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, "...it 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.