Golden Age Showcase: A selection of comics about 9/11

So it’s September 11th today.

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They say everyone who is old enough to remember 9/11 remembers exactly where they were when they heard the news.  I don’t know if this is true for everyone, but I remember being in middle school and being hurried into an auditorium by the entire staff and not really understanding what was going on until much later.

September 11th was an important event in American history and for American comics as well.  For starters, it was the deadliest attack on American soil by a foreign threat since Pearl Harbor.

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We all know that Pearl Harbor was the principal event that brought the United States into World War 2, but it was also the event that guided the direction of American comics towards superheroes,

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and war comics.

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If we take a step back this makes a lot of sense.  Comic book publishers saw that the American people needed escapist power fantasies where all their problems could be solved by walking metaphors that could punch their problems in the face and this trend would continue as America became a world wide military superpower that became increasingly involved in world affairs.

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Just like Pearl Harbor, 9/11 was an event that rekindled our interest in superheroes.

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and it even revitalized an interest in modern military narratives, although these tended to find their way into video games and other forms of media.

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Once again, it was a way for American culture to make sense of our place in the world and give a brightly colored metaphor to our problems.  The only differences were that our heroes fought in Afghanistan instead of Europe and a lot of creators had to deal with a more complex and morally grey fallout.

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In many ways post 9/11 America paralleled post Pearl Harbor America and comic books were there to document and process it.

I know it happened a long time ago, that it brings up painful memories that a lot of us would like to forget, and that many of us would like to keep the political and social fallout that the event caused out of our comic books, but stuff like this is important and needs to be talked about.

So today I’m going to give a brief overview of three comics that dealt with the events of 9/11 and a little bit about the background and influences of each one.

Amazing Spiderman #36

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This comic hit the stores on December of 2001, a mere two months after the attacks.  As a result, it is the closest out of the three comics to the actual attacks, during a time when it was still terrifyingly fresh in our minds and we were all still standing together against a threat that we really didn’t understand.

Out of all the superheroes in the modern pop culture cannon, Spiderman is probably the one who is most connected to New York, and one of the most hard hit by the events of 9/11.

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While New York has always had a special place in comic books as the birthplace of the American superhero industry, Spider Man has had a special relationship with the city.  He’s the city’s defender, the protector of the ordinary people living there, and I’m willing to bet that he’s incredibly grateful for all of the tall skyscrapers around that allow him to actually use his webs effectively.

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The attacks would even have an effect on the Sam Raimi Spiderman movie, forcing Sony to remove a shot of the Twin Towers from a trailer,

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and inspiring Sam Raimi to include a “this is New York!  If you mess with him you mess with all of us” scene into the movie.

The comic itself was written by the legendary writer J. Michael Straczynski and was drawn by Marvel stalwart John Romita Sr.  It isn’t part of a larger story, it’s just Spiderman wandering the wreckage of Ground Zero and trying to process it all.

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Now, I have seen some criticism over the years about this comic, and I can kind of see why.  There’s a page where some of the most violent and destructive villains in the Marvel Universe are just standing in the wreckage, doing nothing.
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Hell, this wasn’t even the first time that Marvel destroyed the Twin Towers in their version of New York.  Juggernaut did it in an issue of X-Force in 1991 and laughed about it.

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but this is not the kind of comic if you ask me this comic deserves our attention and respect as a way for a company that is so engrained into the culture of New York to come to terms with an event that shook the city and the country to its core.

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In the Shadow of No Towers

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In the Shadow of No Towers was published in 2004 and was written by indie comics legend Art Spiegelman, the author of the groundbreaking graphic novel Maus.

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Mr. Spiegelman is a native New Yorker and was there during the attacks.  He was a contributor to the New Yorker magazine at the time and is responsible for the cover of the magazine published on September 24th 2001.

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He’s also a big fan and advocate of comics and takes a lot of inspiration from a lot of the early comic book artists, and it shows in his work.  The book itself is much more personal than the Spiderman comic, but at the same time it has something more to say about the event and its impact.

On one hand it’s about the author himself and where he was during the attacks.  His daughter was attending school near the Twin Towers on that day and the author is not afraid to talk about the fear and terror of actually being up close and personal to an event like that was.

