Kid Stuff

Two comics creators, Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón, have adapted the 9/11 Commission Report into comics form. You can hear them discussing it here with Neal Conan on NPR's "Talk of the Nation" yesterday. NBC News also did a story about it - video here. The project is being serialized on Slate, and it's well worth a look.

Maybe one of these days we'll bring to an end once and for all the idea that comic books are just for kids. Creators and fans have been hammering away at it for years and years now, since Will Eisner's A Contract With God in the mid-'70s. The newsmedia is certainly in no mood to help, though. For their report, NBC collected a soundbite from the daughter of a woman killed on 9/11. Her brilliant insight? "I don't think this is appropriate for children, and I don't see why adults would want to read it."* The situation was little better at NPR. The usually even-handed Neal Conan began his segment, before even introducing Jacobson and Colón, by saying, "The purpose of the project is unclear. The images are too disturbing and the subject matter too dry for children, and adults, well, they can just read the book." Later, during the interview, Conan asked them, "Isn't this dumbing it down?" as if it were the most obvious thing in the world and he expected them to say, "Oh, yeah, we're dumbing it down. Really aiming for the lowest common denominator here."

The 9/11 Report is a heavy tome, densely written and difficult to read. What Jacobson and Colón have done is distill it into a simple, easy to read format. Faces are applied to unfamiliar names and the often nebulous sequence of events is made crystal clear (the timeline of events on the morning of 9/11, beginning here, is especially enlightening) The crucial details are still present. What was dense and impenetrable has been made accessible.

And yet the newsmedia gives us hand-wringing, "Is this appropriate?" and "Isn't this disrespectful?" Both NBC and Conan made a point of taking offense at the inclusion of comic-book sound effects - a RRRRUMBLE! as the first tower collapses, BLAMM! as the jet crashes into the Pentagon. NBC, of course, relies on a higher authority to tell us how wrong this is by bringing in the 9/11 victim's daughter to tell us all how offended she is. Did they wonder about the appropriateness of filmmakers Paul Greengrass and Oliver Stone using the stylistic methods and techniques of cinema in United 93 and World Trade Center?

The creators call what they've done "graphic journalism." I have plenty of problems with the stigma attached to the word "comics" that leads to the creation of terms like "graphic novel" and "graphic journalism," but the term does seem apt. It's no different from Joe Kubert's Fax From Sarajevo or Joe Sacco's innovative non-fiction comics, including Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde. Art Spiegelman won a Pulitzer Prize for Maus, a "graphic novel" and as harrowing a depiction of the Holocaust as Schindler's List - the novel or the movie.

Comics aren't an insult. Comics aren't disrespectful. Comics don't have to be stupid. Comics can be literate, intelligent, clever, thoughtful, emotional, meaningful. They can tell a gripping story, they can have a message. Yes, they can also be silly and as empty as cotton candy. It's a medium, y'all. It's a narrative format capable of telling stories and imparting information, like any other. It's got its own strengths and weaknesses, just like prose, cinema, television, drama... Assuming that comic books are inherently for children is as wrong-headed and arbitrary as declaring that television is only for women, or that prose novels are exclusively for Chinese people. Assuming that adapting the 9/11 Commission Report to comics is stupid or disrespectful because it is the medium of Archie and Scrooge McDuck and Batman just doesn't make sense. They discussed the 9/11 Commission Report extensively on television, the medium of "Fear Factor" and "According to Jim" and "General Hospital." They discussed the 9/11 Commission Report extensively in newspapers, the medium of "Garfield" and Dear Abby and a whole section devoted to grown men being paid millions of dollars to play children's games. The report itself was published as a book, the medium of Danielle Steele and Chicken Soup for the Soul and Harry Potter. In all these cases, not a hand was wrung and, in fact, it wasn't even considered noteworthy.

Enough ranting. Ultimately, respect isn't given, it's earned. And despite what NBC News and National Public Radio would apparently like me to think, I'd like to end this simply by extending my thanks to Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón for taking the medium another step farther on the long, long journey towards the respect it deserves. You guys (I address them as if they'll ever read this) have realized a tremendously difficult project very well indeed, and have handled the resulting tempest-in-a-teacup the media has tried to generate with grace, dignity and aplomb. Nice work, guys.

* I don't remember the exact words here, so I'm paraphrasing.