Some comic books, like “Batman” and “Thor,” unintentionally stumble into scandal. Others, such as Erich Origen and Gan Golan’s “The Adventures of Unemployed Man,” actively court controversy, and their plot points may help the the United States from falling apart.
“The Adventures of Unemployed Man” revolves around Bruce Paine, a playboy CEO who moonlights as a superhero called The Ultimatum, and prowls the streets preaching the choir of self-reliance and positive thinking.
The Ultimatum’s fortunes turn, however, when he takes on the oppressive forces, like a sweatshop, that help market his famous name, a move that leads his company PaineCorp’s's board of directors, including The Man, Pink Slip and Down Sizer, to terminate his contract.
It’s only by working with other down and out superheroes—Wonder Mother, invisible immigrant worker Fantasma and hulking White Rage, among others—that The Ultimatum evolves into Unemployed Man, a champion for the masses struggling under evil corporate powers, something with which the American public, the creators say, can identify.
“People are fighting these huge economic forces that seem like the giant toxic debt blob consuming the city. We can take invisible forces and make them visible in a cool and fun way,” said 38-year-old Origen.
Golan concurred, telling me that the dynamic duo wanted to produce a lively and entertaining book with which average Americans could relate. “We saw that the daily struggle that people were involved in was itself so heroic that doing it as a superhero story made sense,” the 37-year-old Los Angeles native explained.
Golan and Origen met during the dot-com era at what Golan describes as a “doomed from the start” company. Though they went their separate ways for a number of years, the men came together to publish the 2008 best-seller “Goodnight, Bush,” a parody of the classic children’s book “Goodnight, Moon.” After receiving accolades for their endeavor, the men began looking at other familiar genres with which they could toy, and though neither are comic book aficionados, chose to try their hand at the media.
“We were looking at different books that we could do that have a visual history, other than children’s books, and the superhero genre has that familiarity that children’s books do for people,” said Origen, who describes himself as a “student of comedy.” “We had this rich history we could play with.”
Golan elaborates, “We find that readers are much more willing to follow you on a journey across challenging terrain if you start in a place they are familiar with, so we wanted to start with what’s already popular in the wider culture, be it bedtime stories or superheroes, to get them on board.”
“There’s this blockade in the U.S. media against questioning our economic system at the fundamental level. It’s taboo,” continued Golan. “However, if you frame your critique as fantasy or a comedy then all of a sudden, you can say whatever you want.”
“Then,” he concludes, “once they’re securely on board, we lock the doors, turn around, and take them on a crazy ride.”
The most insane part of the book? The factoids Golan and Origen culled from the non-partisan research group Measure of America, which inform us that the United States ranks 37th in infant mortality rate, has the highest poverty rate in the industrialized world and that CEOs on average make more money in one year than most Americans will make in 90 years. It’s pretty startling stuff.
The men also cite “Nickle and Dimed” author Barbara Erenreich and well as economist Robert Reich, who makes an appearance in the book, as intellectual inspiration. Other economic figures also make thinly veiled cameos in the book, including former Fed chairman Allen Greenspan (Alien Greenspan) and three characters called Gutterball, Rueben, and Summerhouse who bear a striking resemblance to Timothy Geithner, Robert Rubin and Larry Summers.
“If they have a superpower, it seems to be the ability to offer incredibly bad economic advice,” noted Origen.
“Unemployed Man” is more than just a comic book, though. It’s a call to collective action, which Unemployed Man and his allies harness to defeat the evil Just Us League and their toxic debt.
“In the book we advocate collective action, because the heroes can’t win until they draw millions of others to join in the fight,” said Origen. “Today a lot of people are talking about unionizing and mobilizing the unemployed. It’s going to be interesting to see how prescient we are in ‘The Adventures of Unemployed Man.’”
It’s clear collective action’s alive and well in the States today: from the Tea Party to union organizers, men and women across the nation are coming together to fight for their respective values. These alliances, however, are pretty strictly partisan, but Golan and Origen seem confident their work, and general social trends, will help break down, rather than cement, those divides. And part of the mission is illustrating how corporate interests attempt to hijack activism for their own ends.
“You have corporations funding these astroturf movements that look like grassroots movements, and they certainly are amassing people, but they’re making sure that the anger is directed not at the corporate corruption and making sure that it’s being pointed in another direction, at the things that may actually help correct all these problems,” says Golan, citing a social safety net as one of the essential tools to securing the nation’s future.
He continues, “Our book is trying to create a lot more clarity about the true origins of the economic problems. I think once people are clear on what the causes were, like profiteering, then we’re all going to be much more effective in not just working together, but in bringing about solutions that can make a difference.”
All people who are struggling, regardless of political affiliation, must work together to take down institutions and companies that would rather keep the public under their collective thumb.
We just have to make sure people actually believe in collective action, says Origen. “In America, people have dismissed the power of collective action as something that people who are desperate and foolish and naive do because they don’t have anything better to do with their time, so they go out there and protest. They see it as a throwback to the 60s, not as something that is effective.”
Both men point to the turmoil in the Middle East, particularly Egypt, as proof positive that collective action can change the world.
“What Egyptians are doing is reminding us of our own history,” said Origen. “Every right we have ever won in this country—be it women’s right to vote, desegregation, workplace rights—all of that resulted from collective action. There seems to be a lot of effort in this country put into making us forget that, but seeing people do it everywhere else in the world might help us remember what we’ve already done time and time again.”
And if we can reclaim that revolutionary spirit, as one nation, rather than partisan camps, perhaps the American people can set their course back toward greatness.