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Webcomic biography of Ayn Rand is ironically free to read

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Members of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist movement have gotten increasingly familiar lately with the concept of irony. First, they were widely ridiculed for turning to Kickstarter to fund the third film in the Atlas Shrugged trilogy—a story that attacks shared wealth and espouses a commitment to the free market. Now, Rand herself is the subject of an online biography—ironically being shared for free in the form of a webcomic.

While it’s clear that religions and fandoms have many things in common, Objectivism is an area where fandoms and philosophy have formed a unique hybrid. Followers of the Objectivist movement, a philosophy begun by Rand and articulated in her legendary novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, are partly in it for the metaphysics and partly for their love of Rand’s celebrated writing. 

But they’ve also been roundly criticized, largely because Randian philosophy has ties to Libertarianism, as well as to Wall Street corporate greed. Built on a mantra of utter devotion to fulfilling personal happiness at all costs, Objectivism incorporates a commitment to capitalism and the free market into a heroic narrative of the self as the center of reality. It’s heady, irresistible stuff, and makes for gripping reading—but it often overshadows the writer behind the ideas.

Now, an epic webcomic has charted the peaks and valleys of Rand’s life as well as the paradoxes and contradictions of her personal philosophy and her personal behavior. Created by British artist Darryl Cunningham, the 63-page comic biography traces the controversial and fascinating life of a woman who quoted Pascal in her essays as a child and saw America and capitalism as her escape from the hardships she endured in newly Communist Russia. Cunningham’s biography portrays Rand with ambivalence throughout: 

All her life, Rand portrayed herself as a self-created woman whose success came about entirely through her own indomitable will… yet she was helped by many people during those early years. She stayed with her relatives in Chicago for six months. She failed to repay, or even offer to repay, small loans given to her… None of this help was acknowledged by Rand in her later years. 

Cunningham’s take on Rand is decidedly more cynical than that of her fans. In the Kickstarter for the third Atlas Shrugged film, the producers describe Objectivism as “the story of real heroes amongst men and their entirely unique and inspiring battle for independence and freedom.” But Cunningham sees Rand’s life a bit more ironically: 

She trumpeted the virtue of reason over emotion, but was unable to rise above jealousy and was unforgiving towards anyone she believed had slighted her. She held an individual’s freedom above all else, yet ran her immediate circle of friends like a small dictatorship….

Cunningham’s take on Rand has already incited scorn among Objectivists who feel he’s using biased sources that focus on her fear of the collective, and reducing her fiction to “romantic melodrama wrapped in philosophical and political ideas.” The reader reaction to the comic has proven as divisive as readers’ reactions to Rand herself. “What a deeply unpleasant hatchet job,” commented reader Charlie Kilo. But Simon Fraser received a different impression:

I came away from this story feeling sympathy for a figure that , frankly, I have only ever thought of with contempt before. Her politics were anti-social and inhumane, but even as she tried to deny her own humanity, it came out regardless.

The webcomic is available for free online, a development that probably would have enraged Rand, who abhorred talent being exploited for free by the masses, much less appropriated and redistributed in all the ways that online sharing makes so easy. But most readers seem to be grateful for Cunningham’s efforts, and the ease of access to Rand herself that the webcomic approach brings to her story.

Cunningham says he will post the final pages of the comic next week. In the meantime, you can read the rest at Activate Comix and decide for yourself whether the principles of Objectivism apply to you—and whether any biography of Ayn Rand can ever be truly objective.

Illustration by Darryl Cunningham via Act-i-vate