I remember the first time I read a comic book whose purpose was to teach and entertain. It was in the seventh grade, it was about the Civil War, and it was as boring and bland as any history book I’d ever encountered. There were a few comic books that were a bit more entertaining, such as versions of classics like War of the Worlds and The Invisible Man, but those were rare and usually frowned upon by the librarian or teacher. (Anyone else remember those in comic book form?)
It would be almost three decades later before I’d discover that given the right artist, writer, and subject matter, comics could indeed be useful for making complex topics more enjoyable, and easier to understand. If you’re familiar with the Manga Guides from No Starch, you should definitely check them out! I’ve read most of them, and I absolutely loved the Manga Guide to Physics and the Manga Guide to Relativity. And I have to admit that I let my statistics skills slip since college, so the Manga Guide to Statistics was pretty slick!
While I tend to get my education from non-comic books, I am currently raving to my friends about a new book I’ve just completed called Economix. As you can tell from the title, it’s a comic book… about economics. And it’s flat-out awesome! I can honestly say I never thought I’d write something like that about… economics. I was not a fan of the topic in high school, and the Introduction to Engineering Economics I had in college was painful — I made an A, but I think I read more, did more homework, and sweated more over that class than any other engineering class I took. (Okay, not true — Thermodynamics beat me up pretty bad — B+ and I was doing cartwheels down the hall when I got my grade.)
Anyway… Economix. It’s a 300 page comic book that does what it promises — it gives readers a visual explanation of this very complex subject, complete with fun little bits of history and quotes from famous people (you’ll look at some past presidents in a completely different light when you’re done with this book) and non-technical explanations that avoid complex math and instead use subtle visual clues to keep your brain focused on a specific concept or theory. It’s genius.
I’ve completed the entire book — took me over a week to read it because this is dense stuff! I don’t mean dense as in unfathomable… it’s completely the opposite. It’s easy to follow, but a little goes a long way. You read a chapter (typically about 20 pages of 4-6 panels) and then you really need to put the book down and let it sink in. Later chapters build on previous chapters’ content, so there’s a real benefit to going slow and not trying to read the entire thing in one or two days. Understand the fundamentals introduced early on, and the later chapters really shine as you begin to realize just how well you are understanding this complex subject.
For me, I absolutely loved the build-up that explained why some countries prospered while other countries suffered due to decisions made by their leaders. I gained valuable insight into key decisions made by US presidents, understood better the real causes behind a few wars, and my mind began to grasp the larger picture that doesn’t just include the US economy, but the world’s. This is a book that moves way beyond the simple Supply/Demand model that every kid is taught and gets into the nitty-gritty stuff behind the creation of financial organizations such as the World Bank, the Social Security Administration, and the Federal Reserve. I always thought I understood the gold standard, but I REALLY understand it now. And the little bit of history I was taught in school didn’t give me the big picture about early 20th century robber barons and titans of industry and the presidents who were more often than not hindering rather than helping their country by either bad decisions or complete indecision. (And by the way, author Michael Goodwin and illustrator Dan. E. Burr encourage readers to check the facts — while Goodwin does insert himself into the comic book in certain places to offer up his own opinion or understanding of the topic being covered, it’s not frequent enough to feel that the book is simply his take on the subject.)
And Goodwin doesn’t shy away from controversy — I was glad to see that he spared no politician from a frank and honest assessment. On one very interesting and very accurate page, the author points out how economic assessments seem to only make sense years, decades… maybe even centuries after a particular economic period has passed. And then the book begins to move into the more recognizable figures such as Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Obama. Again, the book doesn’t take a political position one way or the other — Democrats and Republicans are equally skewered for their bad decisions. And the book does an excellent job of explaining those bad decisions. I found myself many times going to Google to verify a particular decision made by one president or the other — and my view on so many presidents (well, pretty much all of them) has changed drastically. And not typically for the better.
The last few chapters cover topics like the S&L mess, the Internet bubble, the AIG bailout, and many more. India… China… Greece… all the issues we’ve been hearing in the news recently are provided in plain, easy-to-follow explanations with sketches that bring the problems to life. If an image is worth a thousand words, when you’ve finished reading this book you’re going to feel like you’ve just passed two, maybe three college-level economics courses. I just cannot stress enough how amazing this book is, and I cannot stress how many other topics should (and could) be addressed with this level of detail. While I went into the book with a basic, introductory understanding of economics, I feel like I now have a much more solid understanding of the history and the real-life examples that have happened (good and bad) and should be giving us a much stronger incentive to get things under control. That said, I also cannot stress just how angry this book made me as I began to fully understand some of the economic policies that have been put into place (and by whom) that are outright criminal (or should be). As the author states at the end of the book, we’re not done with economic problems, even big ones. You’d think that we, the tax-payers and voters of the USA, would have had enough, but apparently we have not — and I’ll leave it up to you to read the book and discover just where the problems still exist rather than turn this post into a political one or a debate on the 99% versus the 1% (oh, and the Occupy Movement also gets some coverage here as well).
In the introduction to Economix, Joel Bakan, a professor of law at the University of British Columbia, closes it out by stating:
And don’t be surprised if it turns out to be the first comic book to win its author the Nobel Prize in Economics.
When I first read that statement before tackling the actual core content of the book, I thought it was just a nice compliment. I had no idea when I finished the book that I’d actually be in agreement. This book takes a topic and makes it available and understandable to the masses, young and old. Grab yourself a copy and give yourself a week or two to slowly digest it — you won’t regret the bump in education you receive.
I’d like to thank Amy at Abrams for my review copy as well as providing a freebie download for our readers — click here to download a 16-page Economix overview of Social Security (17Mb PDF) — it’s a great example of the artwork and writing style of the book. The download link is good through September 29, 2012.
Oh, and one more thing — Contest! Yep, the kind folks over at Abrams are offering up a copy of Economix to three lucky commenters (US residents only — sorry). Leave a brief comment explaining the failure of the early capitalists’ models to account for destabilization in the colonies and how these failures relate to present… kidding! Just leave a comment telling me what other subject you’d like to see turned into a comic book — and keep it clean and geek-related, folks! I’ll pick three random winners from all legitimate comments submitted before 11:59pm PDT, September 21, 2012. Winners will be notified via email so we can get their addresses for Abrams to send out the books. Good luck!