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Books that Shaped Work in America

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Kevin Rechin

Kevin Rechin
Cartoonist and Illustrator

Working as a full-time illustrator and cartoonist, I appreciate how effectively cartoons can often convey a message in an accessible, humorous way. My choices show two cartoonists' perspectives of work in America at very different eras in our history. They both do an iconic job at distinctly capturing the sensibilities of the culture of work for their specific times.

Harold Gray, The Complete Little Orphan Annie/Volume Five: The One-Way Road to Justice (2010). Little Orphan Annie, in spite of being a ward of the rich industrialist, Oliver 'Daddy' Warbucks, continually found herself lost and reliant on the kindness of strangers. Often they were lower class and needed help with their work. Annie pitched in cheerfully, continually praising the value of honest labor. It usually turned out that one just needed a bit of Annie's can-do attitude to become a success, even during the Depression. In this comic strip series, Daddy Warbucks lost his fortune frequently, but always regained it through hard work (and not apparently by getting government weapon contracts). He declares in the November 24th, 1934 strip: "From now on I'll look for a job. It may be hard on my pride to work as a common laborer, but I'll prove a man who really wants work can find work." A few days later Warbucks is working as a stevedore, and tells a slacker, "You should be ashamed to accept your wages, you lazy chiseler. Don't want to do a fair day's work, and don't want to let honest people work."

Scott Adams, The Dilbert Principle (1996). Adams' attitude towards work seems almost exactly the opposite of Gray's. As exemplified in the well-known Peter Principle, Adams feels that promoting incompetent people to management keeps the average worker from being productive, no matter how willing or able they might be. Dilbert and his fellow engineers are continually undone by the idiocy of his pointy-haired boss. Adams writes, "No matter how absurd I try to make the comic strip, I can't stay ahead of what people are experiencing in their own workplaces." In a typical strip the boss is thinking, "Theoretically, if I cut costs enough we'll be profitable without selling any products." He then considers his pen, wondering, "How do they get the ink in these things?" Adam's view of business was driven by his own unhappy experience as he "worked in a cubicle for seventeen years."

Oddly enough, both Gray and Adams value the work of an entrepreneur; they simply take different paths to their conclusion.

Kevin Rechin is a cartoonist and illustrator. His father Bill drew the syndicated "Crock" comic strip for decades. After his death, Kevin drew the strip until May 2012.

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