Before he was editor in chief at Marvel Comics--which, by all rights, makes him the man who tells Spider-Man what he can do with himself and the X-Men where to go--Joe Quesada illustrated a comic book titled Ash. The title did not last long; there was, perhaps, little market for a gangly, anxious superhero whose day job was putting out fires for the city of New York. But inside its front cover was an earnest message--one that, in light of the events of September 11, reads now like a prescient tonic. "Ash is dedicated to firefighters everywhere, who put their lives on the line for us every day," it said. "We rely on them to protect our families and our property, yet they are too often taken for granted, unrecognized and unappreciated. These real-life heroes have no superpowers to protect them."
We are reminded of that every day in news reports: Of the more than 6,000 men, women and children who still lie beneath what was once the World Trade Center, more than 300 are firefighters who died doing their jobs. Quesada, like so many who live and work in Manhattan, has a friend lying somewhere beneath the still-smoldering debris. He is a fireman. Where, Quesada fretted, is Spider-Man when you really need him? He is in the pages of a comic book, saving a fictional Manhattan from imagined enemies. He is useless. In the days following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, that's just how Quesada--one of the comic industry's most powerful executives--felt.
In the hours after the attack on the World Trade Center, which stood not far from Marvel's East 40th Street headquarters, Quesada and his top editors were deluged with e-mails from fans offering suggestions about how the company might respond. They pitched story ideas; they recommended writers and illustrators. Some even asked the company to publish a benefit book. But none of the ideas was immediate enough. Quesada wanted something out now--something helpful, something meaningful. "I would just as soon go back down to the hospital and donate blood again or try to help out at one of the places where volunteers were being taken," Quesada says.
Finally, an assistant editor suggested that Marvel publish a poster book full of single illustrations by some of comicdom's best and best-known artists. It could be assembled and published quickly, within a matter of days, which meant the proceeds could more quickly go toward myriad relief funds set up hours after the attacks.
On October 12, Marvel will ship Heroes, a book in which, Quesada says, "the world's greatest superhero creators are honoring the world's greatest superheroes"--firefighters, police officers, EMS workers, doctors. For the fund-raising project, whose proceeds will largely go to the widows and children's funds of the New York City police and fire departments, Marvel has rounded up top talent, including artists and writers who haven't worked for Marvel in years, among them: Frank Miller (The Dark Knight Returns), Todd McFarlane (creator of Spawn), Neal Adams (Green Lantern/Green Arrow), Neil Gaiman (Sandman), Alex Ross (Kingdom Come), filmmaker Kevin Smith (currently writing DC Comics' Green Arrow), Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (the team responsible for Watchmen) and even Marvel's legendary figurehead, Stan Lee.
Quesada estimates that only a quarter of the illustrations in the 64-page book will contain references to superheroes; for the moment, at least, they have been relegated to the margins. Most feature firemen and police officers pulling bodies from the wreckage; many are seen grieving over fallen comrades, who are represented only by their helmets. Illustrator Jae Lee contributes one of the most poignant pieces: a black-and-white rendering of dazed men and women scouring the streets with "Missing" posters painted in red.
"The premise behind it, of course, is I was discouraging the use of superheroes as metaphors, but they weren't completely off-limits," he says. "If you wanted to do Marvel superheroes in some kind of situation that reflected what was happening, fine, but mostly what I wanted was images of the real heroes who are down there working their assess off."
Marvel is not the only comic-book company releasing such a book: In January 2002, the Florida-based Alternative Comics expects to publish its own 128-page paperback, 9-11 Emergency Relief, which will contain contributions by beloved veterans such as Spirit creator Will Eisner and some of the underground's best-known writers-illustrators, including Sock Monkey creator Tony Millionaire and Artbabe Jessica Abel. Dark Horse, Chaos!, Oni, Image and Top Shelf--among the largest independent comics publishers--are also combining resources for their own graphic novel, which, for now, will contain short stories bereft of superheroes. Paul Levitz, publisher of the AOL Time Warner-owned DC Comics, says his company has no plans at present for a benefit book. Instead, DC will sell, through comics retailers, a poster featuring the cover of a 1942 issue of Superman; it portrays the Man of Steel with an eagle perched on his arm, in front of a star-spangled shield. The poster bears the inscription, "We Salute America's Heroes."
"We're part of one big comic-book family," says Bill Rosemann, Marvel's marketing communications manager. "I think a struggle people in the industry were facing was: 'How can I help out? All I can do is make comics. We can't operate heavy machinery. We don't have health-care skills. What can we do?' Maybe we can entertain someone and take their mind off the horror. Maybe children can even see a good example of the heroic things to do--what good exists in relation to such evil. But we're surrounded by brightly clad crime-fighters every day. When this was happening, people said, 'Wouldn't it be cool if we had superheroes?' and we looked at each other and said, 'We do--firemen and police officers.' They wear costumes and do heroic deeds of action and phenomenal sacrifice."
Since September 11, the entirety of the entertainment industry has grappled with how to reconcile its power and disposability. Actors who insist they feel useless, if not downright irrelevant, turn out by the dozens on telethons to raise millions for relief efforts. Musicians bury their egos and collaborate on benefit albums; artists forgive old grudges and team up for projects such as Heroes. And, for a moment, they feel valuable, necessary. But once the coffers are full and the dead are buried, they will return to the industry of entertaining. Only, they wonder, how can they get back to business as usual?
