Nine days after the attacks on the World Trade Center the stench of smoke and decay left by the fallen towers still permeated lower Manhattan. The city was tenuously coming out of the shock induced by the September 11 attacks. Walking downtown flags and flowers crowded fire station entrances. Candles glowed in civic parks where photos and poems for the victims were placed. In a Greenwich Village diner your reporter finished an evening breakfast while George W. Bush delivered his declaration of war on terrorism. Young New Yorkers of bohemian dress if not inclination stood beside wait staff and craftsmen to get a view of the screen. They applauded in unison when the President cheered Giuliani and Pataki. As one they nodded and cheered when Bush declared his mission against terrorism. Most would have found this Greenwich Village scene improbable just two weeks earlier.
Likewise, when Marvel announced its plans to remold Captain America under the guidance of John Rieber and John Cassaday, it was difficult to fathom how the duo would make the character resonate in a contemporary context. Cap was born in the passion of World War II to symbolize America’s assault on foreign evil. Though he has inspired hundreds of comic books in his sixty year history, the character has never enjoyed such broad cultural relevance as he did in his earliest years.
But when terror struck America on September 11, the cultural playing field changed and suddenly Cap became a much more powerful and relevant icon. John Cassaday was not unmindful of this when CBR contributing writer Charles Brownstein met him for a pint at the ACE bar. Cassaday discussed the impact September 11 had on him as a New York cartoonist and how he is filtering the emotional affect of the events into his work on Captain America.
Charles Brownstein: Where were you when this city was attacked and what was its immediate impact on you?
John Cassaday: I was asleep when the first plane hit. My mom called me from Texas, she had been up and saw it on the news. She called and woke me up. I watched the second plane hit on TV and was running out of my house when the first tower fell. I went down to the pier on the West Side around 66th street and watched the second tower fall. It just dropped. There were about 150 of us on this pier watching it. The minute the tower fell, there were screams and crying and people almost collapsing. It was surreal and disturbing. Familiar, but somewhere you’ve never been before. Your brain can’t process what you’re seeing when you’re in front of something so horrific. It’s not like watching CNN. Seeing something actually happen in front of you and knowing that there are thousands of people dying inside, you don’t know what to make of it.
I could only get angry. I stayed on the pier for over an hour. Many of us were huddled around radios to get the latest. It felt like we were in the 1940’s. I finally walked home, went to the Red Cross, then wandered down to the site. I got home around midnight.
CB: As an artist you create these sorts of scenarios as fiction and this was an event that people are likening to a movie or similar work of fiction. How does this affect your attitude towards the work that you do?
JC: I haven’t really been doing much work since it happened, so I don’t completely know how it’s going to affect what I do. I just recently started trying to work again and it is finding its way into what I’m doing in subtle ways that maybe only I know. I can’t get my head around it. I can’t not think about it and working is like pulling teeth with something like that on your mind.
CB: You’re working on Captain America for Marvel. The character seems to have been given new relevance by this. How has your approach to the character changed since this happened?
JC: The day it happened I did a lot of wandering around the city. I went downtown as close to the site as I could get. I spent a few days thinking that comics, in particular superheroes, were absolutely trivial. It took me a while to settle back into reality, lower my adrenaline a bit and get my head together. The story we were working on before the bombing seemed so pointless suddenly.
We knew that if we were going to do Captain America, it must have relevance in our world right now. It’s a no-brainer. All we needed was the support of the publishers and I believe we certainly have that. It’s going to be heavy, heartfelt and real. I’m looking for inspiration where I can get it and I’m finding it with this book. He was my favorite comic character before September 11th and before then, I was concerned that I’d outgrown him. Now, I find I haven’t. There’s something comforting to me about that.
CB: Earlier this evening we were talking about World War II and how it was a boom for comics. How will this affect comics? What value do comics have now, what value do comics heroes have in this new scenario?
JC: It’s apples and asteroids. World War II was a completely different kind of war. We’re fighting the shadows now. We’re swinging at the mist. This has to have an effect on comics. Comics about mass devastation are quickly being regarded as dinosaurs. Inappropriate dinosaurs. They were getting old before this happened. I’m thinking this will force creators to work harder to make better, more insightful stories. Stories about human lives, not explosions and light shows.
CB: What’s our responsibility to our audience? People who are reading your comics are eligible to be in this war effort.
JC: Two things: You have to provide escapism, just like Hollywood, television, films, and novels might do for us. On the other hand, there are certain books that can say something about this. I don’t think every generic superhero needs to be saving the world from terrorists right now. Only a few can inspire. There are some books where it’s appropriate and maybe it’s our responsibility to provide that. I believe it’s mine.
CB: You said after this happened you were disillusioned with superheroes. What kind of content does this inspire you to create?
JC: I don’t think I could have sat down and drawn Captain America that day or even that week. I was a little too connected to the real world. Reality was punching us all in the face. Heroes in costumes seemed so inappropriate and unnecessary. Looking back on it, I’ve had a little over a week to re-assess how I feel about things and I’m not counting superheroes out. I love the characters I’m gonna be working on in the future, but I think they can live in a more realistic world. Not one with costumed supervillains dropping out of flying saucers to destroy the human race and their little dogs too. There are very real threats in the world, as we’ve seen, and I think what I’m gonna be doing in the immediate future will have to deal specifically with that.
CB: How does this change what we think of as heroic? How do superheroes still matter in the face of the firemen, rescue workers, and police who gave their lives last week?
JC: I don’t believe we get a good look at actual heroes very often. We’ve been given the rare chance to see them in the past week or so and people are realizing that those heroes were part of their neighborhood all along. God bless them. Half my family in Texas are firemen.
Superheroes are icons. Captain America stands for a thousand real life heroes. A thousand firemen, a thousand policemen. Heroes. A nation of them. He stands for us. Anyone this past week who could have been a hero was a hero. If you could lend a helping hand, you did. Our heroes represent the best in us and we fashion them in a way so that they stand for the heroes we could all be. Right place, right time and you can be a hero. I’d like to believe its human nature.
CB: In World War II comics were a big part of the propaganda effort. If war is coming, how do you think comics will be a part of the propaganda effort?
JC: We have to be careful about where we point our anger. We can influence those around us. We don’t want to make villains out of innocent people. There’s a need to be very careful right now. Propaganda can be used to inspire and unite. It can also be used to point fingers and make generalizations. We must stray from the latter.
CB: Would you consider your work on Captain America as a contribution to a propaganda effort and if so how comfortable are you with that?
JC: Captain America is a creature born of propaganda. He’s the perfect venue for what’s going on right now. If I were doing any number of comic books, I couldn’t be in the same position as I am with Captain America. Before the disaster struck, I thought of propaganda as the perfect word for what I was planning on doing specifically for covers on Captain America. In their own way, the covers feel very appropriate right now, more appropriate now than when I initially came up with the ideas. “Propaganda” or not, the images you’ll see will be the ones I need to get out. It’s good for me, I think.
To be doing Captain America #1 as America is entering a war is something that my mind maybe can’t get around. Surreal is the word. It’s almost too close in a sense. I want people to feel patriotic. I want people to look at Captain America as a hero. I want him to be someone to look up to, which he was meant to be from the beginning. Captain America was created because of a war. He’s OUR soldier. I’m hoping this can be a shining moment for him.