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Best Graphic Nonfiction   —Broken Frontier Awards2019

'(A) tremendously well researched comic book… I am a big fan. I’m always in awe of the amount of information that Darryl manages to pack in to every one of his comic books.'—Robin Ince, Book of the Day

Who are the super-rich in our society, and how do they have such disproportionate political and cultural influence on our lives? How did they acquire their wealth, and what are their lives like?

The super-rich are often portrayed as self-made, as if their wealth was created entirely by their own efforts. But is this true? In his latest book of graphic analysis, celebrated author Darryl Cunningham examines the evidence, featuring graphic biographies of media baron Rupert Murdoch, oil and gas tycoons Charles and David Koch, and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Have these individuals enjoyed advantages, beyond their personal ability and attributes, that have aided their success?

Cunningham makes comparisons with the ‘Gilded Age’ (1870s to 1900), the last period in America in which a few individuals gained colossal wealth. Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, JP Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt and others made fortunes, but also helped
create the modern world of railroads, manufacturing, and finance. What essential elements have the modern equivalents brought us?

Despite the often reported disadvantages brought by the widening gulf between the poorest and the super rich, are such wealthy individuals necessary to finance technological progress? Would we be poorer without them?

Jeet Heer, National Affairs Correspondent, The Nation

24 March 2021

If you want to know why the world is such a mess, Darryl Cunningham provides a gripping and necessary briefing. His graphic novel Billionaires is some of the best comics journalism I’ve ever read. Cunningham manages to distill a tremendous amount of essential facts about some of the most dangerous and destructive people on earth, information made indelible by his low-key, acerbic cartooning. The drawings are remarkable, varied, and always on point.

The Comics Journal, Robert Kirby

4 May 2021

Darryl Cunningham’s Billionaires offers up a rogues’ gallery of hugely wealthy and powerful plutocrats – Rupert Murdoch, Jeff Bezos, and the Koch brothers -- and he illustrates in gruesome detail how each of these men has wreaked enormous damage by creating mass media monopolies, recklessly poisoning the environment, infiltrating and corrupting government, and fostering horrible workplace environments. All this, and so much more!

By telling these men’s life stories and exposing their practices, Cunningham powerfully elucidates a number of the core ills afflicting contemporary culture. As shown in his 2014 book, The Age of Selfishness, he has a facility for synthesizing complex sociopolitical information and spinning it into accessible, entertaining comics journalism. And his concise, cartoony style and deadpan humor go a long way in making these alarming and depressing stories easier to take.

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Win Wiacek, Comics Review

18 December 2020

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Timely Heads-Up for the Upcoming Spendfest Season… 9/10

There are books to read, books you should read – and some, perhaps, that you shouldn’t – and there are important books. The relatively new field of graphic novels has many of the first but still boasts precious few important books yet. Thankfully, British documentarian, journalist and cartoonist Darryl Cunningham seems to specialise in the latter…

It’s hard enough to get noticed within the industry (simply excelling at your craft is not enough) but when comics does generate something wonderful, valid, powerful, true to our medium yet simultaneously breaking beyond into the wide world and making a mark, the reviews from that appreciative greater market come thick and fast – so I’m not going to spend acres of text praising this forthright, potentially controversial and damning examination of Earth’s Newest (but hopefully not Last) Gods – the Super Rich.

Multi-disciplined artist Cunningham was born in 1960, lived a pretty British life (didn’t we all?) and graduated from Leeds College of Art. A regular on the Small Press scene of the 1990s, his early strips appeared in legendary paper-based venues such as Fast Fiction, Dead TreesInklingTurn and many others.

In 1998, he & Simon Gane crafted Meet John Dark for the much-missed Slab-O-Concrete outfit and it remains one of my favourite books of the era. You should track it down or agitate for a new edition.

Briefly sidelining comics as the century ended, Cunningham worked on an acute care psychiatric ward: a period that informed 2011 graphic novel Psychiatric Tales, a revelatory inquiry into mental illness delivered as cartoon reportage.

When not crafting web comics for Forbidden Planet or on his creations Uncle Bob AdventuresSuper-Sam and John-of-the-Night or The Streets of San Diablo, he’s been consolidating a pole position in the field of graphic investigative reporting; specifically science history, economics and socio-political journalism through books such as Science TalesSupercrash: How to Hijack the Global EconomyGraphic Science: Seven Journeys of Discovery and The Age of Selfishness: Ayn Rand, Morality and the Financial Crisis.

His latest offering details the rise and pernicious all-pervasive influence of three icons of the plutocratic ideal while debunking such self-deluding and damaging public myths as “self-made”, “coming from nothing” or “fair and honest”.

It opens with a pictorial Introduction outlining how late 19th and early 20th century robber barons of the Gilded Age set the scene for the rise of today’s financial overlords – and how governments responded to them…

Delivered in clear, simple, easily accessible imagery, Cunningham then deconstructs the carefully crafted legends and official biographies of media mogul Rupert Murdoch, energy barons Charles & David Koch and internet retail supremo Jeff Beez with an even-handed fairness I’m not sure any other investigative author could match – or would want to.

