One Year Later: JMS, Jemas on Comics Post-9/11

[We Remember]In many ways, it seems like less than a year ago, and in other ways, it seems far longer. The attacks of September 11, 2001 were the Pearl Harbor of a new generation, where an atrocity that seemed to come out of nowhere for many Americans shook up their view of the world, and made them reconsider the world around them and their place in it.

The comic industry was no different. The traditionally Manhattan-based industry reacted swiftly to the attacks, with tributes and charity projects. (Gail Simone had a CBR You'll All Be Sorry! piece reprinted as the coda to Marvel's "Heroes" tribute book.)

Initially, some comics professionals expressed self-doubt as to what they were doing with their lives, and the value of the comics industry. A year later, resolve seems to have firmed.

"For many fans, comics books are the kind of entertainment that lets them escape from reality for a few minutes a day," Marvel president Bill Jemas told CBR News on Wednesday. "The sad truth is that since last 9/11 the escape from the reality of war, terrorism and economic downturn is increasingly welcome - even necessary. There are plenty of comics (including quite a few from Marvel) that are set so firmly into the world of fantasy, that the escape is rather easy.

"For many more fans, comics are the kind of communication that help them examine reality in a thoughtful way for a few minutes a day. The sad truth is that since last 9/11 careful thought about the reality of war, terrorism and economic downturn is increasingly welcome - even necessary. There are plenty of comics (including quite a few from Marvel) that are set so closely in real world that close examination of the real world is rather easy.

"I am proud of Marvel's role in providing a forum for creators with important things to say about the real world and about the realms of fantasy and proud that comics are becoming an increasingly important form of entertainment and communication for fans of all kinds."

One of the most stirring industry reactions to the events of last September came in the pages of the most New York of mainstream comics, "Amazing Spider-Man," written by J. Michael Straczynski.

"I don't believe that the soul searching is yet over, or that it has yet achieved a result or a conclusion," Straczynski, writer of "Amazing Spider-Man," told CBR News on Wednesday. "I think the country overall has been dealing with a shift in the way we see ourselves and the world and our place therein.

"I do know that there seems to be a sense, almost cellular, that comics have been a part of something fairly important in the way the issue was addressed. This was the reason I wrote "Amazing Spider-Man" #36, because kids don't stay up to watch Nightline. Something was needed to put the events of 9/11 into perspective. I was stunned by how much of an impact it had. I received emails from firemen on the scene who told me they passed the book around to their fellow firemen and how it helped, I heard directly from a priest at [Comic-Con International in San Diego] who used the book in his homilies to help families deal with how to tell their children about the incident, from a teacher also at [Comic-Con International in San Diego]who made the book part of his class for several days as the kids struggled to make the events of 9/11 line up with their understanding of the world. My first panel at [Comic-Con International in San Diego], with [John Romita Jr.] and Paul Jenkins turned into a very moving experience with one person after another expressing what that issue meant to them and to their families.

"When something of note happens to a culture, it turns all its available tools to the task of integrating and understanding that event. Fiction, television, movies, news, and yes, comics are all part of that process. If there has been anything to come out of the period immediately following 9/11, it is that we *are* a part of that process, that we're not just telling stories about guys in spandex punching out other guys in spandex; as part of society, we have a responsibility to be a voice, and a part of the considered conscience of our society. Not to preach, because I wouldn't know what to preach, but to ask questions, to reflect from time to time the world around us, which is what Marvel has always been so great at. Marvel comics take place in the real world, in New York not Metropolis, in Chicago not Gotham City, and as such, they had to deal with this issue.

"I also have to commend them for keeping the Twin Towers around in their artwork and their covers. Some seem to think that we need to erase those images, to remove them from films or comics or illustrations because that would somehow be hurtful.

"I take the exact opposite approach, and I think Marvel does as well. If you want to really serve the memory of the WTC, then hell, I say put 'em into pictures where they weren't originally, stick 'em into movies, into books, into posters, give every American a t-shirt with the Towers on 'em above the words WE'RE STILL HERE. Don't react by denying they were ever here. That gives the bad guys the victory they want.

"I don't see a significant difference in the way the comics business conducts itself post 9/11. The business is still pretty much the business. Nor do I think there really should be. In the days of the blitz, when German V2 rockets were turning substantial parts of London into Swiss cheese, and they were losing hundreds of people every week, the civilians caught on the ground fought back the only way they could: by maintaining their lives just as they'd been before. They went out in the morning to shop for food, to help at the hospitals, to work their jobs ... the sirens would go off, they'd go to the shelters, wait out the next blitz, then go up top again and go back to their lives. You can't let the bad guys win.

"This, to me, has been one of the failings in how the Bush administration has handled the situation post-9/11. The deterioration of civil rights, the construction of Project TIPS, the new abilities to strip away privacy (even to the point of being able now to track what books you check out at the local library), the detention of American citizens without trial or charges (Padilla's a low-life, no mistake, but we don't decide that citizens are exempt from due process based on being low-lifes) ... all of these have the net result of eliminating the very things that we are trying to protect, that the terrorists hate about us. In WW2, a largely disarmed America faced the greatest war machine in human history, one that straddled Europe on legs of fire and steel. But we shouldered our burden, learned the articles of war, and we went out and beat the biggest, most well-armed army on the planet without having to trash the Constitution in the process. If we could do that, then surely we can take on a couple thousand of these guys without tearing up the fundamental rights that are conferred onto the citizens of this nation by birth, tradition, history and law.

"Which was one of the points made in my WTC issue of ASM. One section talks about wanting to create a world for our children in which such things need never happen, 'but also a world not paved with the husks of their inalienable rights.'

"Which also leads to the point of comics, for me. As profoundly stupid as this may sound, I learned my sense of right and wrong, my sense of morality, from comics. When I was at Chicago ComicCon, and helped tackle a shoplifter in the dealer's room and bring him to the ground, somebody asked why I did it, since I could've been hurt. I pointed to the booth where I was standing when it happened, and a six-foot cutout of Superman. 'How could I stand here, in front of The Guy, and do nothing?' Comics have the potential not just to entertain, but also to ennoble, and enlighten, and elevate; to ask questions in need of asking. That has not changed post-9/11. It has only made that function more necessary than ever. Because comics are about heroes, and they remind us that it is important that we *be* heroes, not just in the shadow of tragedy, but every day.

"The man or woman coming hungry to the neighborhood homeless shelter or food bank trembles no less than someone who survived the Twin Towers. It is easy to give to the latter, but we must remember the former as well. I donated my entire salary from issue 36 to the Twin Towers Fund, but I also tithe a portion of my salary to a number of charities, local and national. Because that's what I learned in comics: that we are stewards of one another. That we must be heroes to one another.

"That function has not changed post-9/11. It has only become more vital."

CBR News Executive Producer Jonah Weiland contributed to this article.

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