Comics & 9/11
By John Byrne
As America clenches its collective teeth in anticipation of Something Bad that might happen on July 4th (the day after tomorrow, as I type this), I find myself thinking again of how the events of 9/11 were addressed by various comicbook writers -- and, more precisely, I find myself thinking of how they probably should not have been addressed at all.
Consider: as much as they try to give some degree of verisimilitude to their worlds, comics do not accurately portray any real world -- and please note that I do not limit this to superhero fare. Comics, like their cousins movies and TV, are an artificially environment which can, when all the elements come together just right, strongly evoke the real world, but they can never be the real world.
Nowhere is this more true than in the average superhero comic (my home turf, and therefore the principle focus of today's ramblings). The mere existence of superheroes changes the world, whether they be as powerful as Superman or as "realistic" as the Question. In our world, we do not have people like this -- the moment we postulate a world that does, we are saying not our world.
Let's imagine a typical comicbook world, replete with superheroes. Because these worlds tend to mirror our own, it will have many of the blessings, and many of the curses we find in our familiar reality. There will be jet aircraft and air conditioning. There will be Ben and Jerry's and McDonalds. And there will be cancer, air pollution, and probably terrorists. After all, if America in our world is viewed as the Ultimate Embodiment of hubris, what would be the perception of an America that had a crop of superheroes numbered among its populace? Superheroes, and supervillains.
It is in the area of supervillains especially that we begin to see a great gulf grow between our imagined reality and the reality in which we pursue our daily lives. It might seem a trivialization of the acts of real world terrorists to say so, but let's face it -- in a superhero environment, there would be super terrorists.
Which poses a question: would the events of 9/11 have happened in our imaginary reality as they did, or would they have happened very differently? Would they, indeed, have happened at all?
The latter question is answered by asking another question: how many of our superheroes can travel through time?
When 9/11 happened, and various comicbooks responded from within their established realities, I pointed out that it was highly unlikely that the destruction of the World Trade Center would have happened at all on, say, "Marvel Earth." Even assuming that the first aircraft was able to hit the first tower, in a city teeming with superheroes, the second one would not -- the Avengers would have stopped it -- and the impact of the first plane might well have been undone via the Fantastic Four taking a quick trip on Doctor Doom's captured time platform. "You can't change the Past," you might say, and yet one can immediately answer, "Why not?" The repercussions of the attack would have been about zero at the time Our Heroes launched themselves into action. Most of the world would not even know about it. It's always easy to fix things, when you have superheroes around.
Feeling a bit queasy at this point? Good -- you should be.
It is almost impossible to discuss something as monumental, as tragic, as the events of September 11th in the context of a comicbook "reality." The very act of doing so cheapens the emotions, diminishes the event. I'm reminded of those sports fans who run around after a game yelling "WE WON! WE WON!" Well -- no, you didn't win. The players on the team won. You are just coattailing an adrenaline rush that has nothing to do with actual participation. And rushing out to do comicbook stories about 9/11 feels, to me, very much like the same kind of faux emotion: LOOK AT MY PAIN! LOOK AT MY PAIN!!
Let's face it, none of us -- none of us -- have even the slightest inclination of what that "pain" might be. And we can be grateful for that! We stood and watched the towers of the World Trade Center fold in on themselves like obscene vertical Slinkys -- but unless someone we knew perished in the event, everything becomes second and third hand. (I watched it all live on ABC and CNN. Like all things seen through the cyclopean eye of a television screen, it had a strange distance, an unworldly quality. Much like watching a poorly made TV movie -- your average Ah-Nold blockbuster has much better "special effects.")
Writers will always want to address the real world, and writers of superhero comics are no exception -- but this is where the gift of metaphor comes in so handy. Want to address racial prejudice? Use "mutants." Want to comment on drug addiction? Give us a drug-powered supervillain. Want to comment on the destruction of the World Trade Center. . . ?
Well, maybe better in that case if you don't. There is no metaphor for something that big, that vast, that horrible. Nothing, at least, that does not take away more than it can possibly give. Some stories cannot be "torn from today's headlines!" The headlines are the story. The story is too big for metaphor.
By the time you read this, July 4th may well have come and gone. I "predict" nothing will happen. The lunatics who attacked the World Trade Center (and the Pentagon) were, for that moment, the Luckiest Boys in the World. They pulled off something that no one could possibly have anticipated -- and they did it because no one could possibly anticipate it. Now we're on guard. Which is why I think this Independence Day will pass in relative calm, like so many before it.
Sure, there will be something else, eventually. Something big and horrible and very, very shocking -- because no one anticipated it. What will it be? Dunno. My mind does not work like that. But when it happens, will there be writers and artists who will want to "share their pain" through utterly inappropriate superhero stories?
Which is too bad, really.