By DONNA URSCHEL
After the cataclysmic events of September 11, the comic book industry felt a need to respond, and in an unprecedented action, comic book artists and publishers joined forces to produce several publications on the terrorist attacks. This extraordinary collaboration and communal display of talent was the topic of a panel discussion at the Library on Oct. 2 titled "September 11th Comic Book Artists and Illustrators."
Panel members were Will Eisner, a legendary artist in the field of comics and graphic novels; Paul Levitz, president and publisher of DC Comics in New York; Jeff Mason, publisher of Alternative Comics; Peter Kuper, a noted comics artist and co-founder of "World War 3 Illustrated"; and Trina Robbins, a leading comics writer and artist. Harry Katz, head curator of Prints and Photographs, moderated the panel.
The highly regarded works these artists and publishers created, along with hundreds of other contributors from the comics world, include a two-part anthology, "9-11, Artists Respond, Vol. 1" and "9-11, The World's Finest Comic Book Writers and Artists Tell Stories to Remember, Vol. 2." Two other graphic books produced were "9-11 Emergency Relief" and "World War 3 Illustrated."
The publications were on display in an exhibition, "Witness and Response: September 11 Acquisitions at the Library of Congress," which was on view at the Jefferson Building from Sept. 7 to Nov. 2.
As the panel members explained, in the days after September 11, when the awful spectacle of airplanes flying into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania farmland played over and over in the minds of fearful and vulnerable Americans, they felt a need to do something.
"For the first time, those of us who have been working in the fantasy world of superheroes and super magicians suddenly found that the enemy we had always fictionalized was suddenly here," Eisner said. "The mythological imagery used in comic books the last 70 years suddenly came to life," he said. Familiarity with that imagery is one significant reason why cartoon artists, among all the other artists in various fields, "rose almost unanimously" to the task of responding artistically to 9/11, Eisner explained.
Each artist and publisher on the panel voiced this compelling need and readiness to respond artistically.
Robbins, a San Francisco artist and writer, who was visiting New York City one week after the attacks, said, "I saw the memorials, the 'missing' posters, the photographs of the missing people with their dogs, with their wives and children, and that's when it struck me. These were people, human beings, individuals, not some kind of symbol. I wanted to do something. A lot of people went to give blood, but they didn't need blood. So what could I do?"
Robbins realized the one thing she could do was pick up pen and paper and create a work that reflected her emotions. The story she wrote, which was illustrated by Anne Timmons, appeared in "9-11, Artists Respond, Vol. 1." It depicted a cranky traveler in an airport who encounters a patient, pleasant, older woman headed to New York for the memorial service of her son, who worked on the 104th floor at the World Trade Center.
Levitz said Robbins touched on the archetypal cartoonist reaction: "I went out to give blood, but they didn't need blood. Well, my blood is ink."
Levitz said DC Comics knew immediately it wanted to do something in response to the attacks. The company sent an invitation to 1,400 writers and artists to see if they were interested in contributing to a special issue. "The response was phenomenal," he said. To quickly produce Vol. 2 of the anthology, Levitz chose to edit the book himself. "Editing was something I haven't done in 20 years," he said.
Profits from the two-volume anthology will be donated to charities that aid victims, families and communities affected by September 11. AOL-Time Warner, the parent company of DC Comics, was able to make arrangements quickly with the charities, distributors and printers involved, Levitz said. The printers did not charge for their work, and the ink and paper manufacturers contributed to the cost of the project.
Mason, an attorney in Florida who publishes Alternative Comics as an avocation, knew he wanted a "reaction-type book" to the terrorist attacks. "It will take years for adequate reflection. But I wanted to get an immediate sense of what people were thinking and get it down on paper," he said. The profits from his "9-11 Emergency Relief" will be donated to the American Red Cross.
Vast destruction of New York City was a topic explored for many years by Kuper in his "World War 3 Illustrated," which was first published in 1980. "I had been contemplating nuclear holocaust and addressing it in the comics, but I had a hard time confronting destruction in reality," Kuper said. It took him several days before he could believe the events of September 11 actually happened, and he had to walk around Ground Zero to come to terms with the horrific event.
Like the other artists and publishers, Kuper felt compelled to do something in the wake of the attacks, and the result was a special September 11 issue, in which New York artists "try to make sense out of the incomprehensible."
In these circumstances, Kuper found the medium of comic art to be immensely appropriate. "There was an immediacy with which all of us could get pen to paper, paper to printer and book to store. It's a confirmation, again, how the medium is so vital. It's heartening to see how many people from the field felt compelled to move like this and how the books came out in a short period of time," he said.
In further discussion, panel members examined the content of the 9/11 comics, which mostly depicted sorrow, grief and disbelief over the events but not any anger or hatred at the terrorists or Arabs in general. In contrast, Eisner pointed out that during World War II, the enemies, the Germans and Japanese, were clearly depicted as the bad guys, and caricatures of their evilness were a significant part of cartoons at the time.
"A lot of us didn't want to be anti-Arab. We tried hard not to be like that. I don't want to blame an entire ethnic group for a few maniacs," Robbins responded.
Panel members acknowledged that the body of work was more of a memorial, and cartoonists today are part of a wider cultural exchange and much more sensitive to people who live in this country.
On the whole, the 9/11 anthologies accomplished a number of things for comic artists and illustrators, according to Mason. Journalists are now paying attention to and covering graphic comic books. Hence, the success of the books has given cartoonists and publishers "a feeling that what they're creating may actually be listened to by a greater audience," said Mason.
Levitz concluded, "The fact that we're here today, talking about this, in the Library of Congress, is very reinforcing to cartoonists, artists, writers and publishers. And I hope it will lead to many more good things."
Donna Urschel is a freelance writer.