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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The Primordial Soup: Art and Technology

Before the article can start I want you to watch this video.

If you can’t play the video or don’t want to watch it let me summarize it.  The video is a series of clips from a documentary called It Might Get Loud.  The entire movie is The Edge from U2, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, and Jack White from the White Stripes talking about their music and their inspirations.  It is an amazing film and I highly recommend it.  The clip shown above is a set of clips with Jack White calling technology “the destroyer of emotion and truth.  Technology doesn’t do anything for creativity…that’s the disease you have to fight in any creative field, ease of use”.

Speaking purely as an artist myself I am inclined to agree with Jack on this one, in an attempt to make things easier you wind up losing something important, whether it’s some sort of tiny little imperfection that makes your creation special or nugget of truth that you just gloss over because it was easier not to.  For a perfect example of this look at something like the overuse of CGI in movies, mostly during the  1990’s where bad CGI and special effects were everywhere and the ability to fill seats in theaters with nothing more than that led to some really crappy movies.

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The thing is that while technology can be used a crutch for poor creative thought and has an annoying habit of turning a lot of creators lazy it is still useful.  Technology should be used as a companion to the creative thought process rather than its replacement and in my opinion there are three ways technology can do this.

Technology for storage and restoration 

Examples: The National Film Preservation Foundation, the Gutenberg Project, countless picture and art restoration efforts.

This is probably the most straightforward and distinct application of technology to creative works.  The fact of the matter is that things like books, famous works of art, and especially early film can be lost very easily.  By using modern appliances like computers, scanners, and digital storage works that would have previously lost to the ages can be cataloged, stored, and brought out for the enjoyment of future generations.

Technology for collaboration and publicity

Examples: Facebook, Dropbox, Itunes, the entire Internet.

The most useful and welcomed application of technology in the modern age. With a few simple clicks anyone from anywhere with access to a computer and a stable connection can connect with and collaborate with anyone else from around the world to create something.  Once that has been done it’s just a simple matter of sharing their work with their friends or anywhere large numbers of people congregate online.  Now anyone has the potential to be seen by millions of people when before it took giant companies with a long reach and deep pockets to get that kind of exposure.  Let me be clear, the technology on display here did nothing to create a work of art, it simply helps the work reach a bigger audience.

Technology for creative augmentation and discovery

Examples: Photoshop, Motion capture, CGI

Yes, I am fully aware that I just spend the majority of this article talking about how CGI ruined movies and how technology destroys creativity but hear me out.  Technology is destructive when used as a crutch but when it is used to augment and support an artist great things can happen.  Thinking “oh I can just use CGI to add a monster into my film and then it’ll be entertaining enough that I won’t have to do anything else” is bad but you still have design the monster, you still have to come up with rules for it and how it works within the story you’re telling, and you still have to make the monster have meaning.  You think that the fact that CGI was used to make these guys.

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and this guy

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made their movies worse?  Nope, by using CGI and computers to augment and support the creative vision of each of these films both films were able to realize their artistic vision much better then if they hadn’t used the tools available.

So the moral of this article is simple: technology isn’t necessarily a damper on creative thought and artistic production, the artist just has to be careful not to become too reliant on it and expect technology to do his/her job for them.