Since comic books and graphic novels took off as a genre, fiction has dominated their pages in the shapes of superheroes and fantastical settings, stories, and characters. In recent years, however, this trend has started to change. As publishers and authors have begun to recognize the potential of the comic book, the genre has expanded to include history. The Forgotten Man by Amity Shlaes, adapted by Chuck Dixon and illustrated by Paul Rivoche, is a recent example of this trend. Amity Shlaes first released her book The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression in 2008. Then in 2014, a graphic edition of The Forgotten Man appeared.
The graphic edition of The Forgotten Man is narrated by Wendell Lewis Willkie. During the Great Depression, the real-life Willkie was head of the power company Commonwealth and Southern. Later in his career, Willkie unsuccessfully ran for the presidency against Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940. In The Forgotten Man, Willkie is telling his wife “Billie” about the Great Depression. The book is a mixture of Willkie’s personal experiences, snapshots of other people’s stories, and the effects of the New Deal; this mixture combines to form an overarching tale of the Great Depression.
Because of the chronology of The Forgotten Man, characters enter, exit, and reenter the story, and threads are picked up, dropped, then continued. This organization can make the story confusing and choppy at times, but a helpful “Cast of Characters” is located in the back of the book with the portraits, names, and brief biographies of each main character. Also, when the story shifts from the past to Willkie’s present, Rivoche helps clarify the transition by using black-and-white illustrations for the past and sepia for the present.
Although The Forgotten Man has lost some of its clarity and historicity by being turned into a graphic novel, I think the new form has several advantages. As I have discovered since reading the book, its graphic edition is curiously appropriate, for it was in the 1930s that the funny pages of the late 19th and early 20th centuries developed into the comic book (“Graphic Novel”). In addition, the illustrations combine with the story very well. The bleak pictures and brief shots of people, places, and events tell the story effectively. As readers meet the characters of the 1930s in the pages of this book, they learn the characters’ faces along with their names. Unlike in regular history books, which might introduce a new individual with one or two photographs, in The Forgotten Man characters’ presence in the story obliges their appearance. This will familiarize readers with the faces of famous men like Franklin Roosevelt, infamous men like Leon Trotsky, and forgotten men like Andrew Mellon.
When I heard about the graphic edition of The Forgotten Man, it caught my interest. My sister had read and enjoyed the original book, and I wondered how well a history book about economics and the Great Depression would adapt to a graphic form. Despite a few drawbacks, I think that the graphic edition of The Forgotten Man is a success. The new version allows Amity Shlaes and her coauthors to pull back the curtain of history and show their audience a glimpse of what life was like for Americans during the Great Depression – for the powerful politicians, for the suffering poor, for the persecuted rich, for the forgotten man.
“Graphic Novel.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2015. Web. 14 Sep. 2015 <www.britannica.com/art/graphic-novel>.