Thursday, May 27, 2010

instant reactions, nine years later

I remember picking up DC Comics' "9-11: Artists Respond" paperback soon after it was published in early 2002 (the turnaround time, looking back, was pretty amazing).  It featured short stories portraying many creators' reactions to the New York terrorist attacks, some of which were told using DC's popular super heroes.  One such story stands out in my mind, though it's been almost nine years since I read it, where Superman laments that he's just a fictional character and thus can't do anything to stop the suffering in the real world.

Regardless of the story, what really sticks with me was how raw the book was from an emotional standpoint.  Whereas comics, especially from the likes of Marvel and DC, usually have a very "safe", calculated message to portray ("don't do drugs, kids!"), a lot of the stories included in DC's 9-11 book were the comic book equivalent of an instantaneous reaction.  Not all of it was hopeful and positive, either - you could feel the anger, the despair that others felt by reading their stories.

DC's paperback was listed as volume two, and while there was a big ad for the first volume on the back cover of the book, I never took the time to seek it out.  A few months ago, though, I found it on sale at nearby Fanboy Comics for only five bucks, so I jumped at the chance to pick it up.

I'm sure that one of the reasons I bought the DC version, complete with Superman and Krypto on the cover, each in awe over "real life" heroes such as doctors, police officers, etc., and not the first volume was the fact that I wasn't nearly as willing to read independent comics in 2002 as I am today.  That's not saying the majority of the comics I buy aren't Marvel and DC, but my reading stack's much more diverse now than it's ever been before.  Volume one was published jointly by Dark Horse, Chaos!, and Image, and featured mostly independent creators, many of them still not familiar to me.

I just finished reading this particular volume, and I'm as astounded as I was in 2002 when I read the second volume of short stories - not just by the impeccable quality, but again by the raw, unfettered emotion that obviously stemmed from witnessing such a horrific event.  Reading these stories took me back to that unseasonably warm fall day in September, and there were a few times that I had to put the book down and clear the lump in my throat before continuing.

It's difficult to reconcile that so much time has passed since the event, and it's distressing to realize how cynicism and distrustfulness have taken over so much of our social and political landscape; it's disheartening to realize how we've pushed the immediate aftermath, one of such good will and hope, to the back of our minds once more.  I was in college in 2001, and now I teach college; most of my students this past semester were all of nine years old on the date in question.  How long before the students I'm teaching, legally capable of making major decisions such as joining the military, have no recollection of the 9-11 attacks?  As I said, it's all hard to reconcile.

There are dozens of stories and pinups in this collection, and each of them tells a unique story.  Most of them, I'd imagine, would look much different if DC or Dark Horse or Image were to put the book together today - I think it would lose some of the immediacy that makes it great.  Frank Miller's "I'm sick of flags, I'm sick of God" might be the angriest comic I've ever read, and it's all of three panels.  Dave Cooper's "9/12" puts the shock of the events into perspective.  Anthony Johnston and Mike Norton's "Sunday Mourning" is heartbreaking.  Marc Rosenthal's "If", when looked at through the lens of 2010, makes me think of what could have been.

It may seem counterproductive to bemoan the September, 2001 attacks nearly nine years after the fact.  The world has, in many cases, moved on and new tragedies have arisen to take our attentions.  Reading this book, however, brought the immediacy of all the emotions I felt as I wandered around campus (hopelessness, fear, despair, uncertainty) flooding back.  In an few more years, when we all have just a little more perspective, these two comic book collections would be tremendous as texts in a history or English class that focused on the subject.  If someone wanted to recreate or remember the atmosphere of the days just following September 11th, all they'd have to do is read a few stories from these collections.  It's brilliant, chilling material that deserves to be recognized for it's significance.

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