Picturing the Catastrophe
Nearly eight months after September 11, 2001, it's difficult to look back on that day without one's memories becoming clouded by the hagiography surrounding those events. In these self-conscious, post-post-modern days, it's hardly surprising that the politicians, media, and entertainment industry all rushed to instantly place that day into a greater historical context. The comics industry was no different. Marvel stepped up with its books Heroes and A Moment of Silence; Chaos! Comics, Dark Horse Comics, Image, and DC collaborated on the two-volume 9-11 set; and Alternative Comics contributed the book 9/11 Emergency Relief. (Marvel's Amazing Spider Man #36 also ran a story on 9/11, but rather than deal with it here, I direct you to The Last Comics Site's review, which looks that issue over with a critical eye and finds it wanting, for very good reasons.)
I shouldn't need to say this, but before I go on, a disclaimer: In leveling criticism towards these comic books, I intend no disrespect towards the victims of September 11, nor towards the rescue workers, nor anyone else who was instrumental in getting the people of New York City, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania through the difficult and confused months that followed. My comments are not meant to question their losses and sacrifices, but to analyze what has been done with those losses and sacrifices.
So, on with the books. Encompassing nearly 700 pages altogether, these five books comprise a tremendous range of style, narrative, and relative taste. But a handful of recurring themes emerge:
- the "where I was when I heard" narrative
- the "based on a true story" narrative
- the Everyman/Everywoman could-have-been fictitious narrative
- calls for peace and religious and/or racial tolerance
- the inadequacy of art, and specifically comics, in a world where violent acts of terrorism can occur
- the relationship of superheroes to this world
- the inadequacy of the comic book superhero (or, for that matter, the celebrity "hero") next to the real-world heroes of 9/11 (exemplified by the firefighter, the policeman, or the passenger on Flight 93)
By far the best two are the 9/11 Emergency Relief and the Dark Horse/Chaos!/Image-produced first volume of 9-11. Grounded firmly in reality, with a strong emphasis on the "where I was" narrative, there is a rawness to the stories that the other volumes, for all their high-powered emotion (and occasional ham-handedness), lack. Perhaps this is also due to the types of artist here: independents and mavericks who were already on the leading edge of comics storytelling to begin with, and whose skills, when bent on the catastrophe, are especially sharp. There's also a greater willingness to express an alternate point of view on the events; here, in addition to the pleas for tolerance, there is also a marked anxiety about the war.
Of the volumes published by the comics behemoths Marvel and DC, Marvel's A Moment of Silence succeeds the most on the strength of its simplicity. What could have been a gimmick -- four stories told without dialogue, only pictures -- is surprisingly moving and elegant. And despite some unfortunate missteps in the Heroes book (for instance, Dale Keown's picture of the Incredible Hulk brandishing a half-staff American flag over the wreckage of the WTC), that collection does contain some striking pieces of art.
It's in the DC-published Vol.2 of 9-11 that the stories frequenty descend into what Barbara Mikkelson of snopes.com refers to as "glurge". Not that there aren't some good stories in there (my favorite was a piece by Michael Moorcock, who was a child during the Blitz), but you can get an idea of what to expect of the book when you see Alex Ross's painted cover, depicting Superman looking up at a mural of rescue workers with the single word "Wow."
It can be argued -- and indeed, it has been, especially with regard to 9/11 -- that it's wrong to criticize a piece of heartfelt art for its sentimentality, and certainly there are those who will accuse me of being a curmudgeon (or worse) for having any kind of problem with, for example, the 2-pager depicting a fictional Superman lamenting his helplessness from within the pages of his comic book. History will pass the final judgement, long after many of us are dead, but even now, surely we the living can see that it does the shades of 9/11 little service to wish that Superman, Wonder Woman, and the Flash had been around to save them; nor, for that matter, does it add any honour to the heroes the the four-colour pages to mix them up in the troubles of our real, messy world. For some of us, it may alleviate the pain, but the question of appropriateness remains unaddressed.
It's likely that the ultimate value of these five pieces of comic art will be as historical documents. They were produced in the frightened months that followed that awful September morning, and as such are a kind of time capsule. If you, like a number of people I know, have reached a saturation point with 9/11-related media, you will probably pass on these just as readily as the countless mainstream books that are appearing in bookstores as I type. Those who continue to follow the narratives of the day may find something valuable here, especially in 9-11 Emergency Relief and vol. 1 of 9-11, and if such a thing is of interest, go seek them out.