Thursday, July 14, 2011

Comics for Causes: 9-11 Emergency Relief

In a Time editorial from December, 2010, James Poniewozic protested how the tickers cable news programs started running on September 11, 2001 continued ever since. While I agreed with the general sentiment, one quote stuck in my craw. "To remove the ticker, after all, would be to say life had gone back to normal," he wrote, "to reject the national shibboleth that everything had changed."

For a nation that hadn't seen an attack on its soil since the Pearl Harbor bombing, for a generation that witnessed with joy and optimism the end of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race, and especially for the thousands of families directly affected, "everything had changed" isn't just some shibboleth, some slogan, some litmus test of political loyalty. For them, there's no normal to go back to. There's only a new normal to which they have to adjust. That everything had changed is a harsh, grim reality.

A day after the death of Osama bin Laden was reported, a reporter asked a New York firefighter if the news brought him closure. He struggled as he said- with a greater show of composure than I felt- that "closure" was a horrible word. I wondered, loudly yelling at the TV, at the sheer insensitivity of asking a man who lost 343 brothers in one day about "closure." This and the relatively quiet, subdued, solemn reaction from other firefighters I've known clued me in to another fact that I've seen the media gloss over. Even as we've adjusted to our new normal, whatever it may be, the memories and feelings of 9-11 are still very raw.

And the response to 9-11 goes on- not just the war in Afghanistan, but the desire to do something positive to help a nation not so much get back to normal as to just simply heal. The 9-11 National Day of Service and Remembrance is one ongoing example. One of the first efforts from the comic book/cartooning industry came from Alternative Comics in early 2002 with over eighty creators on board to benefit the American Red Cross.

9-11 Emergency Relief includes work ranging from some really big, famous shameless-name-drop longtime industry pros (among them Will Eisner and the late, great Harvey Pekar) to no less impressive but lesser known talents of the small press and underground scenes. Their contributions range from reminisces along the line of "I remember exactly where I was when such-and-such happened" and an account of their reactions, to accounts from people who actually were there, to pure visceral outpourings of emotion.

I will get the one minor nitpick out of the way now. I noted that the term "cartoonist" was used to describe comic book artists, without noting the distinction. While some can do both cartooning and comic book art, the two are not interchangeable. Not all cartoonists can cut it as comic book artists, and not all comic book artists can do cartoons. But since I noted the inclusion of both cartoonists and comic book artists in this anthology, I could give the wildly varying styles and quality of art a pass. It's what I would expect when cartoonists and comic book pros get together. Besides, the whole point are the stories. A good enough story is a good story, and good art is icing on the cake. And the stories are so numerous and all so gripping that I really can only cover the highlight.

The one story that consistently stands out every time I read the book is "Treasure" by Gregory Benton, who shares the account of one family trying to help out a neighboring family by babysitting their youngest child. The little boy doesn't yet understand the gravity of the situation or quite why everyone's being so nice to him. He even receives a gift of a decorated cardboard treasure box, which he says proudly he'll show his mother, and brother, and, to quote, "When my Dad gets home, I'm going to show him, too."

His father was a New York firefighter.

I'm not ashamed to admit that I bawl like a baby every time I read that.

Those of you who have read this book, please share what story stood out most to you. Those of you who haven't read it, I highly recommend you do so. You can order it here by clicking the Amazon button, or you can request it through your local comic book retailer.

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