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Comic book veterans take on 9-11 

BBC / Richard Allen Greene | August 30 2006

Five years after the attacks on New York and Washington, and two years after the 9/11 Report detailing it became a surprise bestseller, the events of 11 September 2001 are being put before the public again - this time as a comic book.

On the face of it, the 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation looks much like a super-hero comic - significantly thicker, and published on high-quality paper, but in a visual and storytelling style that will be familiar to anyone who grew up reading Superman or Spiderman.

That is no coincidence.

The two men behind the adaptation, writer Sid Jacobson and artist Ernie Colon, are grand old men of the genre who have held top positions at both of America's mainstream super-hero comic book houses, DC and Marvel.

The effect is initially jarring.

If many Americans were not ready to see the struggle aboard Flight 93 turned into a film, or were doubtful about Nicolas Cage playing a police officer trapped in the World Trade Center in an Oliver Stone movie, how much more upsetting it must be to see a plane slam into the Pentagon with a traditional comic-book "BLAMM!".

Flight into nothingness

But there will be rewards for those willing to give a chance to the 9/11 report rendered as a comic book - or graphic adaptation, as its highbrow literary publisher Hill and Wang calls it.

Jacobson and Colon say they were struck by the idea that the narrative would lend itself to their style of storytelling, and in some respects they were right.

The first chapter, ominously titled "We have some planes..." lays out events on the four hijacked planes in timelines stacked one of top of the other, allowing readers to compare what was happening minute by minute on each flight.

The format brings home the heart-wrenching fact that United 93 - the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania when the passengers fought back - did not take off until after it was known that at least one plane had been hijacked.

Moments later, Flight 11 hit the World Trade Center.

Just below it, in Colon's drawings, American Airlines 77 transmits its last routine radio communication and turns and flies off into blackness.

Forty-six minutes later, it hit the Pentagon.

Failures of imagination

Jacobson and Colon take full advantage of the graphic-novel form to depict the chaos that followed in the corridors of power as airlines, safety officials and government leaders struggle to understand what is happening and how to respond.

And their chapter on the rescue operation is absolutely gripping. Here, the super-hero style of illustration truly comes into its own.

But - like the 9/11 report, whose chair and vice-chair wrote an introduction commending the adaptation - the story begins to bog down when it gets away from the terrible events of the day itself.

The report accused US anti-terrorism experts of a failure of imagination - a charge that could be levelled at Jacobson and Colon.

They handle the challenge of portraying narrative events well enough - though Colon clearly worked from a fairly small number of photos, some of them taken well after the events depicted.

But when it comes to finding a graphic idiom for the recommendations of the 9/11 report, they fail - several times floating the proposals around pictures of the commissioners themselves, and once simply reproducing the cover of the report.

There are a few lovely artistic touches, such as an almost Warholesque image of rueful anti-terrorism adviser Richard Clarke - the Cassandra of 9/11.

But there are also some inappropriate moments, such as a line-up of suspected terrorists arrested in Jordan that recalls the iconic poster for the film The Usual Suspects.

Depicting the unknowable

Jacobson and Colon have taken on a task of extraordinary difficulty, but not an impossible one.

Even the most unspeakable of human experiences can be portrayed in graphic novels.

The man credited with inventing the form, Will Eisner, traced the history of the anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in his beautiful, thoughtful last work, The Plot, published last year.

Art Spiegelman won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for his searing graphic novel Maus, recounting his father's experiences in the Holocaust.

Spiegelman himself has already done a 9/11 book - the nightmarish, hallucinogenic In The Shadow of No Towers, in which he wrestles with his own memories of being in lower Manhattan when the planes hit.

Spiegelman's 9/11 work tears apart the illustrator's ordinary visual language. The glowing skeleton of the World Trade Center hovers over characters that seem drawn from the early days of newspaper cartoons a century ago.

Jacobson and Colon do not match that inventiveness - nor, perhaps, would it have been wise to, since Spiegelman's work was met with bafflement and hostility in America, while the 9/11 report adapters are aiming for a wide audience.

They are reportedly planning a sequel about the Bush administration's war on terror.

With their 9/11 Report, they have set a reasonably high standard. If they can improve upon it in their next work, it should be an impressive piece indeed.

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