Wednesday, September 20, 2006
Chicago Tribune (MCT)
"The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation" by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon; Hill and Wang ($30)
It was, from the start, a comic book catastrophe.
Not to make light of the disaster that smote the nation Sept. 11, 2001, but at first it really did seem too huge to be real, didn't it? Too monumental. Too terrible. Too much like the work of some fictional criminal mastermind with a catchy nickname. Just too much, by every measure.
Planes piercing tall buildings; thousands of confused people trapped and desperate; stunned bureaucrats scrambling for an informational toehold _ it seemed like a dramatic climax out of Action Comics No. 47. It resembled a series of panels in the super-hero comic books I inhaled as a kid: Superman and the Fantastic Four and all the rest of them. Sept. 11 was the kind of gigantic, world-halting crisis in which those guys specialized.
Being superheroes, they would have taken care of things with efficiency and flair, and everybody would have gone home safely.
Sept. 11, though, was no fantasy, and thus I approached "The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation," a graphic novel, with a certain appalled fascination. I love comic books _ the "graphic novel" designation is a nice upgrade in nomenclature for the genre, but changes nothing _ and I received a great deal of my early moral education from them. And we know, courtesy of artists such as Art Spiegelman, that comic books can handle deadly serious topics the way superheroes deal with emergencies: deftly and well.
But the unique status of 9/11 — the scope, the horror, the evil that lay coiled in the hearts of its provocateurs_might seem to make a graphic treatment insurmountably difficult.
Yet the work by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon is a vivid success. There are ticky-tacky complaints to be made — the artistic rendering of President Bush bears no relation to the man's actual physiognomy, and I could do without the "BLAM!" to indicate explosions—but in general, this is the kind of work that everybody, sooner or later, ought to take a look at. It's disturbing, it's challenging, but it manages to place Sept. 11 within the continuum of what we now know about terrorist plots to attack America.
Even if you think you've just about OD'd on Sept. 11 lore, even if the prospect of an Oliver Stone movie and a slew of new novels and documentaries and now "The 9/11 Report" makes you shake your head and secretly wonder when enough will finally be enough, you still should see this work.
Based on the report of the 9/11 Commission, which signed off on this version, "The 9/11 Report" packs a great deal of information within a vibrantly accessible format. Particularly striking is the point at which the authors create a series of pages tracing the fate of all four planes, moment by moment, in a horizontal grid that makes the frenetic pace of the unfolding horror suddenly comprehensible. You can compare what was happening to each plane in light of what was happening to the other planes.
This is where the graphic-novel approach shines: How else could such information be displayed, with an equal nuance and breadth? It's brilliant. And the buildup of suspense_despite the fact that the outcome is, sadly, well known_is astonishing.
We live in a world in which everyone assumes that pictures automatically trump words, but in "The 9/11 Report," as compelling as the visuals are, the words pack the real power. Certain sentences jump out at you like paper snakes stuffed tightly in one of those trick cans. On Page 28, during the frenzied height of that terrible morning's drama, the caption box quietly notes: "... Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld . . . could not be located for long periods . . ."
And on Page 108 comes this trio of sentences, one that ought to make all of us do an intellectual double take: "To Americans, Afghanistan seemed very far away. To Al Qaida, America seemed very close. In a sense, they were more globalized than we were." That's an amazing insight, initially counterintuitive but finally profound, and it goes a long way toward explaining the new world and its workings.
I don't know if it's a good or a bad idea to treat serious subjects in terms of comic book art, if such works represent an advance or a retreat for civilization. Are our attention spans whittled down to such wispy nubs that we're unable to handle long, complicated works that can't be squeezed into cartoon strips? Must we always have pictures to lighten the intellectual load?
It's true, certainly, that the phrase "comic book" brings a whiff of fun, not profundity. The authors made their names providing entertainment, not enlightenment; Jacobson created Richie Rich, and Colon illustrated the Green Lantern and other flamboyant fictional characters. All I can tell you is that the experience of reading _ or looking at, or whatever it is we really do with graphic novels _ "The 9/11 Report" is unexpectedly moving. You learn things you didn't know, and the things you did know suddenly have more clarity and relevance to other things you know.
The work will make you angry, and proud, and it will certainly make you sad. You'll be angry for the failures of leadership at so many levels. You'll be proud of the public safety officials who did their jobs during a colossal emergency for which no one could have been prepared. And you'll be sad at what was lost_not only the people, although God knows we lost far too many of them, but also the last faint glimmers of innocence. The seconds before that first plane smacked the tower marked the final period when we could believe that the world is basically a benign place, filled with people who generally wish us well.
And it may make you wistful, just as it did me. You may find yourself indulging in a great comic book dream, in a ridiculous but compelling fantasy: If only there'd been a Superman, swooping down to put out the fires and rescue everybody . . .
Wait. What am I saying? Superman would have grabbed those planes before they hit anything; he would have set them gently on the ground and then he would have nabbed the bad guys and delivered them to law enforcement officials. We'd have cheered. We'd have waved.
The thing about being an adult is that your worldview can't come from comic books anymore. You're all grown up. You have to acknowledge that Superman is a fictional character and he can't really save the day. We have to save the day ourselves. We have to be quick and smart and vigilant, and we have to choose leaders who are all of those things too. "The 9/11 Report" tiptoes around the issue of top-level culpability _ just as its source material, the Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, did — but it is fitting that the very work of art that may jolt us out of a comic book view of the world is, in itself, a comic book. This comic book.
And yet, one last time, there is the beautiful dream: Superman, handsome and strong, snatches those planes out of the sky like a kid collecting butterflies. Then he glides back down to Earth, cradling them in the crook of his arm. And "Sept. 11" goes back to being just an ordinary date on the calendar — just a regular old Tuesday — and it slides back into the succession of months and days yet to be enjoyed by all those people in the World Trade Center and in the Pentagon and on those planes.
Just an ordinary day: As we now know, that's the greatest of blessings.
(c) 2006, Chicago Tribune.
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