Comic books, especially, have long profited off the destruction of cities, if not entire planets; it's easy to blow up all of Manhattan with pen and ink. It costs nothing--not money, not lives. The history of the medium is littered with examples: In a 1945 comic called The Duke of Broadway, Joe Simon, the creator of Captain America, annihilated all of Manhattan. In the story "My City is No More," the borough was laid waste by the accidental detonation of an atomic bomb; its buildings were reduced to rubble, its streets pulverized into dust, its inhabitants turned to ghosts.
"I destroyed New York once," says Simon, who lives in Manhattan. "But, my God, you don't think some lunatic's gonna come around and really do it. It's beyond all comprehension."
Thirty-two years later, Scott McCloud abolished the entirety of the Manhattan skyline, bit by agonizing bit, beginning with Wall Street and the World Trade Center. He worked his way north, obliterating Washington Square Park, the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Plaza, Grand Central Station, the Chrysler Building...all of it, ground into a wretched, twisted heap of smoke and devastation. McCloud insisted it was all in good fun: "meaningless, overblown violence, mayhem and destruction," were the exact words on the cover of Three Dimensional Destroy!!! in 1987. And the very week of the attacks on New York and Washington, DC Comics published an issue of Adventures of Superman in which Lex Luthor's Metropolis headquarters--the LexCorp building, looking exactly like the WTC--were depicted as smoldering tombstones jutting out of the landscape. The image was prophetic and eerie--a two-dimensional snapshot of what television was revealing as three-dimensional atrocity.
Around the Manhattan offices of Marvel and DC, editors have been meeting since September 11 to discuss just how their medium will react to such real-life horror. They wonder if they will ever again be able to blow up a building without conjuring still-fresh memories and grief. Even as their film and television counterparts hold and edit moving pictures dealing with mass destruction and terrorism, comic-book companies likewise postpone releases. DC is holding up publication of a paperback that will collect several issues of Goddess, in which skyscrapers are destroyed and airliners are crashed. The company is also delaying release of The Authority: Widescreen, in which a huge section of Manhattan is devastated, forcing costumed heroes to search the debris for survivors.
"It's just not appropriate to put [those titles] out while people are reacting," Levitz says. "You don't want to add to anyone's nightmares."
At Marvel, Quesada has postponed publication of at least one title that deals with the Middle East and domestic terrorism, and one writer has asked that the World Trade Center be removed from a forthcoming book; the author wants the Twin Towers "conspicuous in their absence," the editor says. Quesada also says that scripts submitted for the relaunching of the Captain America title, which will feature a new creative team, have been scrapped at writer John Ney Rieber's request. But Marvel will also be the first company to deal directly with the attacks: Amazing Spider-Man writer J. Michael Straczynski says Marvel asked him to write a story about the bombings because Spider-Man is a native New Yorker. (Indeed, most of Marvel's action takes place in Manhattan, not the thinly veiled Gotham City or Metropolis of DC.) He penned his story in 24 hours. "The whole thing is one lengthy meditation on the tragedy," Straczynski explained last week in an Internet posting.
"Look, the entertainment business does what it does, and Marvel's in the entertainment business," Quesada says. "But I feel that we have the ability to tell some very poignant stories and to lead by example."
In a post-September 11 world, even the phrase, "Look, up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane!" sounds different; its awe has been replaced by shock and revulsion. The sense of escapism comic books have provided no longer exists; the fantasy world must give way to the real one.
On comics-related Web sites, such as www.comicbookresources.com and www.comicon.com, comicdom's best-known illustrators and writers have been posting their thoughts on the direction in which their industry must head. Many are sickened by what longtime DC editor Denny O'Neil refers to as "the pornographic use of violence" in comics and other entertainment media. Neil Gaiman has said he hopes the industry will realize violence must now come with consequences and no longer be used "as a simple plot mcguffin." Influential creator and publisher Jim Steranko has gone online to offer the most damning criticism of the industry of which he's been a large part for decades.
"I'm repulsed by the plague of violence and death ravaging our nation and feel frustrated, even helpless, to combat it," Steranko wrote in a posting on comicon.com. "I find it particularly disturbing that the artistic form with which I'm most closely identified has seemed to turn its back on the virtues upon which it was built...Today's comics are possessed by brutality, destruction, depravity, cynicism and obscenity." The debate has only begun to rage and does so in plain sight.
Comics always served an important function during wartime; they've rallied support for the troops and raised money for savings bonds. Superman fought grotesquely caricatured Nazis and Japanese soldiers; Joe Simon's Captain America was duking it out with Hitler months before the United States entered World War II. And the medium has never shied away from incorporating topical issues into its panels and word balloons; in the 1960s and '70s, even superhero comics were populated by drug addicts, battle-scarred Vietnam veterans and racist hate mongers. Like all media, it reflected--and distorted--the horrors of the everyday. But that was before war struck our shores and claimed thousands of innocents. It was before movie producers, such as Jerry Bruckheimer, started wrapping crass nihilism in jingoistic red, white and blue. It was before millions, if not billions, were made off catastrophes marketed as populist "art."
On September 10, violence sold. On September 11, you couldn't give it away.
"You just try and use what strength you have to tell a story that will make the world a better place," says DC's Levitz. "People need different emotional messages. People need different entertainment messages. Writers and artists, in whatever medium they're working in, try to respond to that by telling stories that add meaning to life. Violence has certainly been a tool in that. Anything that affects people's lives with drama or comedy has been a tool in that, and you just look at each circumstance as the world evolves, and you try to deal with the best ways that as a storyteller you can use your tools for what people need.
"This is not only an act of war come home to our shores, but whether you live in New York or the most remote town in America, it came into your living room. I don't know what that does to the world, and I don't know what that does to our role as storytellers. We have to search that out, and it will be a difficult task."