Many are familiar with the adage about a spoonful of sugar helping medicine go down, especially those familiar with Disney’s Mary Poppins, but there is some truth to that statement when it comes to subjects that are either too dense to completely process or too terrifying to rationally contemplate. Such subjects can be made more palatable and/or digestible when put into a graphic novel format. Writers Sarah Kendzior and Andrea Chalupa use the graphic novel format effectively in their satirical guide to dictatorship, Dictatorship: It’s Easier Than You Think!
The book’s sales pitch begins with questions like, “Do you crave the power to shape the world in your image?” and “Can you tell lies without blinking an eye?” Once the readers are drawn in with those questions, the actual book, along with its game-show-host-looking narrator, explains just how to be a dictator based on examples from the past and the present. The easy to follow instructions the book lays out how to take complete control of a country or nation and thoroughly crush any resistance, at least that’s what the book professes to do.
Much like Machiavelli’s The Prince, Kendzior and Chalupa’s guidebook is satire, not as a guidebook but as a critical dissection of how dictators operate. Its chapters are organized as a step-by-step guide to dictatorship that illustrates its points with many detailed examples from Adolf Hitler to Kim Jong Un and everyone in between. The book also details some of the horrific, murderous practices these men used to stay in power. Depicting the details of these atrocities might be off-putting in a more academic text, but framing it in a satirical how-to guide makes it more palatable without making it less powerful. Indeed, the narrator’s flippant discussion of these events helps hammer home its point about how the outlandish behavior of many of these dictators distracts from the horrors they commit.
The narrator, drawn by artist Kasia Babis, is a spaghetti-limbed, rubber-faced cartoon host in a gaudy suit. He acts as both ringmaster and tour guide through this cavalcade of history’s most reviled dictators. From history’s most notorious dictators to more modern examples seen in today’s headlines, no dictator is safe from his acerbic wit and he constantly lets readers in on the joke with knowing, conspiratorial leers in their direction. There are also many of the same caricature versions of these dictators who interact with this host with the kinetic energy of a sketch comedy show, even as the humor skews to some dark places.
That energy, and the book’s overall presentation, makes it perfect for adult graphic novel collections in need of relevant nonfiction, especially since the influence of many of these dictators, past and present, can still be seen today. This book also teaches its subject matter in a way that’s not didactic and dry. Yes, the book shows some dictators have already seen their regimes and their cults of personality collapse, but this satirical guidebook to dictatorship is ultimately a warning to anyone and everyone that can allow bad people to gain power. There’s even a part in the book where the host, discussing who and what he is, shows the reader a mirror, which is a strong message to convey in a graphical format.
Dictatorship: It’s Easier Than You Think!
By Sarah Kendzior, Andrea Chalupa,
Art by Kasia Babis
Macmillan First Second, 2023
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)