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On the other hand, this book was published in 2004 and while we had come to grips with the attack itself, we were neck deep in the consequences that the attack wrought on American culture and politics. Specifically we were at the beginning of what would become a long, drawn out military occupation in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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Spiegelman saw what was going on, how the attacks were being used to justify spending billions of dollars and killing thousands of American troops (along with Lord knows how many Iraqi and Afghani citizens), and he was not happy with what he saw.

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This book uses old school comic characters and techniques to talk about 9/11 and its aftermath and it is really worth checking out.

Ex Machina

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This comic came out the same time as In the Shadow of No Towers but instead of being a one off graphic novel, it was a 50 issue comic series that lasted six years and was published by DC Comics.

The series was created and written by Brian K. Vaughn,

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who has been doing a lot of great comic book work and is most well known for creating the indie mega hit Saga.

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Now, Vaughn is not a native New Yorker but he did go to New York University and got his start there and, according to the author himself, he created Ex Machina as a rant against the political leadership of the time.

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The comic presents an alternate history of New York and America.  It’s a future where there is a single superhero called “The Great Machine” and he manages to stop one of the planes from crashing into one of the towers.  In the aftermath he is elected to become mayor of New York City and the comic deals with his term in office.

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The comic is a political drama and out of the three titles we’ve talked about it is probably the most detached from the actual events of 9/11.  While it actually changes the events of that day, it uses the superhero story to tell a gripping and meaningful story that shines a light on American politics and how our country’s leaders used the Twin Towers to guide the American public towards the future we are living in now.  The comic is brilliant and it is definitely worth your time.

So there you have it, three different comics, by three different types of comic professionals, talking about the same event through different viewpoints and motivations.  And while it is important to acknowledge the fallout and changes to our culture and way of life, it is important to never forget what happened and how we can ensure it will never happen again.

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Golden Age Showcase: Mastermind Excello

Today we’re winding down our coverage of J. Michael Straczynski’s The Twelve with the second to last hero in the story.  He’s the suave, playboy, telekinetic spy catcher for the United States Navy: Mastermind Excello.

 

Origin and career:

Like so many of his Golden Age compatriots Excello only lasted a couple of issues.  His first appearance was in Mystic Comics #3 in April of 1940,

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where he would uncover and defeat a Nazi spy ring.

His character was simple.  His real name was Early Everett and he was a wealthy playboy (because there aren’t enough of those in comic books) who possessed great physical and mental powers which he used to fight for America.

The man was sort of like an American James Bond but with superpowers as well as cool gadgets (this was a time when a pocket transmitter was a big deal).

So what happened?

Sadly “James Bond with superpowers” was as far as they were going to go with the character so it was up to Straczynski to expand the character and give him a more meaningful existence.

Judging from this picture they were off to a very good start.  The character looks badass, although to be fair anyone can look badass when holding a Tommy gun like that.

In The Twelve it is elaborated that Everett’s father is a brilliant scientist, so brilliant that he was actually pen pals with Einstein.  While his father was busy developing a special radioactive bullet for the Allies,

Earl Everett was determined to waste as much time and money as possible the only way a wealthy playboy with no concept of the value of money can.

It should be noted that for some reason Earl seemed to win more often than he lost.  This would later be revealed to stem from latent psychic abilities that wouldn’t be fully realized until a fateful trip to Britain where he was shot in the head by a Nazi spy while saving his father.

However, while the doctors managed to save his life they weren’t able to get all the bullet fragments out.  Several of these highly radioactive fragments would remain in his skull threatening to kill him.

After turning a new leaf Earl Everett decided to work on behalf of the United States government and was given the code name “Mastermind Excello”.

He would use his powers to great effect during the war, even helping the Allies retrieve occult items that the Nazis might have used to win the war.

In 1945 he joined the Twelve on their ill fated assault on Berlin.

They were captured, placed into stasis, and re discovered in 2008.

Like many of his compatriots Mastermind Excello had a difficult time fitting in.  It wasn’t for lack of money, his trust fund from 1940 had amassed millions, but it was more due to the continued noise and interference from this new world that played havoc on his psychic senses.

