Comics relief reacts to Sept. 11

Compilation: `9-11's' drawings and stories let cartoonists get their feelings off their chests.

January 30, 2002|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Columbia cartoonist Frank Cho is best known for his comic, Liberty Meadows, a kooky animal sanctuary starring a hapless veterinarian named Frank, his lushly built, brainy colleague Brandy, and a flock of ornery critters.

But within hours of September's terrorist attacks, Cho was hard at work on a cover for 9-11: Emergency Relief (Alternative Comics, $14.95), a collection of personal accounts of that day, written and drawn by comic artists from across the country.

Cho's powerful portrait of a steel-jawed firefighter and other rescue workers toiling amid the World Trade Center ruins has super-hero heft. "He was the only person we knew who could get it done on time," says Jeff Mason, a Gainesville, Fla., criminal defense lawyer who also publishes comic books.

Cho's colleagues at Insight Studios in Fullerton then colored the illustration and did the final prep work in a matter of hours. For a "fully rendered, fully finished piece of cover art, that was amazing," Mason says.

The idea of a Sept. 11 graphic novel occurred to Mason after many of his cartoonist friends in New York expressed a sense of helplessness in the wake of the attacks. A comic book inspired by personal accounts would be a cathartic exercise, he realized, and receipts could go to the American Red Cross.

Thinking of Picasso's Guernica, and other masterful responses to tragedy, Mason encouraged artists to "embrace subjectivity." Write and illustrate your tales in the heat of the moment, he told them. "Actually, they were terrified about that," Mason says. "They all thought they were supposed to be journalists."

The results astounded Mason: "A lot of the stories I didn't even fathom we would get." They ranged from accounts of a family coping with a missing father to strips "that seem absolutely mundane, about the minutiae of the day."

In one story, a self-absorbed female comic artist known as Fly grapples with the hassle of getting oral surgery on Sept. 11, and not being able to get her painkiller prescription filled. In another story by Chris Knowle and K. Thor Jensen, the attacks are improbably and eloquently linked to the Attica prison riots, which took place exactly 30 years earlier.

For Mason, it is all valuable testimony. "I see this book as a piece of literature. A comic book that will increase in importance over time."

As a team, five Insight Studios cartoonists also illustrated a 9-11 story, based on the experience of a fellow comic artist in New York City. Neil Kleid's "Letters from a Broken Apple" is an eyewitness account of horrified New Yorkers streaming from ground zero, rescue workers digging in the rubble and loved ones trying to contact families and friends.

The strip includes the final work of Gray Morrow, best known for his vivid Tarzan illustrations, who died shortly after completing his 9-11 panels.

Cho, who recently terminated newspaper syndication of Liberty Meadows, opting for a comic book and Web presence, has an avid following in the comics kingdom. He is perhaps the best known of the Insight Studios members who include co-founder Mark Wheatley, Marc Hempel and Allan Gross.

More than 80 artists and writers contributed to 9-11, which is being distributed internationally in bookstores and comic book outlets, Mason says. The Insight members and other contributors will sign copies of 9-11 from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. tomorrow at Atomic Books in Hampden at 1100 W. 36th St.

"When I was first talking with the cartoonists about doing the benefit book, in my wildest hopes, my goal was to raise $25,000 for the American Red Cross," says Mason. "Now after getting such an overwhelmingly positive response for the book, my goal is to raise $100,000."

At a Baltimore comics expo last fall, Cho's original cover art for 9-11 sold for $5,000 to a collector. That money also went to the Red Cross.

In New York, visitors to the New York City Fire Museum can see work by 9-11 comics creators in the exhibit, The Heroes Among Us: A Comic Book Art Exhibit in Celebration of the Heroes of 9-11. Also on display at the exhibit, co-presented by the New York City Comic Book Museum, is work from Heroes, Marvel Comics' December issue of the Amazing Spider-Man, also devoted to the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.

Mason, talking from Florida, is thrilled with 9-11's reception. "All of the folks in the comics industry have really gotten behind the book. ... Everybody's been pulling together."

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