Via an avalanche of always-attributable, deftly delineated facts and reported events, the artist delivers the very opposite of hard-hitting polemic, instead massaging and lathering readers with an ocean of appetising data that allows us make up our own minds about proudly ruthless apex business predators who have controlled governments, steered populations and reshaped the planet in their quest for financial dominance.

Best of all, Cunningham even has the courage to offer bold – and serious – suggestions on how to rectify the current state of affairs in his Afterword, and – should anybody’s lawyers or tax accountants be called upon – backs up all his cartoon classwork with a vast and daunting list of References for everything cited in the book.

Comics has long been the most effective method of imparting information and eliciting reaction (that’s why assorted governments and militaries have used them for hard and soft propaganda over the last century and a half), and with Billionaires: The Lives of the Rich and Powerful we finally see that force being used against today’s greatest threat to continued existence…

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Joe Gordon, Down the Tubes

11 December 2019

Ever since Blank Slate first published his achingly honest Psychiatric Tales I have eagerly anticipated each new work by Darryl Cunningham, who has, with a mixture of detailed research, touches of humour, savvy observation and sensitivity, become for me one of our finest cartoonists working in non-fiction fields. Billionaires is a very timely publication: while there has been a division between the richer and poorer probably since the earliest civilisations, the disparity has grown enormously since the 1800s until we now have a tiny amount of people – the “one percent” as they are often referred to in the media – who have more wealth than most of the rest of the billions of people on the planet combined.

While the sheer levels of wealth and indulgence and the differential between those at the top and the rest of us may now be hugely exacerbated, Darryl points out right from the introduction that this is not new, drawing parallels to the “Gilded Age” of tycoons like Rockefeller and the Vanderbilts. This is not just an examination of the sheer accumulation of wealth, however, this is more about the effects of that level of wealth both on those who have it and on the wider society around them (which doesn’t have it), and again Darryl points out historical antecedents to our modern One Percent-influenced world, with those early tycoons and their use of wealth to garner power and influence that can be used to shape government policy and public opinion to service their own beliefs and their own, short-term corporate goals (the dismantling of environmental controls, for instance, or laws safeguarding worker’s rights).

For the purposes of the book Darryl has chosen to focus on three billionaires – Rupert Murdoch (media baron), the Koch Brothers (oil and gas) and Jeff Bezos (online services and technology). As he points out himself this means all of his subjects here are male and white, but as he comments, most billionaires are white and male, and while he could cover female billionaires or billionaires of colour (and he hints perhaps he may some day), given Western society has been disproportionately shaped by wealthy, white males, it made sense to focus on them here.

Elsewhere in the book Darryl also addresses the fact his choices here are all very right-wing in their political outlook, but notes that such is the influence given to these few super-rich individuals now that regardless of where they are on the political and moral spectrum (the two are often quite separate) the fact just a few people can hold such power over millions of others is worrying.

For each of the three main sections we follow each of the subjects, from early life and influences through to their current positions. In each case I must say that Darryl does his level best to be fair-handed, probably more so than many of us would have been in his place, and that is to his credit – this is no hatchet job, although, of course, it does cover many actions by these men that most of us would probably find morally reprehensible. But it also covers more positive aspects of their life stories – Charles and David Koch labouring on their father’s ranch as youngsters, to learn the value of hard work and self-sufficiency, their father trying to teach them a lesson and not allow them to grow up as what today we’d probably refer to as spoiled trust fund brats.

Or a young Bezos thriving despite a difficult start in life, with a wayward father, who was later replaced by an immigrant man who married his mother and who applied himself in the American Dream style to better himself and his family (and did), along the way encouraging the young Jeff, or showing that the self-capable Bezos starting Amazon in his garage, building office desks himself by woodworking some old doors into work tables. There are even some surprising revelations (well, at least to me!), such as young Murdoch arriving in the UK to study for his degree and becoming so attracted to left-wing politics his rich father was worried about him.

While the early life lessons that formed these men may differ in subject and time and place, there does seem to be a common theme, which is a slow but relentless push by all of them to accrue more power, and the more they have, the more they want. The wealth itself seems almost secondary in some ways, to the power and influence they allow them, be it being able to command the lives of thousands of employees as they wish (Bezos and his demand that everyone in the company works as many hours as him and to hell with family life and the like, for instance), to being able to directly influence the levers of governmental power (and indeed to do so on an international, not just national scale), be it the Koch’s use of vast funding to power so-called Think Tanks and policy groups or college programmes to create “research” that backs their own views, or Murdoch and his “king-maker” model, where his media empire could make or break a political leader, making even Prime Ministers dance to his tune rather than serving their electorate or the national interests (one telling scene with very contemporary overtones notes that Murdoch loathes the EU because in the UK he can lift the phone and tell the PM what to do, but in Europe they don’t care who he is).

