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Michael Goodwin hasn't just written a great graphic novel -- he's written one that should be required for every school, newsroom and library in the United States.

"Economix: How Our Economy Works (and Doesn't Work) in Words and Pictures" (Abrams ComicArts, $19.95) condenses and explains how modern economies work, from roughly the beginning of capitalism to the present. In the process, Goodwin explores the great works, models and philosophies of a lot of economists we've all heard of, but never understood, including Adam Smith ("The Wealth of Nations," 1776), Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels ("The Communist Manifesto," 1848), John Kenneth Galbraith ("The Affluent Society," 1958), Milton Friedman ("Wealth and Freedom," 1962) and Joseph Stiglitz ("Globalization and Its Discontents," 2002).

If that sounds like an unlikely topic for a graphic novel, consider Larry Gonick's "The Cartoon History of the Universe" (which Goodwin said was an inspiration). Goodwin was ably abetted by the award-winning artist Dan E. Burr ("Kings in Disguise"), whose loose, cartoony style complements and brightens up material that usually puts most of us to sleep.

Goodwin covers a lot of ground, and it took him more than a decade of writing to boil his subject down to its essentials. "Often what happened is, I would look at a book on my shelves," he said with a laugh, "and remember, 'I read that book,' (so I'd write) like, 20 pages on it, cut that down to two, cut that down to one, cut that down to a panel, (then take) the panel out."

That was one reason he wrote "Economix" in comics form, he said; the enforced discipline of the medium kept him "from writing a 20-volume work." But it's also a natural way for Goodwin to express himself, having grown up with his stepfather, cartoonist Rick Meyerowitz of National Lampoon. Also, he said, "I knew from Larry Gonick that you just remember things better when they're in comics form."

Which would only be important if Goodwin succeeded -- and, boy, did he. Not only did he condense hundreds of years and dozens of economic models into an engaging narrative, but he took time out to explode a few modern myths as well. For example, he says, today's free-market advocates completely misrepresent Smith's "Wealth of Nations," as do many economists, who rely on ideal models that don't take into account the real world.

"Basically, they took one part of his idea, which is the invisible hand (of the marketplace), and it's very important, (but) sorta plucked it out of the book and forgot everything else in there," Goodwin said.

Another problem with ideal models is that they exclude the exercise of power to influence the free market, so that it's no longer really free. "Trying to explain the economy without mentioning power is like trying to explain politics without mentioning money," he said. "Economic power and political power always go hand in hand. If you have money, you have power; and if you have power, one of the things you use it for is to get money."