COMICS: John Reviews “9/11 – Artists Respond” Anthology Volumes 1 and 2

What do you do when the world literally comes tumbling down? How can people thousands of miles away with no training or relevant skills help to heal the tragedy and pain of the worst attack on America in over a century, when so many real heroes have already given their lives to save as many people as they could? Is there even a point in trying to go back to the way we used to live our lives, or has our entire world changed forever for the worse? These must have been the thoughts and fears running through the minds of comic book creators around the world after the tragedies of September 11, 2001. Many of them were presented with a chance to do something, however small, to help the victims’ families and to help the country mourn this tragic loss. 9/11: Artists Respond is a two-volume anthology that collects works from a massive list of the world’s top comic book writers and artists, each one honoring the memory of those who fell and striving to help us come to grips with the full scope of it all. While some of the pieces are actual accounts of the creators’ experiences, most are narratives that prove a fictional story related to real events can be just as moving as a factual account when the writer captures the spirit of the moment. As one of Alan Moore’s characters quoted in V for Vendetta, “Afrtists use lies to tell the truth.”

The work is a mix of single-page works of art from comics’ most famous artists (such as Alex Ross, Dave McKean, Paul Pope, Lenlil Yu and many more), a few text-only pieces (a particularly moving one by Will Eisner, as well as one by Michael Moorcock), and multi-page short comics by teams of writers and artists (the list of which is longer than your arm, and includes talent such as Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Neil Gaiman, Will Eisner, Paul Levitz, Denny O’Neil and Geoff Johns to name a few. These range from literal man-on-the-street stories of those who did (or didn’t) survive the crashes, to intriguing allegories (frequently involving superheroes’ inability to affect change in the real world), to spiritual journeys that have everything to do with the theme (but not necessarily physical events.) Having read both volumes in one day, I can say that I never felt like I was visiting the same familiar ground over and over again. The editors did a fantastic job of coordinating the anthologies to make sure perspectives, approaches and techniques were varied and that the reader remains engaged throughout.

What really surprised me about the anthology was the range of emotions it stirred within me as I read it. I expected the affair to be one long, tragic look back at one of the worst days in American history, with a glimmer of hope for a brighter, more peaceful future (note: these stories were written before the invasion and occupation of Iraq.) I found myself experiencing far more than grief for the fallen, however. In this anthology there are tales of heroic deeds great and small, of neighbors banding together to cope, of those who were there and those who watched it from thousands of miles away, of terribly misdirected anger and hate toward arabs following 9/11, precautionary tales of a future where we all drive tanks to work, optimistic tales of the future where a united earth looks back on 9/11 as the dawn of a more unified age, and the list goes on. For every story showcasing the greed of opportunistic marketers trying to “leverage the tragedy,” there is a story of members of a community reaching out to one another to break down social barriers. For every one who could not be saved, there is one who was and who saved others. Hope ran strongly throughout, and not just hope that “we’ll get the bastards.” These stories show the real hope for a better world that so many of us wore (and continue to wear) on our sleeves in the days, weeks, months and years following 9/11. A few of my favorite passages are included below:

“There’s no point in trying to count the degrees of separation between myself and the victims – the dead or the living. Zero degrees separate us. Has the world changed? I can’t say. But I have.” – Randy Stradley

“They are not gods, and share few traits with the traditional champions of myth and legend, but a terrible tragedy has revealed their true character – and here there be heroes!” – Tom DeFalco

” {Love] is what people do when it al falls apart. If they care enough about what they’ve lost. They put it back together.” – Mike Carey

“The world changed the day the skies over Afghanistan darkened with American planes … The Afghan people saw not bombs, but food and medicine from America! This was a battle not of terror, but for the hearts and minds of the disenfranchised, and support for terroristm began to ebb…. That was when the world changed. I was never so proud to be an American.” – Marc Rosenthal

“Does suggesting a wider context justify the slaughter? insult its victims? Christ, no. We all wept. I’m weeping now. Any single human life has more complexity, more energy bound up in it than our tallest towers. And any death simplifies all that, horribly.” – Alan Moore

“I’m doing what Mom said. I’m standing tall, because I want the bad guys to know I’m not broken. My heart is unbreakable, too.” – Joe Kelly

“I got forty-seven people out of burning buildings in the last eight months. Three that day. A leg’s nothing, not to that. Nothing.” – Kurt Busiek

“What was once mundane now demanded an act of heroism, and all I had was the creepy crawlies. Then I thought about all those [firemen] I’d seen running into the burning buildings. How many of them ended up buried in the rubble? They were just doing their job. I bet they never thought of themselves as heroes, either.” – Rick Veitch

“What happened on 9/11 – You can’t let it affect you that way, Jimmy, ’cause that’s what they want. If you root for the #@&!! yankees, the terrorists win.” – Brian Azzarello

“‘Yes’, the souls sang, ‘the towers have fallen. yes, there is a hole in the sky. But look up! Look up, and dare to imagine what can pour through that hole from God’s heart to yours.” – J.M. DeMatteis

The rest of the passages I marked are too visual to bother quoting here.

When I was reading the 9/11 Commission Report, I wondered if I had grown too detached and removed from the events of September 11th. The report certainly stimulated the rational and analytical half of my brain more than the emotional half. I can honestly say that reading these artists’ responses hit me far harder than I had expected, maybe even harder than anything since the real events has. These are powerful stories told by masters of storytelling, and I feel that if one of these was published in the newspaper every year on September 11th, it might do more to stir all the feelings (unpleasant and pleasant alike) that need to be stirred whenever we think of that fateful day.

I recommend these two volumes to anyone who wishes to remind themselves that there was more to the day than seeing the towers crumble on CNN, and who wants to remind others that 9/11 should never be used as propaganda of any sort. Of course, if you are a comics fan there is a good chance that your favorite writer or artist contributed in some capacity to either one of these volumes (or the collection put out by indie publishers, which I’ll be reviewing next.)


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