February 22, 2018


Will Eisner on 9/11

By Brian Jacks

Having experienced firsthand the ferocity and horrors of World War II, Korea and Vietnam on both the national and personal level, like all of us, Will Eisner saw something he never thought possible on September 11th Ė a devastating terrorist attack on New York City and the Pentagon. While both attacks were horrific, the attack and subsequent destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City hit closest to home for Eisner, who grew up in the city and lovingly showed it as a character in many of his works.

Brian Jacks spoke to the native New Yorker about the tragic and emotional events that have gripped his city since that fateful day on September 11, 2001.

(This interview originally appeared on Comics Newsarama, with Matt Brady assisting on editing).


Where were you when you first heard of the attacks and what was your initial reaction?

Well, actually I saw the first film of it when I was on the tennis court last week. My first reaction was disbelief. I felt that it just couldnít be. And then the next reaction, which was much more lasting, was the feeling of vulnerability. This has never happened to the United States. No one has attacked the continental United States since the War of 1812, actually. The attack on Pearl Harbor was really a military thing and I donít think it really had the emotional effect that this has.

Elaborating on your Pearl Harbor comment, having lived through that event, do you notice similarities or differences, such as how the public is reacting?

Well, there is a similarity in the emotional coming together. I hate to use the word ďpatriotism,Ē but the sense of feeling of community is pretty much the same. Actually, much more intense here. People were not walking around the streets with flags and giving blood and calling each other. Iíve been having calls from overseas. Iíve called people. Everybodyís been calling each other asking, ďAre you all right?Ē Even though they knew that I wasnít really near the epicenter. This is much more emotional this time.

Also, then we had a clear enemy. We donít have a visible enemy now. We donít have an identifiable, clear set of villains or troops who are going to attack this country. At the beginning of World War II you had the presence of the Japanese nation, you had the presence of the Nazis in Europe, and they formed the threat. But it was a totally different kind of thing. It engaged our patriotism at the time, but it did not have the highly emotional response that this thing created.

Itís sort of interesting that you mentioned villains. From a comic book superhero standpoint, we have the good but so far weíre somewhat missing the other side of equationÖ

Well, what you have is an amorphous enemy here. Osama bin Laden is not enough for us. Remember, you also have a disaster that occurred without any specific plan. These men werenít intent on occupying the country. From our point of view, there seemed to be no logical plan in what they did. Fifteen or twenty men who simply committed suicide for some reason of their own that we really donít understand. What we need now, what we havenít yet gotten, and that I think is adding to the tremendous confusion, weíre running around in a state of shock, largely because we canít hang our anger, our rage, our sense of defense on any describable enemy.

We need now very badly, and I hope the country will ultimately do it, is give us a clear picture of who the enemy is, what the enemy looks like, and how we are going to rid the enemy. We knew what Hitler looked like. We knew what the Japanese looked like. We knew what they wanted and we knew what had to be done to get rid of them. But we donít know that now. Not yet, anyhow.

New York is a very special place for you. How has the attack affected you as a New Yorker?

Well, obviously itís my hometown, and the idea of that happening there is unthinkable. Also, I carry within me, as most New Yorkers do, subconsciously or subliminally I should say, the feeling that New York City is a place that is a confined environment. Thatís the best way I could put it. You spend most of your life in New York City walking through concrete canyons. There isnít room for physical escape from any real danger. The dangers in New York City are all very close to you. I donít know whether that fully explains what Iím trying to say.

Even though here I am in Florida, far, far away, I felt very much as though I were there. As a matter of fact, my wife was in tears. She was born in the heart of New York, and we lived most of our early lives in New York. As a matter of fact, my studio after I separated from the Army in 1945 was on Wall Street, and then I had an office on 90 West Street, which is right next door to where it happened. So I have memories of it, anyway - I can see it in my mind, although Iíve never been in the Trade Center towers.

How long do you think it will take for the city to bounce back? Or has it already bounced back?

Oh, it will bounce back; but things just wonít be the same. This is adding to the lack of confidence, the lack of sense of invulnerability that America has had over the years. Remember, this is a country that for the last 250 years has felt very safe, very protected, by two huge oceans on either side of us. These are big moats that nobody would ever be able to cross. And for years this country had a political philosophy that said we should not get involved in foreign countries and so forth and so on. Now, all of a sudden, the involvement in the world that weíve been talking about is here and now.

