The Magazine

Comic Relief

From the May 31, 2004 issue: Jonathan V. Last, comics collector.

May 31, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 36 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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LIKE MOST BOYS, I was a comics fan. Everyone has favorite superheroes, and mine were garden-variety: Batman, the Flash, Superman.

I wasn't a sophisticated reader. I didn't go in for the civil rights allegories (like X-Men), and I wasn't much interested in seeing my heroes tackle social issues in the manner of the Green Arrow. I was happiest when they were going after super-villains bent on world domination. I was the type of kid who loved the Justice League of America--until 1984, when they kicked out Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Green Lantern, and Hawkman and replaced them with a 14-year-old Gypsy girl, an African-American model, and a break-dancing Latino gang-banger. Only 10 years old at the time, I didn't know what political correctness was, but I knew that I wanted my Justice League fighting Lex Luthor, not settling gang disputes in Detroit and unseating corrupt African dictators.

Nonetheless, I was into comics pretty deep, with a couple thousand issues safeguarded in little plastic bags with acid-free cardboard backing. The last vestige of my collecting days is a clock made from the cover of Teen Titans #36, which hangs in my office. You should see the looks I get from management.

A few weeks ago I came across a comic book called 9-11 September 11th 2001: The World's Finest Comic Book Writers and Artists Tell Stories to Remember. It's a collection of 74 short comics put out after September 11 by publishing giant DC Comics.

Some of the entries are merely dopey, jazz-age one-worldism. In a strip set in the year 3258, a mother visiting the 9/11 memorial in New York with her child explains, "After the attack, the world changed. People realized that the old ways of country against country and culture against culture could no longer apply. They accomplished what governments never could--they united the world."

Mind you, the 9/11 hijackers believed in a "united" world. Yet to many of the comics writers, unity is an end in itself. An entry from comic legend Marv Wolfman ends with a piece of parchment, on which is written not the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, but the preamble to the U.N. charter.

In another strip, titled "Spirit," the ghosts of Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, Shaka Zulu, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, and Golda Meir gather in a conference room to debate the morality of war. They are brought to agreement by a nugget of wisdom from the Koran.

Other entries explore the root causes of terrorism. "We spread the gasoline, they dropped the match," says one wizened character. (DC wasn't the only comic-book publisher to address the terrorist attacks. Marvel's Amazing Spider-Man devoted one of its first post-9/11 issues to the subject. In it, Spider-Man asks, "What do we tell the children? . . . Perhaps we tell them that we are sorry. . . . That our eagerness to shout is not the equal of our willingness to listen. That the burdens of distant people are the responsibility of all men and women of conscience, or their burdens will one day become our tragedy.")

Still other items in the anthology ignore the terrorists and focus on the shortcomings of Americans. "A Burning Hate" makes an object lesson of kids on a playground who pick a fight with their Pakistani playmates, whom they blame for 9/11.

Worse is Dwayne McDuffie's entry, "Static Shock," where a group of multicultural youths are eating lunch at a diner run by a Muslim named Mr. Akkad. White hooligans waving an American flag and chanting "U-S-A" burst in and demolish the restaurant. One pulls a gun and tries to kill the kindly Mr. Akkad. A bystander says, "Great. Pearl Harbor yesterday, Kristallnacht today."

Of course there was no American Kristallnacht. Islamic interest groups have peddled the notion of surging hate crimes, but in the 32 months since 9/11, the Department of Justice has received only 560 reports of backlash crimes, leading to 138 state and federal prosecutions. Of these, only a tiny percentage were violent crimes. Deplorable, every one. But in a nation of 260 million people? Not bad.

Parts of September 11th 2001 were a little less dreary. Sam Glanzman's story worried that America would wait to confront the terrorist evil until it was too late. Michael Moorcock wrote about 1940s England. Both Glanzman and Moorcock saw World War II up close--Glanzman in the U.S. Navy and Moorcock as a young boy with a worm's-eye view of the blitz.

In those days the industry's patriotism produced jingoistic comics with titles like "The Terror of the Slimy Japs" and "The Slant Eye of Satan." I suppose today's comics are progress, of a sort.

--Jonathan V. Last