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9-11: Artists Respond,

Volume One

9-11: The World’s Finest Comic Book Writers and Artists Tell Stories to Remember

Perhaps we’ve gone too far in reassessing the comic book. Ever since the introduction of the term “graphic novel” emphasized the literary and cinematic in what was formerly the immature and two-dimensional, comics have enjoyed a reputation as a most cutting-edge art form—violent, sexy, mysterious, complex, a melding of drawing and words that calls forth spectacularly strange worlds.

This is true, up to a point. But it bears remembering that tights ‘n’ fights comic books still exist and, in the context of a flailing industry, thrive. Many titles occupy a middle ground—even the standard superhero scribes have had to pull up their socks in the face of such successful iconoclasts as Frank Miller and Alan Moore, and media smarties such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon, who grew up devouring Marvel and DC titles and are now dabbling in comic ephemera themselves. There’s a huge range of comics quality out there, from close-enough-to-Art-for-the-Whitney-Biennial C. Ware to mildly interesting modern horror-story anthologies (such as DC imprint Vertigo’s Flinch) to the tales of muscular-thighed caped crusaders rotely battling evil on the pulped pages of dorky titles you’ve never heard of.

So it was probably overly optimistic to hope that comic-book artists and writers would evince a uniformly creative and insightful response to the events of Sept. 11. To judge from the two volumes of 9-11: Artists Respond, trafficking in the human potentials for evil and heroism didn’t give them laser vision into this unfathomable monstrosity; they are just as thoughtful, just as compassionate, and just as able to imagine the unimaginable in these anthologies as they are in their own books. Which is to say, the greats are great, the mediocre are only OK, and many are touchingly, utterly lost.

The first volume was released with lightning speed this January by the fine little imprint Dark Horse. Clearly, the artists and writers came through immediately, cobbling together a response before the horror had begun to be processed. It’s a testament to their heartfelt hard work that so many answered the call—among them, Miller, Dylan Horrocks, Marti Noxon, Will Eisner, Stan Sakai, and Dave McKean. Hardly anyone slacks off, unless you count the many page-sized panels of teary vigils, vengeful eagles, and stalwart firefighters. There’s too much insipid sentimentality—bittersweet tales of how the Events help lonely urbanites cherish life’s small joys and connections—and the bull-necked calls for violence, however cleverly drawn (in Darko Macan’s “An Expert Opinion”), are just as unsatisfying as the goopy tolerance ‘n’ diversity contributions and the tossed-off entries along the lines of “This is where I was; I didn’t know what to think. Still don’t.”

Volume 1 starts with a kick in the gut, with P. Craig Russell’s “In Flanders Fields,” which prints the beautiful World War I-era poem line by line against harrowing drawn images—a fireman’s head in blood-red shadow, an airplane in a blue sky, a wall of smiling faces. Healthy sentimentality is abundantly on display, in Pablo Maiztegui and Francisco Solano Lopez’s blue-shadowed conversation between ordinary men who, we realize, are trapped in a pocket amid the rubble, and Trina Robbins and Anne Timmons’ cleanly drawn, “realistic” story of the emotional dismantling of a yuppie commuter. Joe Casey and Sean Philips must have thrown themselves bodily into the crafting of “Uncertain Process,” a long installment narrated with gimlet-sharp self-perception by a fictitious Los Angeles financial consultant; “In my own nightmares,” he frets while thinking about the airline passengers, “I just sit there and die.”

Despite the high emotions of the time, only a few contributions are truly passionate, but they are among the finest here, such as Mark Martin’s fabulously angry six-panel fantasia of happy, dancing cartoon creatures being sent to the afterlife of innocents by a deceptive wolf (“Pull my finger,” he tells them), who is surprised to find himself in another afterlife altogether. The venerable Miller turns in three scabrous panels—a rough five-pointed star and a cross in close-up, and a skeletal rendering of the fallen towers’ ribs, with the words, “I’m sick of flags. I’m sick of God. I’ve seen the power of faith.” Chris Eliopoulos’ “Close to Home” tells of an awful, almost-comic miscommunication between the author and his wife, whose domestic history is coincidentally intertwined with the events of that day.

