Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Beancounters in popular culture: The story behind the art

What's the role of visual art in shaping what we think of others? Profs. Mark Christensen, ESSEC Business School, Asia-Pacific and Sébastien Rocher, IAE Nancy School of Management, explore the influence of cultural works on society by studying the ebb and flow of the beancounter image in the comics industry

Published: Nov 27, 2023 10:51:21 AM IST
Updated: Dec 19, 2023 11:42:43 AM IST

Beancounters in popular culture: The story behind the artThe beancounter images of accountants have been present in many societies over time. And their varying depictions indicate that popular culture may be a useful mirror of societal attitudes towards accounting. Image: Shutterstock

Press less hard!”, came the stern reply from the grumpy Mr. Boulier. Gaston, a young cartoonist of a comics company, had just requested for a new pencil to continue work on his drawing. But for Joseph Boulier, the accountant, cost control was everything. And having issued a pencil earlier in the month, the only way to keep costs under check was to tell the cartoonist to apply less pressure while drawing, although that act may prove counterproductive to the company.

Comics, and popular culture in general, perpetuate accountants in this manner. Characterized as dull and boring, joyless and lonely, methodical and conservative, they are often the victims of merciless ridicule. So, what is the reason for the continued portrayal of this beancounter image? The answer lies within the medium of comic books.

With great power comes great responsibility

Comics are one of the most influential vectors associated with mass culture due to their simplicity and easy accessibility. A longstanding art form in which images and text are joined as reflections of society, comics often highlight the economic, social and political problems of the time to arouse the satirical consciousness of its readers. As such, the comics industry forms the basis of Profs. Christensen and Rocher’s efforts in understanding the mutual influences between accounting and art.

Using 117 accountant characters identified between 1945 and 2016 in European French-language comic books, the researchers show the cartoonists’ motivations and capture the conditions under which a particular comic strip was created. Iconology, a popular method of studying the content and meanings of visuals, has been used to peel off the layers of the artwork.

Interestingly, three variations of the beancounter appeared over the period: those meeting the strict definition; the beancounter who is harmful to others; and, the honest, precise and trustworthy accountant. Gathering the nature of these nuances – and when they occurred in time – over the years, the researchers explored the relationship between the context of the comic book industry and the representation of the accountant as a beancounter.

All profit and no adventure

The 1950s introduced the first accountants who were characterised as dishonest and always turned out to be the culprits in detective stories. The first beancounter to be identified, Mr. Lardinois, was portrayed as an austere and prudent man. Obsessively attached to rules and rigorous management of money, he was someone who constrained the hero. The fact that the hero constantly lacked money was sympathetic to the cartoonist‘s own personal situation and his fight to present a newspaper with a small budget.

As such, the introduction of the character of Lardinois can be seen as a means to hint at the artist’s financial constraints and to rebuke managers privileging economy over expression. Similarly, the 1960s brought in Mr. Boulier, a rigid and rule abiding accountant who cared only about cost control and limited the creativity of the hero, a free-spirited cartoonist. Again, the act of Boulier refusing a pencil to a cartoonist can be read as satirising a similar situation lived by the creator himself, namely the enslavement of the artist to capitalism and economic logic.

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New lease of freedom

The 1970s saw more comics in tune with the social reality and the daily life of more mature readers.

Cartoonists were no longer merely perceived as generically skilled. Instead, they were distinguished by their artistic authenticity. The comic book industry became increasingly fluid and cartoonists were free from page number limitations and obligations to conceive their story around an easily recognisable hero.

Cartoonists gained a new lease of freedom of expression. They operated as a critical mirror of society and their comics were about the everyday life of the ordinary man and woman. And a more balanced representation of the accountant emerged. The accountant portrayal moved from being a constraint to a helper, appreciated by other characters. In the magazines created by cartoonists in search of artistic freedom, the accountant was mocked solely to generate laughter and was depicted as someone with no-nuisance power over others. As a consequence, the counterproductive dimension attached to the beancounter disappeared.

The return of the big bad beancounter

The 1980s marked another prominent change to the French comics industry – but this time, things took a turn for the worse. Publishing houses gathered around large and medium-sized generalist publishers rather than traditional actors in the comic book market. A consequence for comics publishers was the involvement of management controllers in editorial meetings, which led to profitability being weighed more than the creative aspect of comics.

