The week after the attacks on the World Trade Center, cartoonist Leo Cullum gave the nation an unparalleled gift: the license to laugh again.
Cullum’s gift came in the form of a cartoon in the New Yorker, contextualized only by the date, in which a woman seated at a bar looks at a man in a checkered suit and says, “I thought I’d never laugh again. Then I saw your jacket.”
Sept. 11 left a powerful impression on the work produced by the numerous illustrators, editorial cartoonists, comic book creators and other commercial artists who live and work in the Tri-State area. Through a complex mixture of humor and seriousness, emotion and analysis, cartoonists were some of the city’s best therapists.
The attack on lower Manhattan affected many cartoonists personally, and in a few cases inspired their best work. The events produced some cartoon kitsch as well. The outpouring of 9/11 comics speaks to the longstanding connection between the city, comics and narrative art more generally, as well as to the reassuring intimacy of the handcrafted image.
Comics and cartoons come in many shapes and sizes, from newspaper cartoons, magazine cartoons and comic strips, to comic books, manga and graphic novels. Responses to 9/11 also assumed a variety of forms, from stark, single-panel graphics to anguished visits to ground zero in superhero titles. Many 9/11 themed comics appeared within hours or days of the events themselves, as cartoonists sought to mourn the dead, affirm civic values and, in some cases, sound the alarm.
But almost any comic book or graphic novel published in the last decade that touches on daily life in New York City, or for that matter U.S. foreign policy, references 9/11, either explicitly or by implication. This long wave of commentary, memoir and thinly disguised fiction has come from cartoonists and graphic artists who in many cases watched the towers burn with their own eyes.
Two of the most successful responses to 9/11 are by major figures in the industry.
9/11 Report as Graphic Novel: The first is the full-length graphic adaptation of “The 9/11 Commission Report” (2006), by Ernie Colón and Sid Jacobson. This work uses comic techniques like silhouettes, close-ups, splash pages and timelines to translate the findings of the bipartisan commission into the language of comics.
Spiegelman on a Different Holocaust: The second is by Art Spiegelman, the legendary comic artist who helped bring a new seriousness to the form in the ’60s and won a Pulitzer Prize for “Maus,” a graphic novel about his father’s experience in the Holocaust.
Spiegelman’s “In The Shadow of No Towers” (2004) traced his evolving relationship to the World Trade Center attack, which he and his family experienced up close.
While Spiegelman’s response was autobiographical, it was also stubbornly political.
In one page, he renders himself as Happy Hooligan, a comic strip character from a more innocent time. Recruited to take part in a television broadcast featuring “typical New Yorkers,” Happy (Spiegelman) answers every question with precisely the wrong answer. Invited to identity “the greatest thing about America,” for example, he said, “as long as you’re not an Arab you’re allowed to think that America’s not always so great!” As he’s booted from the studio, he thinks to himself, “Rats! I shoulda said ‘American tobacco.’”
Spiegelman’s post-9/11 book closes with forgotten treasures from early 20th century cartooning, including a jingoistic “Yellow Kid,” a sweet “Krazy Kat” page and a stunning depiction of lower Manhattan from “Little Nemo in Slumberland.” Each of the selections touches in some way on the contemporary anxieties that permeate Spiegelman’s book.
Superheroes: Superhero creators also participated in the outpouring of 9/11 comics. In “The Amazing Spider-Man” #36, which came out in December, 2011, writer J. Michael Stracynski and artist John Romita Jr. placed Spider-Man and other Marvel heroes working alongside with emergency responders at ground zero. Even villains Magneto and Doctor Doom help.
Marvel actually published three 9/11 charity books, including “Heroes,” a volume of 64 full-color illustrations that paid tribute to the city’s police officers and firefighters.
DC Comics came out with its own project, the modestly titled, “September 11, 2001 (The World’s Finest Comic Book Writers and Artists Tell Stories to Remember).” Smaller companies such as Dark Horse and Alternative Comics did similarly.
Good ol’ Papers and Magazines: Some of the most daring visual commentary was generated by cartoonists whose work appeared in weekly newspapers (such as the Village Voice), or in the pages of the long-running magazine World War 3 Illustrated, which published a 9/11 special issue in December 2001. As one World War 3 editor, Kevin Pyle, later pointed out, “There were a lot of artists who contributed to that issue who have said, ‘9/11 has me thinking about these issues but I don’t have anywhere to put this stuff, because everyone is holding back.’”
A series of bracing cartoons came from the pen of Ruben Bolling, a syndicated humor cartoonist who initially found it difficult to imagine working on comics after 9/11. His first post-9/11 comic, a “Super Fun-Pak Comix,” combined several parody strips to connote a 1960s-style comic strip page. Rather than ending each strip with his usual japes, he had each character simply intone: “Terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center killing thousands.” As he told an interviewer, “It was much more heartfelt than a lot of my work.” If Bolling’s weekly comics have become a little less light-hearted over the years, 9/11 may be an important reason.
Some of the most memorable 9/11 cartoons were featured in daily newspapers, such as Jeff Danziger’s wordless single-panel cartoon for the Washington Post that appeared the following day.
Many editorial cartoons were somber-minded, or even melancholic, but a few called on the Commander in Chief to take out Bin Laden and the Taliban. Several newspaper cartoonists seemed captivated by the imagery of vengeance, but most expressed grief or shock rather than undiluted rage.
At the same time, a number of cartoonists could not contain their admiration for the 43rd president.
“Isn’t Bush doing a great job?” asks a woman as she watches the news. “Shut up, Tipper,” Al Gore bristles, in a wry cartoon by Mike Peters.
In some respects the events of 9/11 seem like yesterday, but it’s been a long time since anyone portrayed well-known Democrats lending their enthusiastic support to President George W. Bush. While cartoonists and comic artists helped us heal in ways both personal and broad immediately after 9/11, the following decade, with its ongoing conflicts both military and civil, proved fertile ground for their artistic content.
Kent Worcester is a professor of Political Science at Marymount Manhattan College, where he teaches courses on democratic theory, modern political theory, contemporary war and the politics of popular culture. He is the author or co-editor of six books including, most recently, “Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium” and “A Comics Studies Reader.”