On 11 September, I was sitting exactly where I am sitting now, doing some panicked last-minute work on my ICAF paper before leaving to teach the first of my three university classes. Then the e-mails came, telling me to turn on my television, followed by phone calls from horrified students. Then the second tower fell, and I got dressed and went off to class anyway. I have yet to finish that paper—something about comics and pedagogy—seemed hollow and unimportant in the days after as I scrambled to get in touch with as many people as possible.
So, I found myself juggling my life (where all I wanted to do was sit in my apartment with my head in my hands) and my job (where I felt like I had to go talk with my students about what had happened and what might happen next). One of them asked, “What can I do? I can’t give blood. I can’t give money. What do I do?” I don’t even remember what I suggested. For the first time in my entire life, I actually felt some kind of community with millions of other Americans. As a kid, I feared Ron Reagan and his itchy nuclear-trigger finger, and, as a teenager, I protested the Gulf War. I still think “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was a cop-out, and that Dr. Jocelyn Elders was on to something. And, we all know about the last election. I have long felt critical of my government, but I’ve always appreciated the fact that I can be vocal about that with relatively minimal hassle (something I fear is dwindling).
That said, I remain skeptical of this “United We Stand” stuff; I still get harassed by homophobes and misogynists just for walking down the street, and my car, with the catchy anti-Dubya bumper sticker I slapped on it after the election, has been spit on more than a few times in recent months. People who see my C.V. raise an eyebrow over the fact that I studied Arabic in college, and the most contested word in my dissertation title is no longer “bitches” or “dykes:” it’s “terrorists.”
Even still, I am glad I read this anthology, 9-11: Emergency Relief, though I didn’t want to at first. Admittedly, some of these stories are not autobiographical in the strictest sense. However, all the stories are to do with 9/11, which obviously entails some of that “United We Stand” stuff: tributes to fallen heroes, cherubic children holding flags, noble firefighters towering above ruin and wreckage and so on. That’s important, and I don’t mean to denigrate it or those who died. But, like the footage of the towers, I’ve seen it—over and over and over again. Will Eisner’s “Reality 9/11” shows a television with wreckage of the World Trade Center seeping red blood, (the only color in the black-and-white anthology book) onto the floor in front of a man slumped in a chair. Forgive me, but this image felt like a hammer over my head, much like the red coat in Schindler’s List. In a dialogue-less piece by James Kuhoric and Greg LaRocque, the first panel shows a car with two bumper stickers; one reading, “Don’t Blame Me—I Didn’t Vote For His Daddy Either,” the other, simply, “Gore/Lieberman.” The last panel shows that same car with those bumper stickers covered over by American flag stickers. I know it was probably intended as a sign of unity, of America coming together, but it just seemed too pat.
Part of why I like this anthology, though, is the vast array of different styles and artists, including Renee French, Sam Hester, Chris Pitzer, Michael Kupperman, Ellen Lindner, David Roman, Fly, Dean Haspiel, Tomer Hanuka, Jenny Gonzalez (whose brutally honest piece is quite a standout), Tom Hart, Donna Barr, Nikki Coffman, and the ever-irreverent-but-heartfelt James Kolchaka. There are as many different viewpoints as creators involved in the project. Part of why I like America is because I see it as a similar composite: not that bogus melting pot they taught us about in school where the blending together of everyone’s unique differences results in one bland norm, but a place where those difference (in theory, anyway) are recognized and respected.
That includes religious freedom. If we are in fact a nation unified, Mike Manley’s “A Tale of Two Brothers” asks why Muslims and Arab-Americans are being harassed and killed by fellow Americans. Keith Knights piece underscores a similar point: “Leave it to a disaster of tremendous proportions to bring out the true color of the American people . . . blacks, whites, reds, yellows, and browns were all covered in the same ash grey. Suddenly, there was no race. There were no differences. Just people helping people . . . but as the days pass and the people wash the grey from their bodies, race and color have begun to creep back into play again.”
And there are, naturally, the twinned issues of the media and the economy to address. Metaphrog, a Franco-Scottish duo, cannily write, “A thin tear appears in the very fabric of the American myth . . . and quickly knits itself back together. Thereafter, news becomes propaganda.” Their piece shows little identical marionettes inside television sets. Jeff Smith, creator of the highly praised Bone, contributed “My Very First Flag,” which addresses his purchasing a flag and hanging it up outside his home as the radio ironically beckons, “America’s been wounded! It’s our patriotic duty to get her rolling again, so come on down and get 0% financing on big ol’ gas guzzlin’ S.U.V.s!” In Shannon Wheeler’s strip, a man and woman sit dazed in front of the television. “Oh my God! I can’t believe it! All those people, dead! What can we do?” asks the man. “Maybe we could donate blood or send money,” the woman replies. Cut to a group of business folks. “Sell flags,” says one. “Stickers and shirts,” adds another. “How about a poster of a superhero with a tear on his cheek?” says a third. “Some of you might consider it distasteful to exploit a disaster for a quick buck,” explains the head businessman, “but if we make money it helps the economy which benefits the economy and that is patriotic!” In the last panel, the man and the woman who opened the sequence are, naturally, shopping; the woman stating, “I want flag underwear.” (Of course, here I am reviewing an anthology all about a national disaster; I should mention that all the profits from the book are being donated to the American Red Cross.)
And the narratives are as diverse as the styles. Peter Kuper’s “Indomitable Human Spirit” shows a man agonizing over anthrax, bombs, and armageddon . . . until a thong-wearing tube-topped hottie passes him on the street. “Lordy!” he gasps. Comic strip creator and flight attendant Sam Hester includes a piece detailing her second-reactions to the news, including thinking about pad thai in Toronto, having stayed at the World Trade Center, and Bob Dylan’s new album. I found myself drawn into Brian Clopper’s “School Daze” where he writes about teaching at his elementary school while discovering snippets of the news. What I found most disconcerting, and highly effective, was his repetition of images; he shows himself in the classroom in the same shocked, frozen position struggling with the fact that he’d been asked not to tell his students, the “little human calculators” working on decimals, what had happened. Gregory Benton’s “Treasure” also deals with children: one puzzles over why his mom is paying more attention to the neighbor kid who is visiting for the afternoon.
But there are two pieces that especially touched me. The first is Scott Morse’s achingly beautiful “Ya Can’t Jack Me!” While I’m not sure how I feel about the ending, I really love his artwork. His wordplay in lettering, in writing about people he’d drawn at the airport, is brilliant—a must-be-seen combination of the word “people” in large white letters and a much smaller “t-rr-rists” underneath, borrowing the E and the O from “people” to spell “terrorists”. It’s a haunting moment in a beautifully rendered story. The other (and he’ll be embarrassed by this) is Section Editor A. David Lewis’ “Alabaster Cities” with art done by six other contributors, a collaboration that sounds impossible, but works magnificently. He forked this review off on me out of professionalism, telling me only that he was involved with the project. I begged off the review (twice, I think) before finally agreeing. But his story is expertly spun, detailing the wreckage of the day while managing to end on a small note of hope. While the story ends as it began, with a phone call, this time the news is good as a son finally hears from his father, who was traveling and is now safe. And when any comic, true or not, makes you breathe a sign of relief by the end, you have to admit it made you feel something.
This anthology might enrage you, or it might make you cry. With any luck it’ll do both, and more—because there is no single way to approach the aftermath of 9/11, and there isn’t a guidebook for how to go on. You just do what you can; hence this anthology’s appearance. It won’t be money wasted.