Will Superheroes Meet Their Doom?

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Like the rest of America, the comicbook industry got shaken up by the events of September 11, 2001. Although the comicbook community appeared to suffer no direct losses (no companies are located near the World Trade Center), much of the industry lives and works in New York City. But no matter where they are located, companies and artists felt the aftershocks.

Alternative Comics' "9-11: Emergency Relief" cover by Frank Cho

Mainstream publishers Marvel and DC may feel the impact most of all. They are both located in New York, but that's not the reason why. They both specialize in a kind of entertainment, superhero books, that suddenly seems off-key. Who can now abide the fantasy of an evil madman's nefarious plot to kill thousands of people being foiled by a muscle-bound troglodyte? This question compelled Warner Brothers to indefinitely postpone the release of the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie "Collateral Damage." Superhero publishers don't really have that option since nearly all of their product follows this premise. Instead they are going forward and hoping for the best. "We're going to get lots and lots of grief but frankly I think it's worth the grief to preserve that form of speech that we've chosen," says Bill Jemas, President and C.O.O. of Marvel.

Marvel is in a particularly sticky situation since its editorial style has been founded on the premise of mixing real life with superheroes. This means that many of its characters "live" in New York and recently Marvel has used anti-terrorism as a major theme. "To some extent we are sitting on a powder keg and people could say, 'look at all this violence and terrorism,' and we could have run from it," notes Jemas. "But I think in the long haul a lot of the reason why this form of expression that we do at Marvel is popular is because it resonates to other people who live in the real world. It's a little bit of a fantasy escape, but it's also more about analogies and metaphors to the real world."

Art by Eric Powell for the jointly-published "September 11"

Immediate editorial changes have been minimal. Marvel gave its creators the option to alter content they deemed inappropriate, resulting in the Twin Towers being removed from a scene in a Spiderman book. DC comics also offered retailers the option of returning copies of an already-shipped Superman book which featured aliens destroying buildings.

No publishers I spoke to, large or small, anticipate long-term business effects outside of the general economic downturn. "If history proves anything it is that in times of great national stress, the need for entertainment is even more pronounced as people need to take their minds off of the daily horrors. I do not anticipate a sales slump," says Jim Valentino, Publisher of Image comics. Very small publishers and their creators may have experienced a short-term business side effect when an important convention was cancelled. The Small Press Expo was scheduled to meet in Bethesda Maryland, outside Washington D.C. the weekend following September 11. Sales at the convention make up a large portion of indy publisher's already meager incomes.

Art by Salvador Larroca from Marvel comics' "Heroes"

But the industry has hardly curled up into a ball. Like many other entertainment companies, comicbooks are rushing to provide special benefit issues. Marvel will likely be the first when it publishes "Heroes," on October 17. Sub-titled "The World's Greatest Superhero Creators Honoring the World's Greatest Heroes," it will be a 64-page posterbook of art depicting the heroics of firemen, EMS rescuers and ordinary citizens. Then later in December Marvel will release "Moment of Silence," a wordless comic based on actual stories from the disaster. DC, Darkhorse, Image and Oni will collaborate on a benefit book titled "September 11," due in January. Non-mainstream comix creators, alienated by the loss of SPX, spent that weekend putting together their own benefit comic with the help of publisher Alternative Comics. Titled "9-11: Emergency Relief," it has a release date of January and will include the work Will Eisner, Jessica Abel and Tony Millionaire. In all cases the proceeds will be donated to relief organizations.

This has been a time when ordinary people — firemen, policemen, volunteers — have been justly hailed as heroes. They only make the comicbook superheroes seem more artificial. But wondering if this spells their doom is absurd. If anything, the likes of Captain America and Superman can become more relevant during nationalist crises. After the start of World War II audiences couldn't get enough of seeing Hitler and Tojo's minions take it in the mush courtesy of Cap and Supes. Depending on the length and intensity of the coming "War on Terrorism," don't be surprised to see our fantasy heroes called back into service.