We all know where we were and what we were doing eight years ago today. The terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, served as a defining moment, not only for a generation but for the global community. The emotional resonance of the unimaginable tragedy borne of terror rippled throughout the world, and its impact on our culture is a lasting one. Its influence was expressed almost immediately in pop culture, and the medium of comics was no exception.
The most immediate instance of 9/11’s influence on comics came in the form of benefit books. Dark Horse Comics (teaming with Oni Press and Image Comics) published 9-11 Volume One, an anthology of short stories and artwork by a variety of writers and artists, and DC Comics did the same, releasing 9-11 Volume Two (or 9-11 – The World’s Greatest Comic Book Writers & Artists Tell Stories to Remember). Those two trade paperbacks were something of an industry effort, as there was collaboration among several publishers. Marvel struck out on its own, publishing a poster book entitled Heroes, incorporating the destruction of the World Trade Center towers into Amazing Spider-Man #36 and releasing a series of limited series entitled Call of Duty honoring emergency responders. None of these books or comics is available anymore from the publishers or Diamond Comic Distributors. With this article, Eye on Comics takes a look back and discusses such projects with some of those involved.
Alternative Comics also released its own trade-paperback anthology in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, but it hasn’t faded into memory quite like those other books.
“9-11: Emergency Relief is actually still available from Diamond,” said Alternative Comics publisher Jeff Mason. “There are still plenty of copies in inventory — I actually pay about $200 a month for their storage in Canada.”
Emergency Relief, like efforts from other publishers, was a benefit book. Mason reported that it brought in proceeds of $36,000, which were donated to the American Red Cross.
Representatives of DC Comics, Marvel Comics and Dark Horse didn’t respond to inquiries about their benefit books, how much money was raised or to what charities funds were donated.
One might expect that for many creators involved in these projects, their participation might have served as a means to deal with the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001. But writers with whom Eye on Comics spoke didn’t feel that way. Kurt Busiek penned an Astro City story that saw print in 9-11 Volume Two and is one of the few stories from those volumes that’s been reprinted (in the Astro City: Local Heroes trade-paperback collected edition).
“I was glad to be a part of it, and proud to have helped bring in some money to help,” Busiek told Eye on Comics, noting there was a lot of good material in the 9-11 anthologies that deserves to remain in print, either in reprints of those books or in collections featuring the various creators’ individual works.
Working on the Sept. 11 project wasn’t about working through his feelings about that tragic day, he said.
“I think I worked through them well enough without needing specifically to write about it — my work is rarely topical to begin with, so I don’t seem to be the kind of writer who needs to process his reactions on paper, at least not immediate reactions — but I was glad to be part of the project, and very glad to be able to generate some money for good works,” Busiek said.
Writer, former Oni Press editor-in-chief and Portland, OR, resident Jamie S. Rich contributed to 9-11 Volume One along with artist and friend Chynna Clugston. He said he found it challenging at first to offer something to include in the project.
“When asked to contribute, I actually felt like I had nothing at all to contribute, I was on a totally opposite coast, I had no insights or any great experiences to offer. The only thing I could think of that made any sense for me to write about was how people kept in touch, how the Internet and e-mail had made it different for how friends and family contacted one another,” Rich said.
“We had, for instance, calls out on the Oni message board to ask about our New York-based friends. Chynna Clugston and I were in contact on AIM (AOL Instant Messenger) — me in Portland, she in San Diego — and that was how we talked while everything was going on. That became the basis for our one-pager. Something simple but hopefully universal — for those of us who weren’t there, for those of us who it didn’t happen to, per se, but who witnessed it from a distance. To claim I knew anything else, it would have been hubris.”
While he was happy to participate in the project, Rich said he’s not entirely sure so many people in the industry should have been so focused on commentary on such a dark moment in history so soon after it had happened.
“This may sound strange, but I felt really conflicted at the time. I was still editing then, and I had to talk a number of creative folks into getting back to work following the tragedy. Several cartoonists I knew wanted to flip the entire script, thinking they should start doing different kinds of comics, as if the world was not going to accept lighter fare anymore. I was kind of amazed by the phenomenon. When I divorced myself from the obvious sadness of what had happened, I was intrigued by this notion that because we saw it on TV, it ‘happened’ to all of us. A lot of people were claiming to have something to say about the tragedy, but no one had any perspective, it had only just happened. I think that’s a reason it took a long time before there was a movie about any of the events of 9/11. Distance was required,” he said.
What was needed in the aftermath of 9/11, Rich said, was the sort of lighter fare associated with comics, as people needed to escape from that harsh reality rather than to dwell on it.
“Those cartoonists that had wanted to abandon their work to get more serious, I felt like they were doing a disservice to their readers. At a time of tragedy, the jesters are all we have to keep us going. People needed a good laugh, we had done enough contemplating, there was plenty enough crying,” he said.
“I’m a big fan of Sullivan’s Travels, the 1942 Preston Sturges movie about a Hollywood director who runs off and pretends to be homeless as inspiration for his serious art picture about the human condition. Ultimately, being among the common man and witnessing the joy and escape they get from a Pluto cartoon, he realizes that entertainment exists for a reason, it exists to alleviate our everyday woes. If we were going to turn off the news to escape the reporting on the reality, then we didn’t need that same subject in our fantasy.”
Busiek said he didn’t find it difficult to return to writing super-hero comics in the wake of 9/11.
“I think fantastic fiction is fueled by metaphor, so the prospect of writing stories of action and destruction didn’t feel strange in the wake of 9-11, because it’s not literal destruction in the stories. I might feel strange about writing techno-thrillers or something very literal, but super-hero stories have been making concrete events symbolic for decades, and I don’t find that an unusual place,” he said.
“Overall, I think 9-11 has made comics creators more aware of the repercussions of big fantasy destruction, and perhaps we’re more sensitive to that. But it is part of the context we work in, so I don’t think we’d shy away from it. We didn’t in the wake of Pearl Harbor or Hiroshima or the Cuban Missile Crisis or many other crisis points of history.”
Rich said despite his misgivings about 9/11 comics storytelling in the months after the attacks, he respects what many creators offered during that time and what it meant to them, noting many poured their hearts out on the page.
“In retrospect, we all had to process it our own way, had to find our own means to deal. That said, I think that rush to come together to do these books… Well, I am not sure how memorable they are. I don’t really recall much of what came out of them, I’ve never felt compelled to go back to it. The strip Chynna and I did still resonates with me, but more because it was a comic about our friendship and not because it was part of a cause,” he said.
“To be honest, I didn’t really feel like a part of anything when it came out; there just happened to be a charity book with my comic in it. It’s ironic given that I had written a script about how people were connected, but I was disconnected.”
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