Thursday, October 21, 2004

 
I'm taking a side road today and posting a column I wrote for this weekend's Standard. It's not about China, but more about Omaha, comic books, Japan, and financial wizards.

Though it’s the birthplace of two American heroes, Malcolm X and Marlon Brando – both of whom had the good sense to leave and not look back – Omaha, Nebraska is an unlikely home of a comic book hero. It’s a basic buckle in the Bible Belt, the kind of place where, except on Big Red football Saturdays, one celebrates by painting the town beige and distinguished mostly by steak houses and a daily newspaper that once used liquid paper to turn a photograph of a 12-year-old African-American into a 12-year-old Caucasian.
But thanks to a Japanese comic book (manga) artist and writer, Ayano Morio, billionaire investor and “Oracle of Omaha’’ Warren Buffett can now claim more or less equal footing with the likes of Spider-Man, the Hulk and Astro Boy.
It’s all lovingly detailed in Warren Buffett: An Illustrated Biography of the World’s Most Successful Investor which depicts the folksy empire builder literally from birth (“WAAAH!’’ screams baby Buffett) to an imagined death employing Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel motif.
In between readers can follow Buffett’s Horatio Alger-like rise from diligent newspaper delivery boy (“Hello, ma’am. I know you’re cancelling the Washington Post. Are you thinking of changing to the Times Herald? I can deliver that too, now!”) to his “adventure’’ with scandal-plagued Salomon Brothers and beyond. There’s even a hint of illicit romance in Chapter 7, “A Platonic Affair’’ that sums up his friendship and business partnership with the late Washington Post owner Katharine Graham.
No, Lois Lane and Superman it ain’t – never mind Batman and Robin and whatever went on behind the velvet curtains of Wayne Mansion between their alter-egos, millionaire Bruce Wayne and his teenage “ward’’ Dick Grayson.
And sprinkled throughout are seven “Buffett’s Rules of Success’’ – common sense homilies such as No. 5: “Never, ever break the law’’ and No. 3: “Don’t invest in businesses you don’t understand.’’
With roots in satirical paintings that can be traced back as far as the twelfth century in, manga is taken very seriously in Japan, unlike the US where character like the emotionally and socially-arrested Comic Book Guy from The Simpson’s typifies the average fan. An estimated US$900 million annual industry, it ranges from the avant garde to the pornographic, or literally “pervert’’ (“hentai’’) manga and caters to all ages and demographics.
Indeed, one of the best-selling mangas of all-time was a 1988 320-page primer on the world economy from the Japanese point of view entitled Japan, Inc. Originally published in 1986 by Nihon Keizai Shimbun, the Japanese equivalent of the Wall Street Journal, Japan, Inc. features rollicking adventures in the appreciation of the yen, the “POW! BAM! BIFF!” impact of the 1970s oil shocks, dramas in deficit financing, dark intrigues in the internationalbusiness and banking, and the sweeping romance of the post-industrial future of Japan and the Pacific Rim.
It sold more than half a million copies in less than a year was the creation of the legendary manga artist Shotaro Ishinomori , who himself became a comic book hero after a fatal heart attack in 1998.
So Warren Buffett as action hero should come as no surprise. He's a natural, a money magician. Here’s another sample from his true life adventures.
Panel one: Buffett assistant: “The Treasury has just suspended our right to participate in their bond auctions. They want to speak to you, Warren! (Gasp)’’
Panel two: Buffett, jumping (Screech!) from chair and springing into action, drops of “flop sweat” flying.. “I’ll speak to him. Is Nicolas Brady still on the line? I’ll need Alan Greenspan’s number, too!”
Alan Greenspan? Hmm. There’s a thought.
Panel one: “Mr. Chairman! We’re getting alarming reports of a huge downturn in the M3 money supply!’’
Panel two: Greenspan (or “Captain Fed’’ as he’s also known), quickly strips off his stodgy grey Brooks Brother suit revealing a lean, mean money management machine wrapped in an electric blue body suit. “Holy Fannie Mae! Activate the Pass-Through Certificate Chamber and set Rate Reductions on ‘stun’!
If it flies, though, I just want a piece of the Captain Fed action figure market. And I see a sequel – Warren and Alan’s Excellent Economic Adventure…

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