Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

The Hindsight of Benefits

Posted by Don MacPherson on September 11th, 2009

9-11 Vol. 19-11 Vol. 2We 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 Relief9-11: 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.”

Rich/Clugston strip, used with permissionWhile 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.

Captain Marvel Adventures #12, June 1942“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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11 Responses to “The Hindsight of Benefits”

  1. Evan Meadow Says:

    I think my favorite story in the two 9-11 books was the one Azzarello did about the Boston Red Sox fan who debated about actually rooting for the Yankees in the World Series that year because of what happened and his friend basically telling him he’s got to be true to his roots and show his support for NY by rooting for them to lose like they always do to show that nothing ever changes.

    And the story ends with “Go Diamondbacks”.

    And since I live in Arizona, I always really enjoyed that story. Plus, listening to everybody literally try to tell the D-Backs “Let them win, just play dead. They deserve it” really got under my craw.

    And I was born in NY mind you and half my family still lives there.

  2. Tommy Raiko Says:

    I like Azzarello’s baseball story very much, too. It’s one of the few stories in those various benefit anthologies that was able to process the shock and terror of eight years ago into a different kind of narrative. That’s not a knock against any of the other contributors; honestly, everyone’s emotions were so raw in the days after 9/11 that it’s a miracle that anyone could create anything. I spent a great deal of time today thinking about my own reaction to 9/11 and the days thereafter, and that Azzarello baseball story was one of the things I remembered a notable moment in my personal healing process.

    Beyond those anthologies, though, I think the graphic novel Ameican Widow, done a few years after the attacks by woman who lost her husband in the towers, is worth a reread too; another great example of what the art and craft of comics can do…

  3. Panos Says:

    Dear Don you use the words “unimaginable tragedy” to describe the 9-11 attacks. Can you tell me what words you use to describe the situation in Iraq or Afghanistan? Before that read the facts.
    Iraq is enough : 92,489 – 100,971 violent civilian deaths as a result of the conflict (Associated Press estimated 110,600 violent deaths). The Health Ministry of the Iraqi government estimated 87,215 Iraqi violent deaths between January 1, 2005, and February 28, 2009.
    After that will you still use words like “unimaginable tragedy”? I’m not saying that the 9-11 wasn’t a horrible crime against innocent people. I ‘am not saying that this attacks don’t change the global situation.
    I’m just saying that the crimes that followed from the Bush government (this crimes that Obama promised to stop and that’s why people vote him…) killed much more innocent people. And really caused “unimaginable tragedy” that will last for decades…

    PS. And i haven’t see any “hot” comics writes deal with the situation without patriotic screams (is easy to “fight” for your country. Is it easy to fight for common logic?). Remember what Dan Jurgens wrote for Marvel? Combat Zone. Even the most fanatic republican cant write this kind of shitty propaganda! Only Garth Ennis had the balls to do something different like 303. And a small suggestion: Read Arab in America from Toufic El Rassi (Last Gasp).

  4. Don MacPherson Says:

    Panos, your outrage over rising death tolls overseas is merited but it’s also misdirected in this instance. I wrote a piece about 9/11 benefit comics. Simply because I chose to focus on that topic doesn’t mean I’m unaware or indifferent to other tragedies. To suggest otherwise is insulting.

    You might as well be posting in the comments section of every review on this website, berating me for spending time thinking about the adventures of super-heroes or slice-of-life storytelling when “unimaingable tragedies” continue to unfold in other parts of the world.

  5. Panos Says:

    Don, I wasn’t trying to insult you at all. I just wanted to make a small point about your use of words for real history (9/11). I wasn’t speaking for the comic book (which had the personal views of the creators).

    Your website address to a lot people. I think the use of words is important in the complicated world we live in, where USA troops and agents go wherever and do whatever they want in the name of safety (and i know you’re not supporting that). I maybe did it in a clumsy way but certainly not with bad feelings for you.

    I love the fact that you write for super-heroes. You’re one the most reliable comic critics on the net (and not only for super-heroes). How i can blame you when i’m spending my time reading your writings? How can i blame you when i’ m happily buy the comics you propose? (by the way Asterios Polyp was great).

    Believe or not i follow your website from the moment you started it (and i think i haven’t bothered you with insulting posts). If i want to read about the “unimaginable tragedies” that happens all around the worlds i go in other websites. I’m also a journalist (for 15 years) and i know where i can search. Sorry to bother you.

  6. Don MacPherson Says:

    Panos, it’s no bother. I just don’t understand why my reference to the 9/11 attacks as “unimaginable tragedies” seems out of line to you. I thnk it’s a fair characterization of those key moments in history. The term would certainly apply to war, especially one that was launched on lies.

    I appreciate the kind words about the site and my writing, and I hope you continue to read.

  7. Sean Limbaugh Says:

    Don, I would like to applaud you for your article that showed 9/11 as “unimaginable tragedy” because it is just that — an “unimaginable tragedy”. No matter what those 9/11 truthers or anti-America rabble say, if they believe otherwise that’s a tragedy on its own.

    “If i want to read about the “unimaginable tragedies” that happens all around the worlds i go in other websites.”
    Panos, may I suggest The Daily KOS or Huffington Post, you’ll fit in just right.

  8. Don MacPherson Says:

    Sean, I think you’re going too far in the other direction. The tragedies to which Panos are tragedies as well, even travesties in some respects. His mistake was in feeling that my characterization of 9/11 somehow minimized issues that are important to him. That mistake, however, doesn’t mean his points about military action overseas are in error.

    I wouldn’t agree with his assertion that the Obama administration is furthering the errors and offences of the Bush administration, but there’s no denying that the Iraq war was justified by lies.

    Now, does anyone want to talk about the 9/11 benefit comics that were released several years ago? 🙂

  9. Jeffrey Says:

    I liked the Alan Moore/Melinda Gebbie one, “This is Information” I think it was called. Maybe because it felt a little detached compared to, well, almost all the other 9/11 stories really. Very dense, and I think I even learned a bit from it. (Not that I can remember the details now.)

  10. Elayne Riggs Says:

    I still think the Silver Surfer piece that Robin did with Alan Davis for the Marvel book was the absolute best inking (and colouring) he’s ever done. Although props to him for the “standard art devolving into child’s drawing” page that he did for the DC book (also with Alan, as well as a few others). As a New Yorker who was working in Manhattan at the time, I’m still shaken by memories of that day, and we were grateful to have played even a small part of the helping and healing process.

  11. Don MacPherson Says:

    Elayne wrote:
    I still think the Silver Surfer piece that Robin did with Alan Davis for the Marvel book was the absolute best inking (and colouring) he’s ever done.

    For those who don’t know, Elayne is referring to her husband, comic artist Robin Riggs, who’s best known as an inker and has worked with Davis on other projects as well.