Friday, August 12, 2005

Terrorism Week: World Trade Center

Amazing Spider-Man 36

This is the "Black cover" issue of Amazing Spider-Man, set in the aftermath of the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

You can take the view that this is a commemorative issue, and should be beyond normal rules of criticism. Which is, I think, true only if the the vast majority of its expected readership issue would find themselves agreeing with the sentiments expressed. But there is enough controversial content in this issue that it is more than a simple commemoration. Having read it a few times, I'm still not entirely sure what it is supposed to be.

Perhaps we should start by looking at what this book clearly is not. It is not a narration of events as they happened - the presence of superheroes puts paid to that idea. But nor is it, properly speaking, a story. Without being trite, it is impossible to imagine the events of 9/11 could have happened in the Marvel Universe. I could think of a dozen ways in which Marvel characters could have stopped, or ameliorated the effects of, the disaster. So whatever Spider-Man and Wolverine are doing here, this is not a coherent story, and nor do I think it is intended to be.

A small word about the writing of this issue. J. Michael Straczynski is the accredited writer, and the flow of words in the narrative is clearly the work of one person. However, if I were in charge of Marvel, there is no way I would let any single person have complete creative control over a story as sensitive (and potentially damaging to Marvel, if written wrongly) as this. I would have had it bouncing up and down meetings for weeks, ironing out points of contention. Perhaps Marvel did not do this, perhaps they did. But it seems to me that "design by committee" might explain some of the inconsistencies in this issue. The flow of ideas in it doesn't quite seem to add up to something whole.

The first place where I have difficulty is on page four, where two fleeing survivors ask Spider-Man, "Where were you? How could you let this happen?". This is a non-question, since Spider-Man doesn't exist. Possibly this a covert criticism of the people who provide national security? If this is so, then the narrator's answer, "How do you say we didn't know? We couldn't know. We couldn't imagine." is weak. It might be beyond the imagination of some normal citizens, but those involved in national security would certainly have been contemplating events like this. That's what their job is.

The story now moves into the debris of the buildings, where various superheroes such as Thor and the Thing are moving rubble. It's jarring to have this juxtaposition of reality and imagination in a place of mass slaughter. The only way I can make sense of this is to think that Marvel, as an entity, is showing its sympathy with the victims, perhaps best symbolised by Wolverine wearing a "FDNY" hat.

Then we get to one part that is just plain wrong. Magneto, the Kingpin and Dr Doom are shown mourning. Doom is crying. Now these, particularly the latter two, have been consistently shown to be the epitome of evil. I remember Doom once slaughtering hundreds of creatures he had created just to show that he was "the master of life and death". Perhaps, as the narrator says, "even the worst of us, however scarred, are still human", but Doom's actions have always shown him to be as close to monster as you could get.

Should we care how mass murderers feel about anything? The logic of this page is that journalists should head to the nearest maximum security prison to ask some lifers how they were feeling about the attacks, which would then have produced justifiable outrage from their victims. While the fact that Doom and the Kingpin are fictional makes their portrayal here more acceptable, I think if the likes of Doom and Fisk are coming to the party, then it's time to leave. They shouldn't be here. It was a mistake.

After the villains depart, we are back into a commemoration, and one written eloquently. Of the emergency services: "Those who step into the darkness without assurances of ever walking out again, because they know there are others waiting in the dark".

But then the narrative lurches solidly into controversy. "Refusing to accept the self-serving proclamations of holy warriors of every stripe, who announce that somehow we had this coming." Below are two men sermonising. To the right is one clearly meant to be an Al Qaeda supporter, " is God's will that America should fall through their iniquity and their sin.." To the left is one saying "...probably what we deserve. All of them who have tried to secularize America. The pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians and the ACLU. I point the finger in their face and I say, 'You helped this happen.'"

I'm extremely uncomfortable with the implied equality of the views held by these two preachers. One is an Al Qaeda supporter. The other I take to be a member of the Christian Right. What they hold in common is that they hold views opposed by the writer. I'm no Christian fundamentalist, but this is little more than a smear, the old rhetorical trick of tarring all your enemies with the worst brush you can think of. Even if you despise the Christian Right, you have to recognise that there is no moral equivalence between them and Al Qaeda, simply because they haven't slaughtered thousands of people. The commemoration has become a polemic.

And then, following a good scene with Spider-Man imagining what it must be like for Captain America, who witnessed World War Two, to see similar scenes again, we head back into controversy. "What do we tell the children? ... Perhaps we tell them that we are sorry. Sorry that we were not able to deliver unto them the world we wished them to have. That our eagerness to shout is not the equal of our willingness to listen. That the burdens of distant people are the responsibility of all men and women of conscience, or their burdens will one day become our tragedy."

This may be a view held by many, but it's perfectly respectable to not feel in any way responsible for the actions of mass murderers. The narration has again stepped over the mark by taking a contestable partisan position. It's not necessarily that I think it's wrong, simply that this, a commemoration, is entirely the wrong place to be saying such things.

And with this the narrative heads into its final phase, an exhortation to be strong, and a prophetic promise of retribution ("You wanted to send a message, and in so doing you awakened us from our self-involvement. Message received. Look for your reply in the thunder." - over a picture of a naval vessal sailing by the Statue of Liberty).

It's too awkward, this issue. There are many moments when it is well-written: sad, angry and touching. But the line the story is trying to take is simply not sustainable. When it fails, it fails in a way amplified by the ultra-sensitivity of its subject matter. To me it was a mistake to produce a commemoration in this format, and I doubt whether any number of rewrites could ever have made it fully work.


