October 13, 2011


Your Accomplishments Are Suspiciously Hard to Verify: A “Dilbert” Book. By Scott Adams. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

Gandhi: A Manga Biography. By Kazuki Ebine. Penguin. $15.

     There need not be anything especially comic about comics – but there can be. Scott Adams has spent more than 20 years finding the comic side of corporate life, taking events that would not, in the real world, be funny at all, and turning them into amusements. When you think about it, the notions that corporations are managed by incompetents, performance reviews are demeaning and useless, most assignments have no meaning, corporate efficiency is nonexistent, and paperwork is the reason for most policies’ existence, are not amusing at all. What Adams does is make them amusing by taking real workplace occurrences (many sent to him by his readers) and exaggerating them ever so slightly, or sometimes simply presenting them in ways that seem exaggerated but really aren’t (such as one self-referential sequence about people being reprimanded for posting anti-management cartoons – such as Dilbert – on their cubicle walls). Adams himself has mastered one element of corporate life to his own great profitability: the retread. A number of his oversize “Treasury” books, including Your Accomplishments Are Suspiciously Hard to Verify, include the umpteenth reprints of strips from the 1990s, all vaguely connected to the vague theme of the book. More power to Adams that he gets away with this. And he does, because so many of the themes he has been exploring for two decades are just as prevalent in business today as they were the first time (or times) he dealt with them. Corporate lawyers whose reason for existence is to shoot down creative proposals; meaningless mission statements; the unending need to produce status reports and forecasts instead of doing any actual work; demands to do projects faster than they can be done, including regular status reports about why they are not finished yet; strategic planning that is “like work but without the satisfaction of accomplishing anything”; a human-resources library filled with binders labeled “downsize”; the combination of a philosophy that emphasizes quality with a reality that insists defective items be shipped immediately – these and many other realities of 21st-century corporate life were also realities of 20th-century corporate life. About the only things that have changed – as the strips in this book make clear – are the technological methods of work avoidance (YouTube was not available as an ongoing time-waster until 2005). Spend enough time reading Adams’ book of “accomplishments” and you will be torn between laughing out loud and crying softly at the meaningless of it all. Sounds a bit like what happens with some real-world work assignments, doesn’t it?

     But comics that seek actively to tell about the real world, such as Kazuki Ebine’s graphic novel on the life of Gandhi, can be serious from start to finish. Gandhi: A Manga Biography is a bit of pictorial hagiography about one of the most highly regarded figures of the 20th century, a man whose name has become synonymous with nonviolent resistance, a modest person who became a towering hero to independent India and whose family is still deeply involved in governing the nation. Ebine’s book is well-intentioned from start to finish, and may serve to introduce a new generation of visually oriented people to Gandhi. But it is not a particularly deep or revelatory work – not that it ever really tries to be – and its words are not as carefully created or assembled as its drawings. For instance, at one point the dialogue reads, “Thanks you so much, brother.” At another: “They say that discrimination against the black and Indians are more prevalent in the neighboring republic of Transvaal.” And at another: “When I first heard your speech, I was so inspired as if you boiled my blood.” The dialogue is stilted throughout, even when correctly written (which it often is not: “Two years later, apprehended with the increasing criticism, the British government released Gandhi unconditionally”). Gandhi’s own words are highlighted from time to time, and they retain their impact: “We must become the change we want to see in the world.” “If they answer not to thy call, walk alone.” But the book is even more one-sided than most once-over-lightly biographies of Gandhi – showing not only the British functionaries who ruled India as venal and corrupt, but also producing unflattering portraits of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. The ongoing religious strife between Hindus and Muslims, which resulted in the partitioning of India and the creation of Pakistan, is included but never really explained. Interesting elements of Gandhi’s life peek out, such as the fact that Henry David Thoreau inspired him, but nothing is really put together convincingly. Gandhi: A Manga Biography gets a low (+++) rating for its attempt to use the visual power of comics to present elements of a complex life in a format that may attract people who would not read a straightforward biography. But the work is such an oversimplification and has so many instances of poor writing that it serves, at best, as a stopgap until someone else does a better job of visualizing Gandhi’s life and times.

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