You would think that it would be difficult to take a daunting 19th century masterpiece of economics, philosophy and history like Karl Marx’s Das Kapital and turn that imposing intellectual colossus (which is well over 1000 pages in length) into a simple, straightforward and easy to follow comic book, but you would be dead wrong.
In 2008, Tokyo-based publishing company East Press published a manga version of Das Kapital by Variety Artworks that flew off the shelves, selling 6000 copies in the first few days and getting discussed in the media the world over. The manga market is huge in Japan, generating billions of dollars, even so, Das Kapital: Manga de Dokuha (“Reading ‘Das Kapital’ through Manga”) was one of the publishing events of that year. Now it’s being published in a new English translation as Capital In Manga! by radical publishing house Red Quill Books.
I loved it. Admittedly, I’m one of those people who is all for recommending to someone who is considering taking on Marx’s thought, to TAKE THE EASIEST ROUTE. Reading Marx in the original is not something that’s easy to do, but trust me, if you want to “get the gist” of Marxian concepts, it’s not really as difficult as you might think. There is no better way to dive in than via popular books like Terry Eagleton’s highly readable Why Marx Was Right or Rius’ masterfully done cartoon primer Marx for Beginners, and now this new Marxist manga.
At first I found myself reading Capital In Manga! skeptically. How are they going to pull something like this off? Like most manga, the characters are simplistic, but in the case of trying to create a fictional bridge from this century back to Marx’s original writings about capital formation and surplus labor, and make that easy to understand, it’s not like it could really be any other way. If you are looking for nuanced character development, you’re not going to find it here.
The simple but effective narrative in Capital In Manga! follows Robin, an earnest young cheese maker who works alongside his widower father. The father and son make the best tasting cheese around and there are long lines at the market for what they produce. For the father, this is enough, but his son has other ambitions and fears poverty.
That’s when Daniel, a shrewd and cynical capitalist investor enters Robin’s life and offers to set him up in business (In a movie version, evil Daniel would be played by a young James Spader.) As the story plays out, the reader sees Robin’s moral dilemma with Daniel’s brutal exploitation of their employees, and we meet Carl, a brave worker at the cheese factory who fights back against the harsh working conditions and resents that he and the factory workers are making someone else wealthy with their labor. (It’s fun to consider how Capital In Manga!—which can be read in 45 minutes or less—is pretty much the Bizarro World polar opposite of Ayn Rand’s dryly unsubtle and overlong polemic novel Atlas Shrugged!)
Capital In Manga! renders Marxian concepts about as easy to understand as, well, Who Moved My Cheese? (or any comic book for that matter) and will set off several “light bulbs” over the reader’s head, just as that simple “parable” about business innovation did for the entrepreneurial types who made it a best-seller in the 1990s. Even someone who thinks that they’re hostile to Marxism might unexpectedly find something there for them when it is presented in this broadly drawn, but emotionally satisfying way.
To expect that even one person in 10,000 is going to care to slog through over a thousand pages of a dense 19th century philosophical treatise in 2012, is probably expecting too much, but this doesn’t mean that there aren’t new and novel ways to bring Marxism to a popular audience and it’s wonderful to see this novel Japanese publishing experiment successfully translated for English readers. Just as this unconventional approach to Marx and manga has helped to spread the message of Marxism in modern day Japan (where nearly a third of the population is unemployed or underemployed and young people are increasingly pessimistic about their futures) this quirky attempt ito create a new kind of 21st century popular socialist meme is a welcome one.
(In case you are wondering what else is out there like this title, East Press has additionally published manga guides for Dante’s Divine Comedy, The Brothers Karamazov, Goethe’s Faust, Hitler’s Mein Kampf, The Metamorphosis by Kafka and Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra (I’d love to see that one). In 2011 The Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant was given the manga treatment by Variety Artworks, the same company who are responsible for the original Japanese revisioning of Marx’s treatise.)