Pressed by the demands of short-term profitability and the need to generate shareholder return, the largest publishers increasingly reduced potentially risky investments by eliminating opportunities for cartoonists with novel approaches to the medium. In addition, the industry became dominated by the production of comics with inflexible editorial standards. As a result of all these restrictions, the harmful beancounter made a comeback.

Without power

From the 1990s to the 2010s, an alternative comics industry evolved. Artists opposed the commercial logic of comic books to express art closer to reality rather than stereotypes. The few beancounter representations found during this period were those of the boring and irrelevant man who did not understand business and lost his nuisance power and influence. And, the beancounter became marginalised and neglected.

Respecting the villain

2015 saw the migration of cartoonists from the alternative movement to the established publishers. This act raised the question of whether it was possible to maintain one’s image and reputation as an author while working in the domain of large-scale mainstream cultural production. Once again, the harmful beancounter incapable of reasoning other than in economic terms was brought back.

Caillez was one such popular character of the time. He was a stern man, never smiling except when reducing costs. He was the defender of commercial logic, who got excited only by the search for profitability at the expense of quality and artistic expression. The creation of the harmful Caillez character, beyond the intention to create laughter, can be explained by the cartoonist’s desire to regain the status of the alternative artist and mock the limits of a predominant financial logic in the comics industry. But it also seems that the Caillez character allowed the creator to display his status as an artist. The accountant was therefore the “villain”, but the creator respected him because it was thanks to him that the former could maintain economic success.

Also read: Layoffs can be bad business: 5 strategies to consider before cutting staff

Beancounters: The verdict

The beancounter image, from its appearance in 1950 to its recurrence in 2015, was used in a similar fashion by several cartoonists to express an “artist critique” of the managers of comics publishing companies and their obsession with profitability. However, the critique was not constant nor present across all periods.

Cartoonists waited until the 1950s before launching their cultural assault on the accountant – when the accountant appeared as a menace to the artist. In the 1970s and the 1990s, alternative comic book production offered new possibilities of artistic expression and weakened the need for accountant images to fight against the domination of financial logic. In those times, artist critique lost its edge as cartoonists who had been voicing this form of criticism in the 1960s and in the 1980s became satisfied with changes in the comic book industry.

Those changes were mainly the emergence of more mature and artist-oriented production that saw cartoonists recognised as artists and comics as art. As a consequence, there was very little protest art and the beancounter remained mostly to extract humour. In 2015, the beancounter character reappeared, criticism of capitalism at a societal level becoming necessary again for artists wishing to display authenticity – such authenticity had become more difficult to exhibit after the alternative movement was absorbed by mainstream.

Mirroring society

Accounting and accountants are not guaranteed to be in various popular culture forms. While their absence may not signify anything regarding society or the authors’ state of mind, their appearance in cultural artefacts – comics, books, paintings, for instance – may be more than mere chance. The beancounter images of accountants have been present in many societies over time. And their varying depictions indicate that popular culture may be a useful mirror of societal attitudes towards accounting.

As such, the image of the beancounter was used by artists as a means to communicate an important message. Rather than reflecting only on what accountants do, the creators used their art to express comments on issues much wider than accountants and accountancy. Their concerns reflected the pressures faced in the comics industry, the tension between for-profit values and artistic freedom and other issues relevant at the time. Since the artists’ motives for using an accountant image were fluid, it is hardly surprising to observe that some beancounter representations were subject to change rather than remaining static.

On the one hand, looking at accounting from the point of view of popular culture strongly reinforces that beancounter imagery should not be expected to be permanent. On the other, it also cannot be slated that the ghost of the boring beancounter be laid to rest. As a result, Profs. Christensen and Rocher state that the communication campaigns conducted by the accounting profession to spread an engaging, modern image of its members cannot be expected to be permanent. That means, the persistence of the “boring bookkeeper” stereotype remains as an inviting challenge for the accounting research community. Boulier may be here to stay awhile!

Prof Mark Christensen is a Professor of Accounting and Management Control Department at ESSEC Asia Pacific. This article was first published in CoBS Insights