The Brave and the Bold

On Sept. 11, the world needed superheroes. They found them not in comic books, but in real life.

"We're part of one big comic-book family," says Bill Rosemann, Marvel's marketing communications manager. "I think a struggle people in the industry were facing was: 'How can I help out? All I can do is make comics. We can't operate heavy machinery. We don't have health-care skills. What can we do?' Maybe we can entertain someone and take their mind off the horror. Maybe children can even see a good example of the heroic things to do -- what good exists in relation to such evil. But we're surrounded by brightly clad crime-fighters every day. When this was happening, people said, 'Wouldn't it be cool if we had superheroes?' and we looked at each other and said, 'We do -- firemen and police officers.' They wear costumes and do heroic deeds of action and phenomenal sacrifice."

Since Sept. 11, the entirety of the entertainment industry has grappled with how to reconcile its power and disposability. Actors who insist they feel useless, if not downright irrelevant, turn out by the dozens on telethons to raise millions for relief efforts. Musicians bury their egos and collaborate on benefit albums; artists forgive old grudges and team up for projects such as Heroes. And, for a moment, they feel valuable, necessary. But once the coffers are full and the dead are buried, they will return to the industry of entertaining. Only, they wonder, how can they get back to business as usual?

Comic books, especially, have long profited off the destruction of cities, if not entire planets; it's easy to blow up all of Manhattan with pen and ink. It costs nothing -- not money, not lives. The history of the medium is littered with examples: In a 1945 comic called The Duke of Broadway, Joe Simon, the creator of Captain America, annihilated all of Manhattan. In the story "My City Is No More," the borough was laid waste by the accidental detonation of an atomic bomb; its buildings were reduced to rubble, its streets pulverized into dust, its inhabitants turned to ghosts.

"I destroyed New York once," says Simon, who lives in Manhattan. "But, my God, you don't think some lunatic's gonna come around and really do it. It's beyond all comprehension."

Forty-two years later, Scott McCloud abolished the entirety of the Manhattan skyline, bit by agonizing bit, beginning with Wall Street and the World Trade Center. He worked his way north, obliterating Washington Square Park, the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Plaza, Grand Central Station, the Chrysler Building … all of it, ground into a wretched, twisted heap of smoke and devastation. McCloud insisted it was all in good fun: "meaningless, overblown violence, mayhem and destruction," were the exact words on the cover of Three Dimensional Destroy!!! in 1987. And the very week of the attacks on New York and Washington, DC Comics published an issue of Adventures of Superman in which Lex Luthor's Metropolis headquarters -- the LexCorp building, looking exactly like the WTC -- were depicted as smoldering tombstones jutting out of the landscape. The image was prophetic and eerie -- a two-dimensional snapshot of what television was revealing as three-dimensional atrocity.

Around the Manhattan offices of Marvel and DC, editors have been meeting since Sept. 11 to discuss just how their medium will react to such real-life horror. They wonder if they will ever again be able to blow up a building without conjuring still-fresh memories and grief. Even as their film and television counterparts hold and edit moving pictures dealing with mass destruction and terrorism, comic-book companies likewise postpone releases. DC is holding up publication of a paperback that will collect several issues of Goddess, in which skyscrapers are destroyed and airliners are crashed. The company is also delaying release of The Authority: Widescreen, in which a huge section of Manhattan is devastated, forcing costumed heroes to search the debris for survivors.

"It's just not appropriate to put [those titles] out while people are reacting," Levitz says. "You don't want to add to anyone's nightmares." At Marvel, Quesada has postponed publication of at least one title that deals with the Middle East and domestic terrorism, and one writer has asked that the World Trade Center be removed from a forthcoming book; the author wants the Twin Towers "conspicuous in their absence," the editor says. Quesada also says that scripts submitted for the relaunching of the Captain America title, which will feature a new creative team, have been scrapped at the writer's request. But Marvel will also be the first company to deal directly with the attacks: Amazing Spider-Man writer J. Michael Straczynski says Marvel asked him to write a story about the bombings because Spider-Man is a native New Yorker. (Indeed, most of Marvel's action takes place in Manhattan, not the thinly veiled Gotham City or Metropolis of DC.) He penned his story in 24 hours. "The whole thing is one lengthy meditation on the tragedy," Straczynski explained last week in an Internet posting.

"Look, the entertainment business does what it does, and Marvel's in the entertainment business," Quesada says. "But I feel that we have the ability to tell some very poignant stories and to lead by example." In a post-Sept. 11 world, even the phrase, "Look, up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane!" sounds different; its awe has been replaced by shock and revulsion. The sense of escapism comic books have provided no longer exists; the fantasy world must give way to the real one. And give the comics industry credit: Unlike many film and TV executives who peddle violence as cheap thrills, then bury their heads when journalists come looking for comments about the effects Sept. 11 will have on their respective industries, comicdom's top names have engaged in open debate on the subject.

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