I think, yes, we will recover, but things will never be the same. Itís no different than if one single person had had a narrow escape in an automobile accident of some kind. That person will never be the same after something like that happens to them. There will always be the memory of the fact that we are vulnerable.

As Jews, you and I are acutely aware of what terrorism is capable of. Did you ever think something like this could happen in America?

No, like most Americans I didnít think this could ever happen. I couldnít imagine anybody succeeding in doing this. When the Oklahoma bombing occurred, I recall somebody saying to me it was the Arabs that did it. I said, ďNah, nah, they couldnít possibly pull this thing off here.Ē As far as being a Jew, this thing hasnít hit me any harder than it would be if I were a non-Jew. In fact, it didnít even enter into the equation of my emotions. As a Jew, Iím aware of the fact that enemies are not always easily described, or wear uniforms. But no, my reaction to this had very little to do with my being Jewish.

There is talk of going into Afghanistan. Having experienced the Vietnam War firsthand, you understand how difficult it is to defeat an entrenched opponent. As a veteran of three military conflicts, how do you think American should respond?

Well, Iím no military tactician, but I think it has to be a combination of several things. I think, first of all, we have to understand how the enemy thinks. If weíre dealing with a group of people against whom wiping out a cell is not going to change anything, we have to think differently. I think what we need to do is have a clear picture of where all these cells are. And then I think you have to combine the physical campaign together with a strong propaganda campaign aimed at these people to somehow convince them, or talk them out of, the belief that they have been selected by some deity to destroy what it is we believe in. Maybe a massive ďMarshall Plan.Ē

This is a jihad. Itís a religious war. And religious wars generally arenít really won by sheer force. Religious wars are generally won by philosophical superiority. The thing is that weíre not going to be given a clear simple solution. Weíre not going to go in and level Afghanistan and fly home, dust our hands and say, ďWell, we did it. This ainít going to happen again.Ē The Gulf War showed us that. We were able to contain Saddam Hussein physically from marching into Kuwait, but he is still there and his group is still there. Itís a very much more complex situation weíre in now than this nation has ever been in before.

Personally, did you know anyone that was in the World Trade Center?

No, I havenít heard of anybody yet. Except, a nephew of mine had to be out of town. He would have been in the Trade Center had he not been called out of town.

Itís strange how things turn outÖ

Yeah. I know people who had seen it happen out of their window. As they described it to me it didnít sound anything more than a television show. Like watching a movie. The difference is that this was real, and this is something weíre going to live with for a long, long time.

Do you think the attack will or should have an affect on entertainment in the future, such as comics and movies which often featured mass destruction?

It has to have an effect on how movies are made. It certainly has to have an effect even on comic books. If I had to sit down and write a comic book about an event like that I would have difficulty doing it now.

Speaking of movies, Sony has said that theyíre re-editing the upcoming Spider-Man movie and trailer to take out all references to the World Trade CenterÖ

Well, that reinforces the point I just made that it will have a cultural effect on this country.

One of the effects, of course, is the unprecedented relief efforts rippling throughout the comics community. For example, Marvel is putting together a poster book for charity. Did they ask you to take part in it?

Yes, they did ask me. I got a call this morning but I had to turn it down because Iíve already committed myself to another project like that. [Editorís Note Ė This project has been announced as Alternative Comicsí 9-11: Emergency Relief. Click here for more information]

How did you get involved with that project?

The guy e-mailed me the other day and caught me at an emotional point and I e-mailed back and said yes [laughs]. Since Iím already committed I just canít participate in [the Marvel project]. I think that thereís got to be a limit to those things. In a way itís flag waving. I wouldnít advise them not to do it, but I think itís a small thing right now. I think the big thing we have to do is settle back and try to create a sense of normalcy. That is normalcy within the frame of going on and continue doing your thing.

There was a debate the other day on the e-mail thing I logged into. Thereís an Eisner list where people talk to each other back and forth. Two guys were debating over the fact whether they should be talking about comics at a time like this. And I intervened and I said by all means you should talk about comics at a time like this.

Beating your chest and screaming implications at people is not the solution. Itís a way of getting rid of the anxiety that you feel. Nobody can really, with any sense here, sit back as youíre asking me to do and issue a series of comments on what we should do, what we ought to do, where do we go. Those are things that are very hard to do at this time.


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