Comics About the Day the Towers Fell

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Spider-Man reacts to 9/11.
Spider-Man reacts to 9/11.

September 11th is a day that affected all of us in some way or another. It’ll live on as one of those moments we will all remember, particularly where we were when we first heard about it. For a small few, that place was in or near the towers themselves at the time of the attacks or shortly thereafter.

My own memories of the day are as vivid as anyone else’s. I was in Tokyo at the time, learning about everything going on in my by-then native New York from seven thousand miles away across a time difference of 13 hours. I was working on a book at the time about Alexander the Great, an alternate history about the conqueror uniting the world into one big empire.

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What a shock it was not only to see the devastation of the attacks-and watching the fire trucks rushing in the wrong direction on Church Street, where I had lived only months prior, on CNN-but to be confronted with my idiotic naiveté in even imagining a world that could be united. But certainly, the memory of 9/11 is deeply interwoven into my memory of writing that book, and the two will never be separated.

It seems inevitable that the memory of an attack on American soil would combine with a uniquely American art form: comics. Several comics-whether existing series or new works-and graphic novels chronicle aspects of September 11th from one perspective or another.

New York, or its thinly veiled fictional cousins, Gotham and Metropolis, factor prominently in many ongoing comics series. An issue of The Amazing Spider-Man (which featured a solid black cover) weaves fact into fiction, showing superheroes Spider-Man, Captain America, and Daredevil, along with villains Magneto and Doctor Doom, reacting to the attacks.

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Marvel’s Call of Duty, a tribute to firefighters.

Marvel also put out a limited series concerning firefighters called Call of Duty (not to be confused with the video game of the same name). This too bridges the fictional world of the Marvel universe and that of our everyday reality. In it, the stories of doings in the superhero world are told from the perspective of firefighters attending to the various disaster sites, a way of showing their heroism-the series was inspired by 9/11.

(Marvel and DC, the “big two” comic book company monoliths, are both, as it happens, New York-based.)

Reading these, I was struck with a sense of contrast. Superhero stories routinely show apocalyptic crises of one scale or another, and certainly enough scenes of terrible devastation have been depicted in comics and the films adapted from them. New York seems to be a favorite hotspot of mega-destruction in the fictional stories, often with no discussion of whatever unfortunates might lose their lives as buildings, bridges, roads, and other structures are blasted to smithereens in super-battles (both before and after 9/11).

But seeing superbeings as humbled by a terrorist attack as we all were had an odd resonance. The message I took from it: however complacent we might be about our safety and security, no matter who’s protecting us, it could all change in a moment. And such incidents remind us of the reality that there is no clean division of good and evil in the real world, just many shades of gray.

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A more cynical take: Garth Ennis' The Boys, which wove 9/11 into its superhero plot.
A more cynical take: Garth Ennis’ The Boys, which wove 9/11 into its superhero plot.

Other, lesser-known comics titles also picked up the 9/11 theme. The Boys, a series written by comics luminary Garth Ennis and illustrated by Darick Robertson, tells the story of a CIA team comprised of superheroes in a world in which those with powers have achieved celebrity status.

In this alternate version of reality, Ennis takes the basic facts of 9/11 and bends them into the story’s plot. It’s revealed (in an issue cleverly called “I Tell You No Lie G.I.”) that the Air Force shot down three of the four planes involved in the attacks, and that the fourth one was intercepted by superheroes. However, due to their recklessness and other factors, this plane crashes into the Brooklyn Bridge, destroying it and killing hundreds of bystanders.

Nonfiction comics and graphic novels have also taken up the 9/11 theme, both as a way to pay tribute to the day’s heroes (first responders: firefighters, police, and medical personnel) and to tell other parts of the 9/11 story.

9-11_Artists_Respond(1)In 9/11: Artists Respond, stories of rescue workers alternate with more surreal fare by some of the best known artists and writers working in comics in short story or single-page anthology format. Cartoonists Remember 9/11 is a collection of cartoonists’ and comic strip illustrators’ remembrances and was published on the 10th anniversary of September 11th. Artwork from the book featured in a traveling exhibit that’s been shown at Washington, DC’s Newseum and the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art and the Society of Illustrators in New York.

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An image from The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation.

One of the more peculiar-but nevertheless fascinating-additions to the illustrated nonfiction canon of 9/11-themed works is The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation, written by Sid Jacobson and illustrated by Ernie Col√≥n. It walks through the 9/11 Commission’s report on the government’s handling of the September 11th attacks and their aftermath. Its author and illustrator describe it as “graphic journalism.”

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I can’t recommend all of these works, but it was interesting to see a disaster of 9/11’s magnitude told through graphic storytelling. It will serve as a record of sorts, and it’s comforting to know that these stories will endure through many more anniversaries of the event.

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