Explaining the Bleak Picture

by Jeni Jenkins

Most Americans still can’t really grapple with the causes and consequences of the world financial crisis that erupted in 2007. Many are so overwhelmed with what has happened, with the housing market, the banking industry and with the rising costs of living, that spending the time to analyze and unravel the history behind what happened seems like an insurmountable task.

Lucky for us, some folks have decided to do all that dirty work for us—graphic artist Seth Tobocman along with journalist and activist Eric Laursen and artist Jessica Wehrle have taken on mapping out how the financial crisis happened in the 2010 release of the graphic novel Understanding the Crash.

Through their intelligent analysis they answer this question for the general public, like many have done, but in simple terms paired with a striking visual candor.

The authors draw from an opposition to big businesses asserting, successfully, that our current situation is rooted in the push for the “American Dream” paired with the greed of Wall Street and the de-regulation of the banking industry.

Through their stimulating artistic narrative, the authors take us on a visual journey, breaking the complicated workings of our country’s economic model down, chapter by chapter. Although, still somewhat difficult to follow, which is by no fault of the authors, but more by the very nature of the system we are part of, readers can at least begin to understand where “We” may have gone wrong, how we could have prevented it and why we are still so far from fixing our broken system.

Through each chapter the story line reads like a beat poem, following a steady rhythm and dramatically focusing our attention on unraveling the mystery. One rather striking quality of the work is the way in which the power brokers responsible for much of our demise are portrayed as various predatory animals.

Other depictions or metaphors of these brokers are purposely vicious or violent including a man with a meat-grinder as a head, Casino-mob bosses, and men with fangs or heads that resemble piranhas.

The authors outline the connection between layoffs of the working class at factories who find their neighborhoods deserted and their pantries depleted and the middle class who followed the American Dream of pulling themselves up by their bootstraps by getting a good education, to securing a high-paying job and still ending up laid off and trapped by debt.

The story they tell shows us how one family’s loss of a home causes another family to watch their savings disappear in thin air.

Throughout Understanding the Crash<, the authors draw from real examples of real people in real neighborhoods to tell their story. In “She Lives Here”, we hear the story of Mrs. Redrick, who did everything right and still nearly lost it all due to the trickery of a mortgage officer.

In “The Neighborhood” we see the downfall of a Cleveland neighborhood transformed into a Free Trade Zone where any and every predator: vultures, wolves and sharks make a community into a war zone.

The most fascinating chapters are “Reinventing the Octopus”, which tells the story of our governments involvement and disinvolvement in the banking industry and “Bailout”, which carefully outlines how the U.S. government responded to the housing bubble bursting and the actual “crash” we all refer to.

I won’t spoil the entire book, but I will say that Understanding the Crash has improved my understanding of the state of our economy significantly. It also helps me to understand how the demographics of our homeless have changed so significantly over the last two years.

What’s more, while the book is 116 pages, it’s easily accessible and can be tackled in under and 2 hours.