Patrick Bateman, Sherman McCoy, Gordon Gekko, Scrooge McDuck. It’s fair to say that the alpha capitalist has not fared well in popular culture. It’s true that every now and again an ogre like Jordan Belfort or Glengarry Glen Ross’ Blake may become a temporary anti-hero, but this is an appropriation – their malignance is never really in doubt. Certainly, the reputation of real life bond traders has not benefited from Christian Bale’s dress sense, nor David Mamet’s ability with invective.
The curious exception to the numerous books, plays, and films in which the financier or magnate is cast as the comic book villain is, as it happens, comic books. A meeting of any of the major Superhero Industry associations (Justice League of America, The Avengers et al), would shame Davos as an exercise in celebrating ROI, asset allocation and capital preservation.
In regards to the two most famous examples, Batman defends the good people of Gotham with the assistance of the income from Wayne Enterprises’ diversified portfolio of weapons manufacturers (generally a reliable income stream), top end tech, pharma, extractives et al. Iron Man admittedly diversifies out of armaments into energy and R&D, but remains the capitalist extraordinaire.
There are of course a multitude of more traditional, homespun heroes (Superman) taking on monied megalomaniac’s (Lex Luthor), but wealth in itself is not the signifier or determinant of evil.
In 2013, DC Comics even launched a heroic “Teen Trillionaires” team, replete with the tag line “More Money! More Problems!” and a front cover featuring a group of drunk teenagers driving a sports car through a cloud of dollar bills. For whatever reason, the series didn’t take off.
There is a historical rationale. Many of the illustrators and authors behind the comic books of the 30s, 40s, and 50s that shaped the medium had fled the murderous “isms” of the old world for the promises of the new. It is unsurprising that the heroes they produced were keen to defend the values of life, liberty, and the American way.
It’s also tempting to psychologise. It is surely not coincidental that genius, ingenuity, a focus on the supreme powers of the individual, and an occasional dose of egotism, are replicated so frequently across the comic book universe.
Certainly, the comic book world’s interest in the wealthy has been reciprocated by the wealthy’s interest in comics. One of the few things shared by Barack Obama and Cliff Asness, co-founder of AQR Capital Management, is an affection for Conan the Barbarian. Marc Lasry of Avenue Capital has one of the world’s premier comic book collections.
The apotheosis of this interaction, however, surely emerged in 2004 with the publication of Ayano Morio’s Manga biography of Warren “The World’s Most Successful Investor” Buffett, shortly followed by similar editions on George “The World’s Most Powerful Investor” Soros (including an artistically rendered angry Norman Lamont) and Mark “The Father of Emerging Market Funds” Mobius.
These slightly surreal publications are probably best understood as a part of the same popularisation of finance trend that finds expression in other formats in the likes of the Freakonomics series or NPR’s Planet Money podcasts. That’s certainly a trend that the financial services industry and those that seek to communicate on its behalf need to understand and accommodate.
Indeed, there have been some fledging efforts to get in on the act. Back in the 1990’s Captain Euro emerged, seen here in his modern incarnation karate kicking Vladimir Putin, as a means of promoting the Euro. It’s fair to say he has yet to achieve mainstream success. More recently, in 2011 Visa and Marvel teamed up for an “Avengers Save the Day” comic, in which Spiderman learns effective budgeting.Two Sigma, one of the world’s larger quant shops, currently advertises itself to potential hires via a graphic novel.
One word of warning, however. It’s not just the superheroes who attract attention. Jerome Kerviel, who some might argue demonstrated superhuman powers in making €4.9 billion of Societe Generale’s money disappear, also has his own comic book story. We await to see who snaps up the movie rights.