Billionaires by Darryl Cunningham and published by Drawn+Quarterly is a journalistic portrayal of three of the richest, most powerful people on the planet: media mogul Rupert Murdoch, the Koch Brothers (acting as a single entity in Charles Koch), and Amazon mastermind Jeff Bezos. Cunningham, a Yorkshire cartoonist and journalist who has covered science and economics, applies his mixture of hard fatcs with biographical narrative to tell the tales of men whose reach touches just about everyone’s lives in ways we do not often consider.
The introduction compares our own time with the historical Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century where robber barons and workers battled one another. Rather than attempting to use the images to narrate, Cunningham’s art is primarily illustrating the strong captions. These add attentive details and sometimes humor while at some points instilling vignettes to show the drama of the scene words cannot fully capture.
Cunningham first shows Rupert Murdoch, tracing his history back to a wealthy Australian family that already had control of several newspapers. Though tinkering with leftist ideas at Oxford, Murdoch pushed toward the right as he came into the business world. He sold copies readily through eye-grabbing, scandalous headlines, accumulating more and more wealth while applying that money to even more through television. In the Murdoch portion, Cunningham discusses the evolution of the modern screaming pundit, replacing even talking heads, in chatter called news.
After the media, Cunningham turns to industry with the Koch Brothers. He paints a picture of their father, chemical engineer Fred Koch, who was devastated by the scenes of the Soviet Union he witnessed while working there after being sued by American oil companies over patent issues. The boys were raised in an environment decrying government influence, which has translated into influencing government as the Koch Brothers, especially Charles, vied dramatically for control of companies and, from them, billions of dollars that could be used as write-off donations to specific political organizations such as the Tea Party. Cunningham considers the negatives of ultra-libertarianism such as unrestrained environmental damage as well as the surprising positive of opposing the prison-industry complex.
The youngest of Cunningham’s three is Amazon founder Bezos. Cunningham describes Bezos’s workaholism going back to his childhood where he took numerous gifted classes and was encouraged by a rancher grandfather who never let him win a game of checkers. Through Bezos’s climb to the top analyzing the possibilities of the new Internet and determining how to control purchasing and distribution, Cunningham shows how Bezos’s personality of intense drive translates to worker-relations issues as well as directing money to space research rather than earthly relief.
In Cunningham’s afterward, he discusses the issues of super-wealth, particularly fair ways of reigning it in. He states, “No one should have such unelected power, and that includes more liberal billionaires like George Soros and Warren Buffett.” Cunningham’s primary suggestion is taxation, commenting how the economy boomed during eras of high taxes on the very rich in the 1950s, as well as the need to break up monopolies. His lingering question, “Is this the world we want?”