The Great Depression in Comic-Book Format

As revisionist histories go, The Forgotten Man went—straight to the NY Times bestsellers list in 2009. The book stayed there for months, even though it differed from the received wisdom of academia, and the lockstep opinion of the mainstream media. Indeed, Amity Shlaes’s pellucid chronicle of the Great Depression became successful because it rejected the oft-quoted line in the film The Man Who Killed Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

The author, previously a Wall St. Journal editorialist and currently a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, vigorously swept away the myths and half-truths that followed the Great Depression. Unlike most narratives of that period, hers refused to view President Herbert Hoover as arch-villain, and his successor Franklin D. Roosevelt as a superhero.

Not that Shlaes let Hoover off the hook. She demonstrated with innumerable facts and statistics that the 31st president believed in the federal government’s ability to fix all economic woes. Thus he signed the Smoot-Hawley bill, imposing heavy duties on imported goods. Instead of making America self-sufficient, it wrecked international trade and jump-started the depression. However, as Shlaes illustrated, it was the 32nd president who made that depression a great one.

Like Hoover, FDR distrusted the free market’s ability to right itself. For all the talk about the country’s lower- and middle-class “Forgotten Man,” he pushed farm subsidies that persist to this day, swelling the coffers of agribusiness and raising food prices for the very people he promised to aid. Additionally, Roosevelt sided with labor unions at virtually every turn. Major companies, forced to grant an ever-increasing percentage of their profits to wages and benefits, cut back on hiring. Contrary to biased accounts of the period, the breadlines actually grew longer in the 1930’s as unemployment increased. It stayed well above double figures for the decade. Nor were these FDR’s only liabilities. He was so determined to have his way that he threatened (and failed) to “pack” the Supreme Court with more than the nine judges who kept finding fault with his New Deal policies. So why did Roosevelt win the presidency four times, and why is he regarded with such awe 12 presidents later?

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For one thing, Shlaes dispassionately observes, the former Secretary of the Navy and governor of New York State was a natural leader. He broadcast, in every sense, an aura of confidence in the midst of a flailing economy and the imminent disintegration of Western Europe. “Where Hoover had been brusque,” the author points out, “Roosevelt inspired.” His advisers were astonished at the power of FDR’s “fireside chats” heard in every city and village via radio. “Roosevelt was inventing a new kind of public speaking. Shouting and superlatives were not so necessary now that there was a microphone.”

But there was “one additional, and very powerful, bonus” for Roosevelt in 1940. Even his GOP opponent, Wendell Willkie, acknowledged that it hardly mattered that one in ten men were still jobless, because a war “would hand Roosevelt the thing he had always lacked—a chance, quite literally, to provide jobs for the unemployed. Roosevelt hadn’t known what do to do with the extra people in 1938, but now he did; he would make them into soldiers.”

The Forgotten Man laid out its case with admirable clarity. Even FDR’s most fervent apologists could appreciate its narrative drive, vigorous prose and brief, relevant citations. Yet Shlaes and her publishers obviously felt that the clothbound and paperback versions were out of step with today’s young literary consumers. Accordingly, they now offer a third edition—a rendering in the style of a graphic novel, illustrated by Paul Riuoche and “adapted” (read simplified) by Chuck Dixon.

This time out, Willkie turns from candidate to narrator, telling the story of the Great Depression from the liberal Republican point of view. Riuoche is a master of cartoon portraiture, and an indelible cast of characters pass in review, ranging from Presidents Coolidge, Hoover and Roosevelt to Oliver Wendell Holmes and Father Divine. Moreover he opens up the narrative with imaginative long shots and close-ups in the style of a documentary film.

But to what end? Fans of illustrated fiction a la Will Eisner & Co. have made the Graphic Edition of The Forgotten Man an Amazon bestseller. Yet these readers are unlikely to move on to the writing that inspired the pictures—or to most other scrupulous examinations of 1930’s America. This adult comic book is, at best, a brisk paraphrase of a nuanced and closely reasoned argument. Complete with sketches and mini-bios of the principal players, it recalls the Cliff Notes and Classic Comics versions of Les Miserables—entertaining, vivid, but not the real thing. Alas, in a post-print age, it may be a harbinger of all the non-fiction, non-books to come.

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