GE's Jack Welch Subject Of Critical 'Comic Book Biography'

Jack Welch comic bookIt's no coincidence that some of our most iconic superheroes -- Batman, Iron Man -- are also corporate chief executives. For much of the last century, CEOs seemed to represent all that was good and great about this country. They were creators of jobs, engines of innovation, spreaders of prosperity. The fulfillment of the American dream.

So it's perfectly fitting that Jack Welch, legendary ex-CEO of General Electric, should get the comic book treatment. Written by Marc Shapiro and drawn by David Cabrera, Political Power: Jack Welch tells the true tale of Welch's career, but reads like a story from the Marvel canon.

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It isn't an uncritical tribute, however. The artists point out that Welch could be brutal in pursuit of profits, shuttering factories, firing employees, eliminating research, and abandoning the manufacturing core that had made the company what it was. The comic book introduces Welch as "Neutron Jack," a nickname that the media gave him in the early 1980s (and which he despised), in reference to the neutron bomb, for his purported ability to lay off droves of employees without scratching the building. And his superpower is to "make it rain money," they write at the end, with an image of Welch in a shower of bills.

Welch is a relic of the CEO's golden age. He retired in 2001, before the bubble fully burst, and left GE as the prize jewel of corporate America -- the most valuable company in the world, with stock worth 4,000 percent more than when he started there. In 1999, Fortune magazine named Welch "Manager of the Century." In 2004, when the Financial Times asked chief executives which figures from history they'd love have on their boards, Welch beat out Winston Churchill, Bill Gates and Jesus for the No. 1 spot.

He's the kind of guy who could write a biography, co-authored with his third wife, called simply Winning.

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But comic books tend to reflect their times, and Shapiro and Cabrera depict a more complicated portrait of Welch in their book. Americans have become more distrusting of CEOs. The New York Times noted the trend back in 2002, as the heady '90s economic boom gave way to a recession, and C-suite corruption blighted companies like RiteAid, Tyco International, and Enron. A 2012 Gallup poll found that 27 percent of Americans thought business executives had low or very low standards of honesty and ethics. That's down from its 2009 peak of 38 percent, soon after the financial crisis hit, but still higher than it ever was before 2002 (Gallup began asking this question in 1976).

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In fact, Welch's reputation has undergone a battering in recent years. The NBC sitcom "30 Rock" parodied Welch's old-school brand of corporate commandeering in the form of GE executive Jack Donaghy. (Welch was the one who bought NBC, and moved GE's headquarters to 30 Rockefeller Plaza.) Welch even made a cameo on the show a few years ago, in which he informed Donaghy that the CEO of GE had died, and offered to get him "some weakness tissues" if he needed "to pass some eye water."

Welch rose to power in an era hungry for larger-than-life executives. And now many doubt his virtue: The way he takes credit for GE's accomplishments, his pension worth a purported $9 million a year, the sheer volume of people whom he laid off. It didn't help that he's made a couple of widely bashed comments, such as his characterization of corporate women's groups as "victims units," and his accusation that the Bureau of Labor Statistics was somehow cooking the unemployment numbers at President Obama's behest.

Today, Americans are palpably aware of the human cost of a Welch-style quest for profits. And the most popular CEO in the country isn't a Irish Catholic tough-talking Republican, but Mark Zuckerberg, a geeky 28-year-old whose indifference to money, Time noted, is "almost pathological."

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But the villainous side of the CEO has always been a part of our culture too. It's a fundamental principle of the comic book world, and the actual world, that power can be used for great good and great evil. And as BusinessWeek points out, the comic book conglomerate that most resembles GE is LexCorp., helmed by Superman's arch nemesis, Lex Luther.

Political Power: Jack Welch, published by Bluewater Productions, is available in print at Comic Flea Market, and in digital form on iTunes. It retails for $3.99.

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