Reviews

The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation

Jesse Hicks

There is no grand, national narrative that can offer "closure," or even comprehension.


The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation

Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
ISBN: 0-8090-5738-7
Contributors: Artist: Ernie Colon
Price: $30
Writer: Sid Jacobson
Length: 128
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2006-08-31
Website
Amazon
"We have some planes."

-- Unnamed hijacker, American Airlines Flight 11

On July 22, 2004, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States released its final report. Published by W.W. Norton, the 567-page tome was billed as, literally, the "Authorized Edition." The result of 20 months of intensive investigation involving every top terrorism-related official from the last two presidential administrations, testimony of 160 witnesses, and over two million pages of documents, the Commission's findings strove to be encyclopedic and definitive. This, the Commissioners promised, is how it happened, and why. In finalizing its canonical narrative, the Commission also aimed to be "nonpartisan." Five Democrats and five Republicans promised not just to find the facts, but -- paradoxically -- to deny any political consequence to those facts.

This, Benjamin DeMott argued soon after, in a Harper's piece titled "Whitewash as Public Service," was the Commission's most damning flaw, though one often indistinguishable from its apparent desire to offer an emotionally cathartic work. Politically, the Report insulates the status quo by failing to confront it. As DeMott notes, the Commission consistently opts for the least challenging narrative line, both intellectually and emotionally, by implicitly praising the "sincerity" and "forth-rightness" of America's elected officials while burying evidence of their failures (and outright falsehoods) in footnotes. The 9/11 Report reads as an emotionally anesthetized Greek tragedy, where government at the highest level lies flaccid in the hands of cruel Fate.

Serious failures of imagination, attention, and competence ("Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.") are presented with the air of inevitability. In this narrative, events are predestined; therefore, there can be no blame -- and no drive for redemption. In aiming to be "fair and balanced," the Commission neglected its duty as judge. In refusing to place blame where necessary and appropriate, the Commission produced a toothless, irrelevant work, one so free of condemnation as to be, until recently, as near one could come to a "feel-good" narrative about the events of 9/11. In short, just the kind of story many Americans believed they wanted to hear -- within days of publication, the Report had snared many admirers from both sides of the aisle.

Unfortunately, according to the publishers of The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation, the original Report was too inaccessible to serve as emotional salve for the nation. The new work aims to be "The 9/11 Report for Every American," promising to put "at every American's fingertips the most defining event of the century." If this sounds condescending -- the implication being that Americans are incapable of (or uninterested in) digesting 567 pages on "the most defining event of the century" -- such fears should be allayed by the book's cover: in the upper left corner an iconic firefighter holds his anguished face in his hands. Below is a disturbingly beautiful rendition of the smoking World Trade Center, with lens flares glinting off the Empire State Building in the foreground. (The piece recalls British artist Damien Hirst describing the attacks as "visually stunning," as well as German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen's acknowledgment of them as "Lucifer's greatest work of art." The fearful symmetry of those twin pillars of flame often goes unmentioned, but here is inescapable.) Behind and below that lies silhouetted WTC rubble. A sober caption box reads, "September 11, 2001, was a day of unprecedented shock and suffering in the history of the United States. The nation was unprepared. How did this happen? And how can we avoid such tragedy again? Ten Commissioners were given a sweeping mandate to find answers and offer recommendations. On July 22, 2004, they issued their report…" The not-so-subtle implication: this is a work of Great Import, but one which isn't afraid to tweak your heartstrings when necessary, in the name of "national catharsis."

Perhaps it's still impossible to engage 9/11 without pandering to "I feel your pain" populism, but the first chapter of A Graphic Adaptation, which deals most directly with the attacks, plays to the hilt the Tom Clancy-like narrative offered by the Commission. The book opens with a full-page spread of the 19 hijackers, their faces familiar but cartoonish. Reduced to line drawings, the hijackers seem even more alien and opaque. The art of A Graphic Adaptation, stylistically similar to Mary Worth and (ironically) airline safety cards, parallels the narrative simplicity; Jacobson and Colon render the hijackings in restrained blue, gray, and sepia wash. In a disconcerting bit of onomatopoeia, the towers collapse with a comic-font, "R-RRUMBLE...." The images provoke a sense of vertigo, as comic book tropes intrude on the real world... then fail to elucidate it. There's no "R-RRUMBLE" that can contain the almost 3,000 deaths at the World Trade Center. Yet the unreality of the panel reflects the essential unreality of the event. "R-RRUMBLE" seems as good an "explanation" as any.

The impossibility of fitting the events of 9/11 into any conventional framework of "reality" is precisely what provokes the desire to do so. That America is still, as a nation, trying to assimilate -- emotionally, intellectually, politically -- the events of September 11 testifies to the dfficulty to in doing so. There is no grand, national narrative that can offer "closure," or even comprehension.

Stories offer frame works for meaning; in a sense, A Graphic Adaptation really is "The 9/11 Report for Every American," as its publishers claim. Like its source, it promises clarity, but its real product is comfort, a storybook tale offered as the authoritative, unifying text. One can even imagine it, without too much incredulity, as a bedtime story, complete with parentally-rendered sound effects. In the same way sound bites like, "They hate us because of our freedom," are, in fact, anti-explanations that smother thought with knee-jerk patriotism, the book is flattery and comfort packaged as knowledge: in America, the Commissioners assure us, we are strong of heart, willing to rush a cockpit when our country is threatened; our leaders are well-intentioned if occasionally bumbling (and we will judge them by their intentions, not their accomplishments); etc. Like all national myths, such beliefs are partly true and partly convenient. They serve to make us feel heroic, safe. They confirm that, while in need of minor course adjustments, we are on the right path, because our intentions are good and our national character is exceptional. In an increasingly tumultuous, uncertain world, that kind of reassurance may be exactly what many Americans want. But that doesn't make it what we need.

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image