Excello separated himself from the group for most of the story and bought a house that he was able to soundproof and line with lead, which allowed him to enjoy a quiet peaceful life.  Gradually his future senses returned and he began interacting with his former teammates again.  While he couldn’t see the future clearly he could get glimpses and snippets of what was about to happen, enough to warn his friends and prepare them as best he could for the coming danger.

It would later be revealed that one of their own, the hero Dynamic Man, had turned evil and was ready to embark on a homicidal rampage.  Although Excello didn’t play a direct part in the ensuing fight he did help prepare the Phantom Reporter to take on the Fiery Mask’s powers and was able to help the team cope with the apparent death of Rockman.

After the fight was over Excello used his powers to ensure that The Phantom Reporter and Black Widow became a couple,

it worked.

It was also revealed that the shrapnel in his brain would kill him (kind like Iron Man only in his brain instead of his heart) if he used his powers to much.

Not willing to go quietly Excello decided to continue being a hero and used his vast fortune to purchase a large private investigator firm which he renamed E.X.C enterprises.  The Phantom Reporter and Black Widow were two of his first hires.

Like so many heroes in this series Mastermind Excello had tremendous potential as a hero.  He had the looks, superpowers, and motivation to be an interesting hero but sadly he was a drop in a very large bucket of “one and done” heroes.  Thankfully he was given a better ending and a new purpose on life with The Twelve.

Golden Age Showcase: Mister E

Continuing on our series discussing the previous lives and careers of The Twelve we’re going to look at the one of the basic and standard superhero archetypes of the 1940’s: Mister E (good Lord even writing that just makes me want to groan).

 

Origin and Career

Mister E debuted in February of 1940, along with his future teammate The Laughing Mask, in Daring Mystery Comics #2.

 

I’m going to level with you, almost everything about Mister E is boring.

His origin story?  He’s a rich athlete named Victor Jay who decides to fight crime.

His motivations?  He’s bored.

His costume?  You can find the same design on half a dozen pulp and super heroes of the time.

It’s a small wonder he only lasted one issue.  That being said the villain he faced was pretty cool.

That is a picture of the Vampire, a mad scientist who was the mortal enemy of Mister E (it’s never explained why) who had developed a drug that would cause his victim’ heart to explode.  Mister E would stop the Vampire from taking over an oil company run by a man named J.P Snead.  At the end of the comic Mister E captured the Vampire, who promptly escaped, allowing the hero to wonder if the Vampire and himself would meet again, gearing up for a re match that would never occur.

So what happened?

Like many previous superheroes on this list Mister E would only last one issue until he was revived in 2007 for J. Michael Straczynski’s The Twelve.

Like his fellow super heroes Mister E spent time in Europe fighting the Nazis and was captured after a failed assault on Berlin.  It’s interesting to note that since Mister E didn’t have super powers he was viewed more as a tourist rather than a super hero,

and his revulsion at the Witnesses’ description of the crimes committed at Auschwitz seemed to reinforce that idea.

Like everyone else he was placed in cryogenic storage and wasn’t discovered until 2007 and while he would play a pretty passive part in the main story Mister E would have one of the most heartbreaking and emotional side stories in the entire comic.

One of the great things about The Twelve is Straczynski’s ability to create great characters to tell a great story and make a point.  In the case of Mister E this was a moment where Straczynski’s talents were put to exceptional use.

It turned out that Victor Jay wasn’t Mister E’s real name, it was Victor J. Goldstein.  He was Jewish but decided to hide the fact in order to fit in and be accepted into modern high society.

For anyone who is a fan of Golden Age comic books this is something that is incredibly jarring.  Not only does Straczynski use a medium of story telling where its heroes are supposed to stand above petty racism like this but it is especially shocking when you consider that so many of the early comic book creators were Jewish.

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even Stan Lee was the son of Jewish immigrants (his real name was Stanley Lieber before he had it changed)

Mister E would attempt reconnect with his now 68 year old son, who disowned his father by claiming he was a coward for not owning up to his heritage.

However, at the end of the comic Mister E would later learn that his wife had passed away and he vowed to never be a superhero due to the extreme emotional and mental cost it placed on him and his family.

While Mister E wasn’t much of a super hero and didn’t get to save the day he was put to fantastic use as a commentary on 1940’s America and the culture that spawned the industry we all know and love.