The influx of terrorists in comic books and America’s quest for a hero
The tragedy of 9/11 has been discussed and conveyed through countless art forms that have both honestly depicted the events and looked at them with a critical eye.
The comic book has played a significant role in this artistic movement, contributing to the multitude of perceptions regarding one of our nation’s greatest tragedies. Comic books have traditionally reflected political events of the time, a choice that is particularly evident in the villainous characters introduced during this time period.
While superheroes typically battle fantastical villains such as The Joker or Poison Ivy, it seems that a new set of villains are causing mayhem — and they don’t have superpowers. Terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda are featured as the foes of beloved characters, or even battle real world leaders. While Hitler has been frequently depicted in comic books, specifically in The Golden Era, these new political allusions feature characters that aren’t just relevant nods, but real figures.
The comic book is a medium that has withstood the test of time, and despite the advent of new technology, it is still relevant today. Comics ask a fervent and pressing question — “What will happen next?” They are unique in their approach, and as comic expert Josh Johns believes, firmly engrained in American culture.
“I attribute success and continued relevance to the characters,” he said. “Comics are, for a large part, the holders of American mythology. These larger-than-life characters are like Roman or Norse god figures; sure, no one worships them in the theological sense, but they create a universe of mythology that we still engross ourselves in to this day.”
Yet while comic books can invoke strong feelings of nostalgia, they are still very much relevant to modern society, particularly in the wake of a national tragedy such as 9/11.
While one unfamiliar with comic books may perceive political influences as detrimental to the fantastical or escapist elements of them, many comic enthusiasts, such as comic expert Michael Jaffe, disagree, and think politics are in fact beneficial to the stories.
“Adding politics and real events give weight to characters … comics have frequently depicted ‘The President’ in their stories with him being the actual president at the time the [comic] book is published,” he said. “While it might be a gimmick … it backs up the story and allows for a world populated by monsters and gods to be much more accessible to the reader.”
Marvel freelance writer Ron Cacace agrees with the use of political discourse, provided that it is appropriate to the story.
“I have no problem with involving politics in comics if it’s done tastefully and fits the story,” he said. “I would say that most mainstream comics should not serve as a soapbox for the writer’s views. Tell the story and involve politics, but don’t just use your distribution medium as a way to blatantly push your views on everyone.”
Yet unlike the use of politics in comic books, reactions to 9/11 imagery are mixed. Generations that have intimately experienced the horrors of 9/11 may not have the same sentiments for a tragedy they weren’t alive for, such as World War II. It is therefore difficult to compare political events from another era, to those that have occurred in our lifetime.
One issue that provoked significant reaction was the 9/11 issue of Marvel’s Spider-Man. Miriam Borden, a former Marvel editorial intern, recounts having a mostly positive reaction to the issue.
“The fact that these superheroes weren’t portrayed in their trademark brightly colored uniforms [really grabbed me],” she said. “They were there, in the background, among the firemen, police officers and medics who were the real focus of the panels. You had to look for them to see them. Thor and the others were simply in the background, blending in among the real heroes of that day. What a remarkably profound moment.”
Jaffe, on the other hand, does not recall a similar state of profundity and perceived the issue with a more critical eye.
“The issue on one hand was very heavy, but it seemed to take away from the impact of real heroes to have Doctor Doom, an international terrorist in the comics, crying at the sight of the twin towers falling,” Jaffe said. “It was a very weird moment to read, and it seemed forced and inauthentic. That was the one case where, rather than adding pathos, the connection to reality seemed ridiculous.”
Even though 10 years have passed, the 9/11 attacks are still very much a subject of controversy across all mediums. Although it is important to support new artistic perspective, we must simultaneously uphold a level of respect for the events on 9/11, not just in memory of the lives that were affected, but because this historic event will continue to shape the lives of our generation.
The artistic contributions we produce will be left as reminders to the generations that follow us, and as a result, we must be mindful of the perceptions we generate.
We could not control what happened to our loved ones, the Pentagon or New York, but we can control how we immortalize this tragedy, and it is up to us to draw the best picture- even if that picture is $3.99 and shrink-wrapped.
Jenni Zellner is a junior English and anthropology major who frequents comic book conventions in extravagant superhero costumes. Email her at jzellne1[at]ithaca.edu.