Ayn Rand

Author: Darryl Cunningham
Genre: Biography
Schedule: Completed

Ayn Rand is probably one of the most polarizing figure on the internet. To prove it, go on any website with a comment section or forum where someone brings her up. Either she's a free-market savior whose books teach people to rise above mediocrity and the collectivist rabble or a sociopathic monster who wants the world to resemble a modern day serfdom where the rich and powerful live unfettered while everyone else starves in a gutter because they're all looters who don't deserve to live. In fact, I'm putting money down right now that the discussion on this page will dissolve into a shouting match between both groups. However, I've read her fiction and can see some merit in both groups arguments, making me a decent enough judge of a recent biographical webcomic about her. While the art is crude and simplistic especially from a published author, the writing is a good enough primer of her life and her work.

The comic is a biography of Ayn Rand, covering her life from her birth in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1905 to her life under Bolshevik rule, her immigration to the United States, her career in film and screenwriting, the publication of her books We The Living, The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged, the formation and downfall of the Nathaniel Branden Institute, and her later years and death. The comic provides a brief overview of her philosophy Objectivism, but also shows how her own personality and life decisions did not meet the ideals of a rational, free-thinking individual who didn't need to rely on others.

The comic gets a large bulk of its references from Anne C. Heller's Ayn Rand and the World She Made and Jennifer Burns' Goddess of the Market. I haven't read either book, though they seem well received and Burns was given access to the archives at the Ayn Rand Institute. They are most likely great sources for a comic about her life, though I suspect anyone who has read these books will likely learn nothing new about Rand.

For those who haven't, the comic paints a complex view of Rand. She's portrayed sympathetically in her early years, an intelligent young girl beyond her years traumatized by the Russian Revolution and the Bolshevik takeover of her family business. However, she is shown as contradicting of the philosophy that she created. She runs the NBI like a cult and expects everyone to agree with her views and follow her orders or risk being kicked out. She spoke out against government social programs as theft, but was on Social Security near the end of her life. And while she advocated logic over irrational emotion, she showed an inability to handle criticism and the NBI was fraught with jealousy and infighting over romantic affairs.

In a biographical film, the director would purposely choose moments of the subject's life to weave a meaningful narrative out of the various bits and pieces (like Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey in 42) or allow events to occur ambivalently and allow the reader to make their own decision (like Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network). In the case of this comic, it's clear that it's more of the former, painting Rand as the tragic idealist who becomes the very monster she fought. What bothers me is that at times, the author outright tells the audience what they should think rather than letting the narrative do the work. Which is ironic, considering that Rand's speech-heavy fiction was guilty of the same lack of faith that the audience could come to those conclusions. Considering the author's background in nonfiction comics meant to explain scientific concepts and the fact that the comic is part of a larger book tying her influence to the 2008 financial crisis, I imagine these comments are meant to explain the author's position and is part of a larger argument, though as a standalone piece these sections at the end feel extraneous.

Based on some of his other work, the comic is likely penciled and inked in paper, then colored and lettered in photoshop. The lineart is thin and has no variance in line weight. The colors are usually two to three colors on a page. The characters are rendered in a simplified, angular style that I thought was meant to evoke the art of the cover artist for her books Nick Gaetano, but considering all his work is done in a similar style, the similarities are likely more coincidental than intentional. The author also alternates close-ups with no backgrounds and wider, more expansive backgrounds.

The art isn't very good though. The lineart is weak and wobbly, probably done with a ballpoint or technical pen (or if I'm wrong and it turns out the whole thing was done in Photoshop, a brush with no pressure sensitivity at all). The characters all look stiff and are often drawn faceless and the art relies heavily on the narration and dialogue to interpret their meaning. I find it odd that I've reviewed multiple amateur authors on this site and even for the ones who I've negatively criticized for poor art, I'd still prefer their art styles over Darryl Cunningham's work. Perhaps for debunking pseudoscience his no-nonsense style would be adequate, but I find it hard to care about these people or even the people in his fictional work when they're all mostly faceless mannequins.

What the art does right is something that a lot of artists don't really take into account when doing colors, using them to convey mood and meaning. For example, the author uses drab blues and grays in St. Petersburg and other parts of the comic to convey a drab, depressing mood. It also shows up again regarding the views espoused in her books, drawing some parallels between the solitary and alienating feel of her childhood with the implications of her worldview. The author contrasts those dull colors at one point with Rand's post cherished toy, which is done in yellow and orange. The colors appear again at the end, rendering the entire New York skyline in the same colors while narrating about her hypocrisy, which suggests that her philosophy is an unattainable ideal that even she couldn't meet. Finally, the color red also appears at the beginning as an obvious representation of the Bolsheviks. The color stands out prominently among the dull colors in the beginning, making them look all the more menacing. The color shows up throughout the comic, representing the various organizations and movements that Rand viewed as a threat. It's the only thing that salvages the otherwise lifeless art.

The comic is a decent enough summary of her life and her views for anyone who only knows Rand through secondhand arguments in internet comment sections and doesn't feel like reading through her doorstop-thick novels. But the art is poor quality, especially for a published author and a member of a webcomic collective that boasts being home to multiple award winning comics. I have a feeling this won't be one of them.


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