Anonymous Vic Fluro said...

You don't make it totally clear in your (excellent) piece, but the 'Christian Right' quote is an actual Jerry Falwell quote from the immediate aftermath, on the 13th - he was talking to Pat Robertson, who 'totally concurred'. I distinctly remember there being a lot of anger about this at the time, mixed in with the general anger, fear and sorrow that was in the air already. When I eventually read the issue, I assumed the other quote was a direct quote from an Al-Qaeda-friendly source. (Obviously, it might have been completely made up. I can't find it anywhere.)

Whether these quotes should have been included in the comic is debatable, but the Falwell one was definitely a part of the wash of emotion and shock around at the time, and there was a real sense of anger that people like him, on all sides of the spectrum, were so shamelessly using the atrocity. Also, Falwell saying that America deserved the 9/11 attacks made him look like an apologist, or worse, someone actively praising the terrorists for doing "God's work". I'm not surprised that the writer wanted to express his feelings on that, although he could have probably done it better.

That said, this is a terrible, terrible comic...

12:41 pm  
Blogger Woody! said...

I don't think the existence of super-heroes would automatically mean 9-11 wouldn't happen. I mean, it was a surprise. I'm sure the Avengers would have just been having breakfast or going to work like everyone else. Events could have happened differently, maybe the towers could have been saved from falling. But at the very least, the first plane crashes.

I do think it would diminish the impact, though. I mean, buildings get smashed all the time in Marvel's Manhatten or DC's Metropolis. This might not be treated any differently than your standard Namor invasion or Magneto attack.

8:42 pm  
Blogger Disintegrating Clone said...

Vic and Woody

Thanks for your comments. This was the most difficult comic book I I'm likely to review - at least, if there's one harder, I think I'll leave it for a while


I didn't know that the was a quote from Falwell: we don't pay any attention to our own religious leaders in Britain, and American ones only get noticed when they're caught at three in the morning with a prostitute, a big bag of drugs and a copy of "Custard Fetish Monthly". Given that every folly has its champion, I suppose someone somewhere was always going to say something that crass. I'm very surprised that such prominent figures wouldn't have known when to keep their ugly little prejudices to themselves, though.

Knowing it is directed against a specific individual does make the story more understandable - Straczynski probably actually felt like going and smacking Falwell. The problem is that the piece doesn't name Falwell, and I can only take the work as published. I wonder (no evidence, obviously) if Straczynski wanted to explicit name Falwell, but Marvel thought an attack on a named individual was going too far for a comic book. Publishing the words but not the source feels like an ugly compromise, and one which warps the meaning of the storyline for those who don't know about Falwell. I think this section needed to rewritten to pull apart any possible implied equivalence between Muslim and Christian fundamentalists. Which doesn't mean Falwell isn't a 48DD shit-for-brains, obviously.


I agree that the presence of superheroes wouldn't necessarily stop 9/11, although it's easy enough to construct a story where they do stop it. For example: the pilots, hearing the terrorists, contact air traffic control, who ring the Avengers, who ring Captain Marvel or Photon or whatever she's called these days; she flies in at the speed of light - I'm assuming she still can do that - and instantly knocks out all the terrorists. Obviously, she could be uncontactable, and I can't remember if the pilot of the first plane had a chance to contact anyone, but really my point was that the author isn't attempting to think along these lines, and probably hoping we won't either. The superheroes are there as symbols, and their actions aren't meant to be taken literally. The fact that we're having this discussion (and I'm sure these questions popped into the heads of most people who read that book) indicates to me that their presence was a mistake, and one which helps make this whole issue such a questionable endeavour.

If I had to write this story (well, I'd refuse, but let's posit a gun to my temple), I would have had the unpowered Peter Parker and Steve Rogers of our world looking at the devastation, which would have sidestepped this whole ugly problem.

Though, all in all, I think it would have been better just not to have published it at all.

2:23 pm  
Blogger Disintegrating Clone said...

It occurred to me while sitting in the bath that my above comments could be construed as me showing delusions of adequacy - ie that there was the possibility that Marvel might like to offer me the writing chores on a controversial and tough headlining comic book.

Not to worry, it was just a bad turn of phrase. I know my place is at the bottom of the comic book universe alongside Cap'n Barracuda, very-poor-to-shite copies of "Brother Voodoo" and people who get thrown out of San Diego for being too geeky. Anyway, I have a real job - Stunt jockey for "Gallopin' Joey Jessop and his Buccaneering Buccaneers", East Anglia's premiere wild west rodeo / circus / all night drinking den.

But Joe Q, if you happen to be passing, I've got the original, phlegm-encrusted manuscripts to my meta-decompressed 48 part Maxi-Series, "DeathFORCE Lambda: Wolverine versus Willie Lumpkin". I'm willing to sign a salary-bumping four year contract, and I promise not to resurrect anyone rubbish. Sorted, geezer.

7:48 pm  
Blogger Woody! said...

Nah, I didn't construe it that way. There were a lot of different ways to approach it. I like the civilian way of doing it. In fact, I think that's what happened in Captain America #1. I don't know which one, that title has be launched and relaunched so many friggen times. Anyway, Nick Fury pulled Steve Rogers away from Ground Zero recovery duty on September 12, 2001. Although, that really didn't work for me either. I think the tribute comic that was just artwork worked a lot better. It's really hard to fashion a proper story around that event using the Marvel Universe.

In JMS's defense, I remember they turned around this comic very quickly. With any amount of time passing, I really hope he would've realized how dumb it was to have Doom crying. That was what took me out of the story.

8:29 pm  
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