Even the superheroes are moved

Comic books deal in poignant ways with the events of Sept. 11.

Pop Culture

November 25, 2001|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Staff

Of all the pop-culture tributes produced in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, some of the most eloquent, poignant and affecting have been displayed not on television, not in the pages of magazines or newspapers, not in the work of photographers, musicians or poets.

They have come in that most native of American art forms, the comic book.

Those who doubt that should run right to their local newsstands and check out a copy of Marvel's December issue of The Amazing Spider-Man (if you can find one, that is; it's pretty much sold out, and plans already are under way to reprint it as early as next month).

Spider-Man is only the most gripping of a series of books starting to appear on newsstands. Heroes, also published by Marvel, features a series of one-page tributes from comic artists and writers, all addressing events of Sept. 11 (proceeds from the book go to a fund for the victims).

The book includes a whole range of words and images. There's Captain America, a symbol of this country since World War II, being comforted by a woman and her daughter. There are firefighters desperately trying to outrun a falling building. There's the Hulk 2 / 3 cupping the hat of a fallen firefighter in his mighty hands. There's a lone boy, wrapped in a tattered American flag, sobbing uncontrollably. There's Captain America again, this time defiantly standing atop the rubble, flag in hand.

Alex Ross' Wonder Woman: Spirit of Truth, though all but completed before the attacks, seems amazingly prescient, as the Amazing Amazon struggles to understand cultures where the very idea of a woman being in a position of power and influence is viewed as evil. The book includes a visit to an Asian country clearly modeled after Afghanistan.

"The entire idea of superheroes originally was to react to situations in our real world that seemed too big for the solitary man to deal with," says Ross. "I think the superheroes, by addressing the events of Sept. 11, are brought back into the real world a little bit more. I think that's healthy for them. They are just human beings whose extreme abilities allow them to put a more direct response on top of events that will be too big for us to handle."

'We could not stop it'

For Spider-Man, however, writer J. Michael Straczynski (beloved by sci-fi fans as the creator of TV's Babylon 5 series) and artist John Romita Jr. took a different tack. The events of Sept. 11 prove way too big for Spider-Man to handle; all his powers prove utterly useless, and a guy who makes a living achieving the unachievable has a hard time dealing with that.

"We could not see it coming," he says, talking directly to the readers. "We could not be here before it happened. We could not stop it."

From its stark, solid-black cover to its final panel, with the superheroes of the Marvel universe dwarfed by the firefighters, police officers and other very real heroes of our own world, the book manages the neat trick of raging at evil while simultaneously reveling in the triumph of the human spirit. Its story, of a society saved from the brink of destruction by the very best humanity has to offer, has been the stuff of comics stories for generations.

Only this time, the story -- and the emotions it invokes -- are real.

"Art exists for the purpose of putting events in the real world into some kind of perspective," says Straczynski. "I wanted to try to give the events some kind of perspective. Why do these things happen? Why couldn't they be avoided? What do we tell the kids? Where do we go from here?"

Throughout the ages, cultures have imagined mythical figures to explain away events they couldn't comprehend, to wield the powers they themselves could only barely fathom. The paradigms of strength, wisdom and justice that once went by such names as Zeus, Jupiter, Apollo and Aphrodite have evolved into the characters of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the Fantastic Four -- beings who can fix anything, do anything, prevent anything.

Anything, that is, except for the unimaginable evil of men who kill thousands of innocents in the name of God. Even Spider-Man is helpless in the face of that extreme.

Story with few words

The story takes the form of an extended rumination by Spider-Man on the destruction of the World Trade Center's twin towers -- not an idealized story in which Spidey comes to the rescue just in time, or a maudlin, overwrought yarn in which a bunch of costumed superdudes get to perform all the heroics.

No, in this story, as in the real world, the heroes are the men and women who risked their lives to do a job that needed doing. And the evil is not the work of super-powered villains after world domination or alien beings out to subjugate the Earth. It is real evil, of a magnitude many of us never thought possible.

"Some things are beyond words," a helpless Spider-Man thinks as he stares at the devastation. "Beyond comprehension. Beyond forgiveness."

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