The Comics Journal | Robert Kirby | May 4, 2021
“A rogues gallery of hugely wealthy and powerful plutocrats”: The Comics Journal on Billionaires
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! Cunningham offers such vivid description of the nasty activities of these men, that I kept flashing to the comically over-the-top malevolence of The Simpsons’ Mr. Burns.
Sadly, Murdoch, Bezos, and the Kochs are all-too-real villains: ruthless, aggressive, venal, selfish, narcissistic, and seemingly always in opposition to anything that might benefit the working and/or middle classes. 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. Chapter One recounts the life of Australian Rupert Murdoch, who, over the last several decades, has built up a huge global media empire - first in the U.K. with his acquisition of newspapers like The Sun and The Times, and then in the U.S. with outlets like The Wall Street Journal. Perhaps his supreme achievement has been the creation of Fox News Media, which has been a hugely successful conservative, neo-fascist propaganda machine. Murdoch, the son of a right-wing newspaperman, grew up in privilege but -- according to Cunningham -- was actually rather left-wing in his younger days.
However, his approach began to harden in the mid-'70s after a bitter battle with newspaper unions. Emerging victorious, he developed “a more unpleasant, ethics-free pursuit of profit, regardless of the harm it caused.” Murdoch eventually began to meddle in politics for the sake of profit, even forming an alliance with the Iron Lady herself, Margaret Thatcher (who does not come off well here, to put it mildly). I was appalled to learn that it was Murdoch’s Machiavellian machinations that forced former Prime Minister Tony Blair to support the Iraq war in 2003, which (rightly) tarnished Blair’s legacy. More recently, Murdoch propped up Donald Trump, further confirming that he’s a thoroughly nasty piece of work. Appropriately, Cunningham depicts Murdoch as a sort of evil-looking prune.
Chapter Two is devoted to oil and gas tycoons, the Koch brothers. Though there are four brothers (in descending order of age: Frederick, Charles, and twins David and William), Cunningham focuses primarily on Charles and David. Like Murdoch, the Kochs were born on third base, silver spoons firmly in place. Their father, Fred, was an oil magnate with ties to the far right (he was a founder of the paranoiac John Birch Society). When Fred died, the two brothers fought over control of both his fortune and Koch Industries, seizing as much power for themselves as possible, and even blackmailing their eldest brother Frederick, which informs us of the kind of men they are right off the bat. Among their many other misdeeds: supporting the ideologically full-of-shit-and-racist-on-top-of-that Tea Party movement of the late '00s; fighting tooth-and-nail against all efforts to curtail carbon emissions and thus reduce climate change’s threat to our planet; and, in fact, being among the root causes of a number of environmental catastrophes.
You may wonder if the Kochs have had any positive qualities. Well, they are big arts supporters (mostly David, now dead) and also, surprisingly, work for criminal justice reform. Cunningham posits that the latter, generally thought to be a passion of liberals rather than right-wingers, is mostly due to the Kochs' libertarian leanings, which likely view mass incarceration as “state overreach.” But these positives are clearly outweighed by the negatives.