In history, periods of economic crisis have frequently helped spark creativity — just look at classic American novels such as The Grapes of Wrath and To Kill a Mockingbird, both inspired by the Great Depression — so it only stands to reason that current financial woes in the United States are having a similarly positive effect on contempoary art.
Yet few works of literature handle the subject quite so literally as the graphic novel The Adventures of Unemployed Man.
In the satire, published this past October by Little, Brown, a self-help superhero named Ultimatum — inspired alternately by Batman and Superman — loses his day job and rechristens himself as “Unemployed Man,” a champion for the downtrodden.Erich Origen as
Unemployed Man.Co-authors Erich Origen and Gan Golan (Golan also provided layouts and character design) were inspired to make the book because, like so many creative types, they’ve frequently found themselves at least temporarily out of work.
“The fact that we do face serial unemployment helps us have a little bit more of a sense of humor about it,” Origen said in a phone interview with Newsarama. “We’ve been cast into the abyss enough times that we learn how to float a little bit better.”
Origen and Golan, who previously collaborated on the 2008 parody Goodnight Bush, also credit the book’s narrative to their diverse work history — they met while working at a dot-com that included former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld among the board of directors.“As you can see in the book, a wide range of work places, careers and situations are represented, Origen said. "I think in a way that only someone who really knows them could represent them.” The book’s visuals heavily reflect the ‘60s Golden Age and ‘70s Bronze Age of comic books, and supporting characters include rather direct analogues such as "Wonder Mother" — a send-up of Wonder Woman who fell victim to the corporate glass ceiling after having a kid — and "Kollectus," a debt-collecting version of classic Fantastic Four foe Galactus.
Old superhero comic books are frequently an easy target for ridicule from modern audiences, but both authors say their use of these tropes are an homage done with respect to the originals; stemming from their own history as comic book fans and stressing the importance of “refinement” and “authenticity.”Gan Golan as
Master of Degrees.“Comics have always been in my life from early on,” Golan told Newsarama, adding that he started reading X-Men in the ‘80s, and later became a fan of publications like the long-running adult fantasy magazine Heavy Metal.
To prove their devotion to the material being referenced, Origen and Golan went straight to the source, and enlisted several notable comic book illustrators to work on the art for Unemployed Man, including Ramona Fradon, Rick Veitch, Michael Netzer and Joe Rubinstein.
“When we saw her artwork sitting on the table, it was like striking gold, because she’s the real deal,” Golan said of discovering Fradon's work at Comic-Con International: San Diego. Fradon, an 84-year-old comic book industry veteran credited with co-creating DC Comics superhero Metamorpho, penciled about half the book.
Even though Origen and Golan come from outside of the comic book scene and Unemployed Man was released through a traditional book publisher, the two creators have promoted the book at comic book conventions including the Alternative Press Expo in San Francisco last fall — even dressing up in costume as Unemployed Man (Origen) and the Master of Degrees (Golan), the book’s representative of the over-educated and under-employed.
“We don’t embarrass easily, obviously,” Golan said. “We walk around on the street in costumes, and we try to engage people in conversation. Not just to promote the book, but also to hear their stories.”
“There’s something about dressing up in costume that really liberates people to react to you and open up to you in a very interesting way that they probably wouldn’t if you were just in plain clothes,” Origen added.
The Adventures of Unemployed Man has been out for a few months now — racking up positive press from The New York Times, CNN and Time along the way — and it’s been even longer since Origen and Golan originally conceived the idea and composed the book. Yet with a January 2011 unemployment rate of 9 percent, it’s clear that — despite the National Bureau of Economic Research's claim that the recession ended in June 2009 — the book remains very topical.
“I think unfortunately the book is still totally relevant,” Golan said. “On one hand, that’s unfortunate, because it means millions of people are still struggling, and without the kind of assistance that they need and deserve. At the same time, it means that our book is still able to offer some levity and entertainment for the people who are suffering out there.”
To that end, the creators share that they’ve received many first-hand accounts from folks who were cheered up by the book’s contents. Unemployed Man doesn’t provide any unrealistic solutions to such vexing issues, it still ends on an optimistic note.
“We’re constantly getting emails from people, or Facebook messages, telling us how the comic book not only told the story of their lives very accurately, but it also provided them a real pick-me-up,” Golan said, pointing out that he’s discovered that the “harder the time people are having, the more they enjoy the book.”