This post contains spoilers for current Marvel titles back through 2001 and up to the present.
The Daily Bugle crumbles: The fictitious newspaper has been with Spider-Man almost since the character’s inception in 1962. Now its headquarters have been destroyed in an attack by super-villain Electro. And it turns out that the Daily Bugle’s headquarters encompass two towers, twin skyscrapers, right at the heart of New York’s skyline. They can be seen to collapse in a moderately large half-page panel on page 21 of Amazing Spider-Man 614, published December 9, 2009. The image is not altogether unprecedented.
Written by Mark Waid, drawn by Paul Azaceta and colored by Dave Stewart, the issue quite elegantly underplays the reminiscence to 9/11 by never explicitly mentioning the similarity, neither in the narrator’s voice nor through any of the characters, most of whom are citizens of New York and might well be expected to make a connection. This shows that you can crush skyscrapers in a massive KRADDADDO! and still adopt a somewhat quiet tone in doing so, and the attitude is confirmed by the comparatively calm reaction the issue has received from most critics and fans. But in the careful choice of the next image, which I will come to in a minute, it clearly references, and adds its quiet commentary to, Spider-Man‘s own version of September 11th.
One of the very first comprehensive reactions to 9/11 in popular storytelling, Joe M. Straczynski’s and John Romita Jr.’s celebrated “Black Issue” of Amazing Spider-Man from the fall of 2001 is a tribute to the event, its victims, its heroes, and not least its imagery. That issue is filled with enormous macropanels showing the World Trade Center’s ruins towering high above the small super-heroes, whose bodies are mostly passive and whose faces are mostly turned away from the reader, evading their gaze. And while the collapsed ruins are ubiquitous, an image of the collapse happening is avoided. A first-person narration by Peter Parker discusses the inconceivability of the event, and the heroes’ inability to prevent it. The mourning crowd also includes super-villains, among them Doom, who has in the past destroyed whole planets, but finds himself moved to tears on this day:
“Because even the worst of us, however scarred, are still human. Still feel. Still mourn the random death of innocents.”
The scale of the event in his perception, and in the targeted reader’s mind, is informed by the reality of the reference, which goes beyond Spider-Man’s fictional universe and thus beyond Doom’s conception of his world. This is one of several interesting devices that underscore an interpretation of 9/11 that considers the attacks themselves a suspension of symbolic orders and an interruption of the real even in our own universe. Following the issue’s solid black cover, the first page is again almost completely black, with a text box in its middle repeating that exceptional reach beyond the series’ common reference and aesthetics:
“We interrupt our regularly scheduled program to bring you the following Special Bulletin.”
It is this black page that the recent issue quotes right after we see the Daily Bugle fall:
With so obvious a quote, this page presents an answer to the sight of destruction as well as a remote echo to the Black Issue. Rather than an interrupting text, the centre of the black page holds previous Bugle owner J.J. Jameson’s direct gaze, sadly contemplating the ruin of his life’s work. As similar as this page is to the beginning of the Black Issue, it is its direct opposite in several crucial ways: It showcases a comic book character’s face rather than a text, it shows that character’s face from the frontal perspective mostly evaded for the heroes in the Black Issue, and it continues a story rather than interrupting it, not least by the dynamic background scene. Perhaps the most subtle and effective difference lies in the fact that Jameson is neither an established hero nor a purely evil villain beckoning a teary conversion, but a much more complex character: Spider-Man’s antagonist and yet a proponent of the civil rights movement back in the 60s’, an egomaniac and yet an often respectable fighter for a free press.
Instead of avoiding an image of the collapse and the comic characters’ gaze, the two are directly confronted in the panel sequence. This page presents not an unimaginable interruption of comics’ common imagery, then, but rather a confident demonstration that the image of the falling towers is now reintegrated into the art’s repository of motifs. An end point, perhaps, to a long struggle in Marvel comics over the last few years to cope with 9/11 in repeated retellings, allegories, allusions and references (which I’ve written about at greater length elsewhere). The falling twin towers can now be drawn, and they’re included as one story element among the super-hero comics’ many scenes of havoc. The same tendency seems to mark some of the aesthetic choices in the Siege storyline that has just begun; it will be interesting to see where this chapter of the Marvel universe’s story will leave the images of 9/11 once it’s finished playing with them. That it can allow itself that play is definitely good news.