COMICS: John Reviews the 9/11 Commission Report (Graphic Adaptation) by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon

In memory, respect and honor of the tragic attacks that occurred in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington on September 11, 2001, I will be reviewing several comic books – some fiction, some non-fiction – that relate to 9/11. The first book reviewed in my 9/11 remembrance series is the graphic adaptation of The 9/11 Commission Report, adapted by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon:

As someone who has never read the original 9/11 Commission Report, I began reading without a solid background with the source material. This is a relatively unusual experience for me, as I try my level best to never read or watch an adaptation without first getting to know the original work. Nevertheless, I trusted that my personal experiences from that fateful day and the years that followed would provide me with enough of a frame of reference to judge the book appropriately. I can honestly say that while this version of the Report is highly informative and capable of illustrating points that its source material could not, it does not even come close to providing the reader with the same level of comprehensive information about all aspects of the events before, during, and immediately after the 9/11 tragedy. At only 115 illustrated pages compared to the source material’s 768, it would be absolutely impossible for it to act as a complete replacement for the original text. Thankfully, I believe that replacing the original was not its intent at all. It seems more likely that the book is aimed at an audience that would not ordinarily read the Report (such as younger or more casual readers,) and it is designed to bring those readers in and hopefully inspire them (as it did me) to read the original text.

In its comparatively short 115 pages, the graphic version of the Report manages to include a staggeringly impressive amount of information. It is broken into thirteen chapters, covering the major sections of the Report such as the founding of Al Queda, the rise to power of Osama Bin Laden, the establishment and training of Al Queda cells in America, the oversights of two American political administrations and reluctance to address threats, the attacks themselves, and an analysis of America’s response to all things terrorist-related before, during, and immediately after 9/11. Like its source material, this version of the Report (literally) illustrates the many different critical points where an alternate course of action by the American government could have hindered or prevented the attacks. Reading it reminded me of an episode of the History Channel’s “Modern Marvels” dedicated to history’s greatest engineering disasters. In many of the famous American catastrophes (The Titanic, The Hindenburg, that hotel balcony collapse, various bridge collapses, the great blackout of 2003) it took a cascade of failures to create such horrible disasters. Compensation measures were or are in place for many of these systems, but when failures occur sequentially or simultaneously on multiple levels, the result can be catastrophic. It seems that this was the case with 9/11 as well. The most damning appraisal in the Report is of our intelligence network, which was completely disconnected at the time and was withholding vital facts from “rival” branches. It seems counter-intuitive to create a “wall” between the CIA and FBI, especially when it leads to an adversarial climate between the two organizations. To think that foreign and domestic threats to America would never overlap and therefore would never need to share information was arrogant, and we paid a terrible price for our mistake seven years ago today. Please don’t misunderstand me there: It was not the FBI or the CIA or any other government organization’s fault that these attacks happened. It was Osama Bin Laden and his terrorist organization’s fault. It was the government’s lethal mistake that they were unprepared and unable to stop such attacks, though.

One interesting portion of the Report dealt with the passing of responsibilities from the Clinton administration to the Bush administration. I had always believed that the real “damage” to this country’s security had occurred years prior to 9/11. during the Clinton administration when terrorist threats were nigh-completely ignored. It turns out (according to the Report) that the departing Clinton administration impressed upon Bush’s administration the importance of finding and neutralizing Osama Bin Laden as soon as possible. The Report mentions that President Clinton regretted being unable to bring Bin Laden to justice during his time in office, but wanted to make sure that President Bush understood the necessity of halting Bin Laden and the rest of Al Queda’s terrorist activities. This weighed against my earlier belief, but did not completely dash it.

It was interesting to read the recommendations section of the Report with the benefit of four years’ hindsight, especially in light of recent hot-button election issues such as proposed changes to the Global War on Terror’s policies. Iraq is mentioned on no more than five pages in total throughout the book, and the commission’s findings did not indicate a significant level of Iraqi involvement in the terrorists’ plot.

Since the big deal about this particular book is that it is a graphic adaptation, I would be remiss if I did not mention the artwork and its use to illustrate the concepts in the Report. While I found the use of comic book artwork to be an excellent way to retain the reader’s attention, the illustrations were clearly not considered to be as important as the text. The artwork itself is (as most non-fiction graphic books are) reminiscent of the set of flight instructions included in the seat-back on most commerical airlines. It occurs to me as I write this that perhaps the art style was chosen for thematic reasons, since air travel plays so prominently in the Report. In terms of relating text to images, the book felt reminiscent of educational filmstrips from days gone by, specifically the kind shown in synch with an audio recording that beeped to signal an advance in the strip. Regardless, the only time this book takes real advantage of its graphic capability is in its fold-out timelines of the events of the crash. These two segments are the most spectacular parts of the book. The first timeline is divided into four rows, each row chronicling the sequence of events for an airplane from boarding to aftermath. The second timeline is far more damning, as it chronicles the responses (or lack thereof) from the relevant authorities for each flight in contrast to actual events. Through this timeline, we are able to see exactly when jets were scrambled to search for Flight 11 (41 minutes after it had crashed into the World Trade Center.) If they had released these two timelines as oversized posters, they would be nearly as powerful and illustrative as the entire graphic adaptation.

As an abridged version of the original 9/11 Commission Report designed to be a more accessible primer for casual or younger readers, Jacobson and Colon’s adaptation succeeds perfectly. As an important work of graphic non-fiction and sequential art, it fares decidedly worse. As long as you understand that the pictures alone will not tell the story, you should find this version of the Report to be an eye-opening read and a great warm-up for the real deal.

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