The Most Serious Comix Ever

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The events of September 11 galvanized many disparate groups. Who would have thought that comicbooks would be one of them? From the mainstream standard-bearers to the marginalized self-publisher, a spasm of creativity has produced an extraordinary group of works about the events of September 11 and their aftermath. Through an unprecedented cooperative effort the comics press has found a way to revitalize its relevance in popular culture. Thanks to their speed and reproducibility comics have succeeded in providing the first national-scale artistic interpretations of this twenty-first-century international crisis.

The last two weeks have seen the release of five different projects, which along with two even earlier ones, total over seven hundred fifty pages of 9/11-centered comix. This is made all the more remarkable by the fact that all of the art, along with much of the production (printing, paper, distribution, etc.), has been donated, with proceeds going to various charities. That everyone in the industry should have the same generosity of spirit and coin makes this comicdom's finest moment. In order to better examine all of these projects TIME.comix will divide its coverage over two weeks, vaguely divided into the "alternative" and "mainstream" efforts. A list of all the books and their availability appears at the end of this column.

"9-11: Emergency Relief" (Alternative Comics; 208pp.;$14.95) was started the weekend after Tuesday the eleventh. The Small Press Expo, a convention for independent publishers, had been scheduled to convene in Bethesda, Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C. When it got cancelled a lot of very expressive people were left with free time and lousy feelings. Jeff Mason, publisher of Alternative Comics, began organizing a benefit book which quickly grew into trade-paperback length.

Harvey Pekar hears the news in "9-11: Emergency Relief"

It opens with two big block panels drawn by Tony Millionaire, featuring Harvey Pekar, the grumpy old man of indie comix. When he hears the news on the radio he says, "I bet it don't get any easier here on," a classic of Pekar's truth in understatement. Nearly all of the sixty-plus stories use a similar autobiographical approach, typically recounting the day's events. The most harrowing of these, written by Evan Forsch and drawn by Robert Ullman, tells of Forsch's escape from the 89th floor of the WTC's north tower. With other contributions from Puerto Rico to California, the collection also includes the distanced, mediated experience that the rest of the world had. Such recountings create a sense of universal experience, a way to not feel so alone, unmatched by any other artistic medium so far.

Other artists chose to take more abstract approaches in an effort to capture their emotions or address the larger issues. In a collection otherwise entirely printed in black and white, the single exception belongs to Will Eisner's page-sized panel of an old man watching the burnt out towers on television as a red trickle of blood drips from the screen. Nick Bertozzi's piece has a man rush to the emergency room when a tiny plane lodges itself in his temple. But my favorite work, "Treasure," by Gregory Benton, tells of a neighbor's child staying over at the author's house as relief from the stress of his home, where the family awaits word of his missing firefighter father. Drawn in a charmingly idiosyncratic style, this deeply moving vignette typifies the power of these personal artistic works.

Though not a benefit book, "World War 3 Illustrated" #32 (80pp.; $3.50) has a similar aesthetic to "9-11," on a much smaller scale, and with a more pointed agenda. First published in 1980 by a collective of New York artists, the magazine has become the singular vehicle for left-wing, politically-minded graphic storytelling. The latest issue, focusing on the disaster, can make for a bracing counterpoint to the mostly uncritical, emotive works in all the other anthologies.

Christopher Cardinale's autobiographical piece about biking around downtown on that fateful morning has some remarkable details, like seeing tourists obliviously snapping pictures of each other in front of a sculpture. Unlike other such stories, he ends with an ominous note in the overheard comment of an ignoramus: "That's why we got G.W. in office! We're going to kick some Palestinian ass tonight!" Many of the other works express concerns about cycles of violence. With a simple, iconic style reminiscent of instruction manuals, Seth Tobacman's "Not Enough People Have Died," takes the logic of punishing everyone who's ever given money to terrorists ("Let's start with Ronald Reagan," he writes) to its absurd extreme — eliminate everyone who's ever bought a tank of gas or used a light switch. Other contributions by the likes of Tom Tomorrow, Sue Coe and Spain Rodriguez give form to topics ignored by the other 9/11 books such as the curtailing of freedoms and the geo-political history of the United State's involvement in Afghanistan. Some of it may be overstated, but it feels right to have it out there.

Both "9-11: Emergency Relief" and "World War 3 Illustrated" #32 represent the best aspects of the independent comix press. Not only have many of the field's top creators contributed works, but their grassroots collectivizing towards a greater good are as much in opposition to the hateful events of that morning as any military action. They give a much-needed way to connect to the enormity of this tragedy while offering a way to help in its healing.

"9-11: Emergency Relief" can be found at any comicbook store. "World War 3 Illustrated" #32 will be hard to find. Places that sell alternative media would be more likely to have it than comicbook stores. You can also order single issues by writing:
World War 3
P.O. Box 20777
Tompkins Square Sta.
New York, NY 10009

Next week TIME.comix examines "September 11" Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, jointly-published by DC, Dark Horse, Image, et. al. Also "Heroes," "The Amazing SpiderMan" #36, and "A Moment of Silence," all published by Marvel. These books are available at any comicbook store.