. We can also show the villains in the absurd heroic light they and their fans try to paint themselves in. It’s magnifying everything so people see the truth. And it’s just a lot of fun to see real social issues rendered as superhero stories.
THE VISUAL STYLE IN THE BOOK HARKENS BACK TO THE GOLD, SILVER, AND BRONZE AGE OF COMICS. WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THAT OVER A MODERN STYLE?
Golan: The old styles are much more human. Modern superheroes are in a kind of arms race of impossible muscularity. It’s as if we can’t believe that a hero has some inner source of strength. We have to show outward strength in the form of these impossible physiques that are grotesque, inhuman, almost pornographic.
Origen: In one sequence of the book, we show an older superhero, Plan B, who can’t get a job because his style—the style he’s drawn in—no longer fits with the culture. He lost his battle with The Ageist.
Golan: Also, choosing this old style immediately shows readers that something else is going on here. It’s a humor book, and it says something important about the history of our society through the history of superheroes.
IN ADDITION TO SUPERHERO HISTORY, IT SOUNDS LIKE YOU LOOKED AT THE GREAT DEPRESSION?
Origen: My parents were born in the Depression and it very much haunted them. Growing up, my mother was constantly giving us doom and gloom advice, like “ALWAYS save your bacon fat.” We had jars of it in the refrigerator, and a storehouse of dry goods in the garage. It seemed ridiculous at the time, but it was coming from a very real place. In the 80s, Reagan’s union-busting devastated our income and we slowly slid down the economic ladder, like so many have over the last 30 years as wages declined.
Golan: The Great Depression also formed a lot of my family’s outlook. They were immigrants living in tenements in Brooklyn who were glad to become Americans and uphold it’s democratic and egalitarian ideals, but were also highly aware of certain elements in our society that actively worked against those ideals, that hated immigrants, that suppressed protest, that benefited from exploitation. Long before FDR and the New Deal, members of my family were out in the streets pressuring the government to do right by working people in this country. During the Palmer raids in the 1920s some in my family even disappeared after being arrested during protests, and were never seen again. But the New Deal changed all that. It’s no coincidence that my grandparents’ generation are the only ones who own their own homes. It was their union wages that enabled them to afford it. And now, they have health care, taken care of by a mix of social security, and the affordable prices made possible by Medicare, a government health option. The inclusion, prosperity, and stability that marked the arc of their lives was about grassroots pressure, a government that responded, and the many benefits that society experienced as a result. Their personal history is a testament to the struggle of average people who were heroes in their own right. Now, after 30 years of rollbacks, we are in the position of having to fight many of those same battles again today.
HOW DO YOU WANT READERS TO EXPERIENCE THE ADVENTURES OF UNEMPLOYED MAN?
Origen: We want people to see how heroic they are in the face of all they’re up against. One of my roles in life has been to help people who are stressed or grieving have a moment of levity—not by being glib and acting above it all, but by being happy within the sadness and the struggle. It's being authentic, not denying reality. We want to give some soulful comic relief to people who are struggling. Ultimately, we also want to contribute to the ideas that help evolve our shared cultural DNA, so people don't have to struggle in the same way in the future.
Golan: Today you’re fighting tremendous odds on every level. We want people to see we're not merely a free market of successful or failed laborers, we are citizens. We want people to see the villainous plots against them for what they are—so we can all fight the villainy that is at the heart of the problem. We want people to be inspired to take action and keep up the good fight.
SOME OF YOUR VILLAINS ARE REAL ENTITIES OR PEOPLE. FOR INSTANCE, THE FREE MARKETEERS ARE RUBIN, SUMMERS, AND GIETHNER. IS IT FAIR TO REPRESENT REAL PEOPLE AS VILLAINS?
Origen: Well, the market rewards acting like a villain, and can even necessitate it. If there is no regulation, and one company can lower costs because they are freely allowed to offshore, use sweat shops, suppress unions, rig the market, defraud people, or pollute the environment, then other companies are under pressure to do the same in order to compete. In the case of The Free Marketeers, we show their villainy in a section called Attack of The Toxic Debt Blob. Anyone who doubts whether these guys were willfully villainous should see the film The Warning.
Golan: Some of the most evil things that occur in the markets are allowed to occur under the guise of freedom. In the book, we have a henchman robot called The Deregulator. On that panel it says, "To rule the market, you must free it." It's this perverse, vicious circle where people are required to be villainous, and then they embrace it and want more freedom to be more villainous because they see villainy as their key to being more successful in the market. Poorer countries then have to cater to that downward spiral to attract foreign investment, especially when the WTO can punish countries for having laws against child labor, or pollution, because these are “barriers to free trade.” So, the focus needs to be on collective action to change to rules of the game, so that no one has to be a villain. However, at the same time, no matter what the rules might be, we each face our own individual existential choices, and at the end of the day we are responsible for those. That’s what personal responsibility means.
Origen: We can all see that we have these systemic problems that almost require villainous behavior, but yes, on the other hand you have acts of willful villainy. When you spend millions to fabricate bogus science refuting climate change so your company won’t be regulated, you’re a villain. When you stand in the way of public education, healthcare, and a decent standard of living for everyone just so you can continue to profit, you’re a villain. It’s that kind of villainy—the work of The Invisible Hand—that deserves being exposed and made visible, so we can fight for the common good.