There’s heartbreaking even-handedness in Jon Muth’s “Prayer,” William Stout’s intense, cross-hatched “Shoes!,” and Stephen Walsh and Guy Davis’ “When They Sound That Last All Clear,” in which an Afghan mother tries to tell her son what’s happened in America. Jim Mahfood’s “Arab-Americans” is a patient, texty explanation of what it’s like being young, hip, and half-Arab, with no self-pity or PC sludge.

Some contributors come at the subject obliquely. David Chelsea’s “He Walks on Air 110 Stories High” tells the story of French high-wire artist Philippe Petit, who walked a tightrope between the World Trade Center towers in 1974, to the consternation of the local police. Terry Anderson travels to Glasgow’s rough Sighthill housing project, where anti-Muslim violence broke out a scant month “Before the Fall, 2001.” Only a couple acknowledge the D.C.-area attacks, but Paul Chadwick’s “Sacrifice” is marvelous, a sinewy, graphic recounting of the struggle aboard Flight 93, emboldened by his stark, old-fashioned Sgt. Rock-style action panels.

But the one contribution that is by itself worth the price of admission, worth the world of pain and hurt it calls up in its tangential way, worth the concentration it demands to follow its delicate unspooling of scientific and historical fact, is “This Is Information,” written by the Rasputin-looking Northampton, England, madman Alan Moore and drawn by the astoundingly versatile Melinda Gebbie. It explores every aspect of the attacks—causes, precedents, and resonances—in six pages, touching on the Crusades, bonkers speculations (a trio of lesbians is shown shoring up Jerry Falwell’s homos-caused-it theory, saying “They cancelled ‘Ellen’! Now it’s payback!”), the tarot, the London Blitz, and a house of cards. “Does suggesting a wider context justify the slaughter? Insult its victims?” Moore asks, after demolishing the traditionally Manichean comic-book worldview of good and evil as a useful real-life construct. “Christ no. We all wept. I’m weeping now.”

Volume 2 is divided into thematic chapters—”Nightmares,” “Recollections,” “Unity,” et cetera—but given less conceptual play, the writers and artists mostly falter. They had more time to think, to polish their responses, and to take into account the war in Afghanistan, and still almost no one remembers that the Pentagon was also attacked. The book is largely Justice Leaguespecific (as befits a DC Comics product), embarrassingly sentimental, and very elaborately drawn, though much of it evinces the worst of bloated, maudlin macho expression singularly endemic to bad comic-book writing, particularly in the brawny “Heroes” section. There’s a hideously kitsch board meeting with Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Winston Churchill, Abe Lincoln, Golda Meir, and other heroes of history, a cameo in the Pentagon of George Washington’s shade, fatherless or motherless homes occupied by confused but preternaturally wise children, and many, many mea culpas on the part of the tights ‘n’ fights scribes toward firefighters, cops, and rescue workers. Even the great Stan Lee contributes some hawkish bullpuckey, in which George W. is a benevolent elephant king and Muslims envious rats.

The scant exceptions are Jennifer Moore and Jill Thompson’s vividly colored “No Sale?” in which a woman finds a little piece of redemption amid the frenzy of greed and kitsch in the name of patriotism that followed in the attacks’ wake; Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti’s “Silver Linings in a Big Dust Cloud,” eight pleasant sketches of relieving news from the aftermath; Phil Noto’s full-page portrait of a stunned Jimmy Olson gazing upward helplessly, his camera idle; and Dave McKean’s painting of a dove reflected as an eagle in a crystal ball.

It’s disconcerting to look at these panels nine months after the attacks—they are so precisely of their time. Volume 1 is raw and anguished, intellectual ambivalence struggling with naked emotions; even the segments with small narrative thrust are evocative in their sense of paralyzed confusion. The slick Volume 2 at its jingoistic worst is, just as the country was up until the turn of the year, belligerent, flag-waving, and mawkish. Reading them now is like seeing the nation’s temperature preserved at the two points in time—and leads one to wonder, in the hopelessly complicated aftermath of the aftermath, how on earth these men and women would make sense of what’s happening now. CP