The artwork is in Darryl’s familiar, cartoony style (down to the free-drawn lines of buildings, no rulers here!), which is a style I have to say I have tremendous affection for. It is also a style that serves Darryl’s work well – it is clear, concise but very easy on the eye, helping to render the mountains of research and complex details into very simple to understand, accessible graphics. He makes it look very simple, and I am sure it is anything but. The art also leavens the heavyweight subject matter with some welcome touches of humour here and there (a page on young Jeff Bezos on his grandfather’s ranch, learning hands-on skills, including how to castrate bulls, has a cartoon bull staring at the reader and asking in alarm “What?!?!”).

As someone who has read all of Darryl’s works, right back to when he was creating his humour strip on the now-vanished Forbidden Planet Blog years ago, I found Billionaires especially interesting. Not just because it is a fascinating subject and an erudite, accessible examination of these people who have far too much influence over their fellow citizens, not to mention very contemporary (we see laws and even entire government policies changed to suit a few billionaires, not the electorate), but because it ties in very nicely to much of Darryl’s earlier works. Taking in the lives of these billionaires also covers economies (which Darryl has covered before, most notably in Supercrash) and the environment, which has featured in his science books. While they may not be designed as a connected series, for those of us who have read his previous works, it’s interesting and gratifying to notice many connections to elements of those earlier books.

As with all of Darryl’s works, Billionaires takes some very important and complex subjects – many of them matters which directly impact on the lives of ourselves and millions of others around the world – and distils all of that huge amount of research into a clear, thoughtful narrative that delivers detail without overloading the reader, and does so in a hugely compelling and fascinating manner. At this rate I think Darryl Cunningham may be becoming the UK’s equivalent to the great Larry Gonick, and our vibrant comics scene is all the richer for his work. Hugely recommended reading.

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Cartoon Club Magazine

11 December 2019

With Christmas almost upon us, how many of you have already purchased a gift from Amazon? The retail behemoth’s meteoric rise is one of three tales told in Billionaires, a brilliant book by Darryl Cunningham that explores the ruthless practices that have lifted four individuals to billionaire status.

Firstly, Cunningham looks at Rupert Murdoch, with his not so humble beginnings and his initial left-leanings before hitting upon a populist route that he grabbed with both hands. Secondly, there are the Koch brothers, two men who took their father’s business to unparalleled new heights and paved the way for the American politics we see today. Then, finally, there’s Jeff Bezos. Like Murdoch, he saw an opportunity and exploited it, but perhaps unlike Murdoch, he’s far from finished in his ambitions.

What unites all the tales are the four men’s willingness to take full advantage of anyone and anything that crosses their path. Their justification is that if they don’t, someone else will, so they act in a manner the average person would find reprehensible. It’s a sociopathic ruthlessness that has proved, to them at least, that the ends justify the means.

But we don’t deal with these men; we deal with the shiny, glossy companies they own, so it’s all too easy to overlook their methods. By using their companies we endorse their practices. In Amazon’s case, our desire for a bargain coupled with an everything-in-one-place structure is spelling the end of the High Street, and that’s not to mention how all the men involved in this book play the system to avoid their share of tax. It really is eye-widening reading and, if you’re like me, it should give you pause about just how you spend your money.

And if you liked that: Put Cunningham’s Supercrash on your Christmas list.

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Morning Star

28 October 2019

Who in their right mind would entertain spending a minute reading about individuals who 99 per cent of humanity should treat with utter contempt?

No doubt prompted by the motto "know thine enemy," Darryl Cunningham has.

In Billionaires, he homes in on the odious individuals repackaged with a "celeb" veneer and force-fed to the population by a largely dumbed-down mass media to uncover their unscrupulous and often criminal deeds.

The Cunningham spotlight focuses on a trio, all US-based, who have ruined - and continue to ruin - the lives of millions as they "globalise" their activities.

Rupert Murdoch's gutter-media empire supported Margaret Thatcher in her class war against trade unions and later spoon-fed policy to Tony Blair as he abandoned the working class to its fate.

The media mogul is an arch-manipulator, hell-bent on feeding the basest instincts and encouraging all manner of social prejudice - equally lacking in moral standards - Murdoch has found a willing sidekick.

The Koch brothers are perhaps lesser known but their vast petro-chemicals empire is the world's single largest polluter.

Their family eagerly supported nazi Germany and, for good measure, founded the ultra-reactionary John Birth Society, dedicated to supporting anti-communism and "limited" government.

The Kochs father died of a heart attack in 1967 and his sons' spectacular orgy of back-stabbing over the inheritance is like a darkly comical King Lear.

Jeff Bezos's Amazon takes the biscuit as a model of relentless and vicious exploitation of workers on zero-hours contracts and Cunningham makes good use of James Bloodworth's Hired, which details his experience of working in an Amazon depot, to disabuse any idea that such places are anything other than glorified labour camps.

As a writer and illustrator, Cunningham excels and there's an irresistible symbiosis between the words and the minimalist drawings. The graphic characterisation of these betes noires are beautifully succinct, with the frame composition immaculate and the sparse use of flat colour adding clarity.

This is a most timely book, particularly as rebellion against pollution of the environment ought to go hand in hand with the pollution of our minds.

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