In Billionaires: The Lives of the Rich and Powerful, cartoonist Darryl Cunningham seeks to demystify the profound and devastating effects the ultra-rich have on everything from labor practices to media to politics and the environment. The book, from Drawn and Quarterly, focuses primarily on Rupert Murdoch, the Koch Brothers, and Jeff Bezos, and details their respective family histories and what decisions made them the infamous people we see today.
Cunningham’s style, in regards to both his art and prose, is straightforward and matter-of-fact. At most, there are six panels on a given page with detailed narration boxes and sparse dialogue. Cunningham renders prominent figures with a cartoonish, paper doll-like simplicity. Colors are used sparingly too, with pale grays and golds allowing the rare red or green to pop. But Billionaires isn’t really about the art, as it mostly serves the purpose of a visual aid to the script.
With Billionaires, Cunningham is able to walk a narrow line. On one side of the line, he doesn’t want to be so heady and complex that readers tune out. And on the other side, he doesn’t want to talk down to readers either. Cunningham also gets out of his own way, rhetorically. His personal politics are felt throughout the entire book, but never at any point is it preachy or a call-to-arms. He allows the actions of his subjects and their immediate consequences to speak for themselves.
You could easily read the chapter about Jeff Bezos and think of him as aspirational. His parents are divorced, and his step-father is an immigrant who came to America to have a new and better life. Almost immediately he’s sympathetic — he wasn’t handed a massive company from his parents. He was a good student, and he even hosted Star Trek: The Next Generation watch parties! He worked hard to get to where he is.
After showing you all of the brilliant business decisions Bezos made over the years, Cunningham pulls the rug out from under you and pivots to grueling working conditions in Amazon warehouses. The physical toll put on warehouse workers has been well-documented in recent years, so as if to ask, “is that not enough?” Cunningham shows what it’s like to work for Amazon corporate. We see a ruthless corporate culture shaped by the workaholic ideals of the company’s founder. Cunningham points out that, in order for Jeff Bezos to maintain an ever expanding personal wealth, and reach his ultimate goal of commercial space travel, it comes at the cost of many people who are just working to make ends meet.
The stories of Rupert Murdoch and the Koch brothers are even more complex and devious, but Cunningham’s matter-of-fact prose and often literal visual aides make it into something easily digestible. These two chapters focus primarily on the effects that resulted because of the billionaires’ right-wing agenda and how their wealth changed politics and history in the US and abroad.
Even before Murdoch became the proprietor of Fox News in the US, he was deeply involved in politics in the UK. He had a close relationship with Margaret Thatcher in the ’80s. Both of their brands of hands-off, free market conservatism allowed Murdoch to amass a collection of newspapers without being labeled a monopoly. It’s the kind of conspiratorial behavior that would sound far too insane to be true, or at the very least a B-plot on Succession.
Cunningham’s ability to disentangle complex political machinations and conspiracy is, frankly, the reason to read Billionaires. If you have ever wondered where these men’s ill-gotten gains come from (Spoiler: The Koch’s money came from the actual, literal Nazis) and more importantly where they go, Billionaires is a definitive text. The artwork is simple, but it makes for a more accessible read. Plus, the addition of a references section means that readers who want to know more have a deep well of sources at their disposal.
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