Friendly Ghosts

Sid Jacobson, writer of comic books such as Casper the Friendly Ghost and Richie Rich, died on July 23rd; his obituary ran in The New York Times today, under Olivia Newton-John’s. He was also the writer of The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation, a book I gave a talk about fifteen years ago that I am graphically adapting for my blog today because I returned to it this morning after seeing the obituary and thought that, in spite of its many flaws, it might have a couple of useful things to say to us today. (Offered with apologies to Sid Jacobson and the late illustrator Ernie Colón, who were just doing their jobs, and to whomever is offended by egregious violations of copyright law).

No Alternative: The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation and the False Promise of Genre (MLA 2007, Chicago)

“A comic book about what?” In 1986, when the first volume of Art Spiegelman’s Maus brought alternative comics and longer graphic narrative to the attention of a broader public, this was the question asked first and loudest. A comic book about the Holocaust? Others followed: Jews as mice? Nazis as cats? Will anyone be wearing a cape? The same kind of response met Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón’s 2006 The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation (which I’ll refer to as the Adaptation) when it was published last August. A comic book about 9/11? But for many, especially in the academy, in particular those in English departments, Maus had taken care of that response. The intervening decades had seen not only the critical and pedagogical canonization of Maus but also the appearance of works by many graphic narrative writer/artists who took on history, the political, and other topics once not thought of as comics material (including, in 2004, one about 9/11, Spiegelman’s own In the Shadow of No Towers, about which Dana will have much more to say). I mention this because with the adjustment in generic expectations came another assumption: that longer graphic narratives were subversive, that they were outside the mainstream in their ideological orientation, that they were alternative or oppositional. In their introduction to the 2006 special issue of Modern Fiction Studies dedicated to graphic narrative, Marianne DeKoven and Hilary Chute see the alternative in the very essence of the form. They argue that graphic narrative “always refuses a problematic transparency, through an explicit awareness of its own surfaces,” that it can take on “complex political and historical issues with an explicit, formal degree of self-awareness.” In this same issue Gillian Whitlock, citing Spiegelman’s Towers as a prime example, writes that comics “can free us to ‘imagine differently’ in a time of violence and censorship.” Kristiaan Versluys, writing elsewhere about the same text, calls it a “counter-narrative.”

Graphic narrative is often seen as alternative, I think, partly because it is true of many of its best examples and partly because these are the kinds of things many of us (and I include myself) like to find in the works we study. I mention this now not because it is true of the Adaptation, which could only be more official if Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton, Chair and Vice Chair of the 9/11 Commission, had not just written the foreword but had also written and drawn the entire book themselves. However, the moment of generic confusion that happens to graphic-narrative familiar readers when they first encounter the Adaptation—knowing it’s an adaptation of a government report yet somehow still expecting subversiveness—can be a productive moment. While the Adaptation offers no alternative, reading it with an eye opened to questions of genre can help us think about the ways in which this work, also a representative of the genre of historical narrative, is, like its source, a narrative whose shape is heavily influenced by another genre, the unofficial but dominant narrative of national history. In the next few minutes I will argue that by laying it out in condensed and graphic form, the Adaptation lets us more easily see how the story of 9/11 as it appears in The 9/11 Commission Report (which I will refer to simply as the Report) and in many other texts and other media has been made to fit into the story the nation likes to tell itself about itself.

As Hayden White and others have argued, history is always just a narrative. The historian takes her material—“facts”—and then has to, in White’s words, “choose, sever and carve them up” in order to create a story. The choices made in American historical narratives are often shaped by a larger national narrative about victoriousness and righteousness, what’s been called the triumphalist narrative, which, when faced with experiences and deeds that don’t fit that storyline, elides them in the interest of maintaining itself. (To see what is indicated by the triumphalist narrative, think of what James Berger in After the End argues is opposed to it, the traumatic, which does not leave out those moments of defeat and violence and thus is truer, if less comforting.) Individual historical narratives that have a wide audience can have a wide impact on the health of the larger triumphalist narrative, and the 9/11 stories have been widely disseminated: in addition to the free version downloadable from the Internet, the Norton version of the Report (there were also at least two others, from Dunne mass market and Public Affairs) sold, according to Publishers’ Weekly, 1.43 million copies in 2004, the year of its publication. According to someone at Farrar Straus & Giroux, the Adaptation has had over 100,000 combined hard and soft cover sales; in addition, the online magazine Slate put the entire book up on its site.

In their foreword to the Adaptation, Kean and Hamilton say their purpose in the Report was “not only to inform our fellow citizens about history but also to energize and engage them on behalf of reform and change, to make our country safer and more secure.” It is not the case, despite their good intentions, that they succeeded in doing this. The Adaptation, five times shorter than the Report, condenses and simplifies, but does not stray from its parent text. The chapters, narrative line, and most of the words come directly from the Report. The end result of what is by all indications a sincere attempt to put the commission’s conclusions before a wider audience through the use of graphic narrative is, unfortunately, an intensification of its failure to inform about the past; however, I believe, again, that this intensification helps us to see the triumphalist narrative at work in it and in histories like it. 

As Benjamin DeMott wrote in Harper’s shortly after the Report appeared, it “had to be the real thing,” weighing in as it did at 567 pp, with 100+ pages of footnotes and the U.S. Seal on the cover, the product of massive research, including over 2.5 million pages of documents, public testimony from 160 witnesses, interviews of 1200 people in ten countries, all gathered and written up over a period of 20 months with a staff of nearly 80. Despite this access and this effort, though, the Report is hamstrung by a fear of the appearance of bias. In DeMott’s words: “In the course of blaming everybody a little, the Commission blames nobody—blurs the reasons for the actions and hesitations of successive administrations, masks choices that, fearlessly defined, might actually have vitalized our public political discourse.” Instead, he continues, “Issues of commitment and responsibility are time and again reconfigured as matters of opinion, or as puzzles of memory, or as pointlessly distracting ‘partisan’ squabbles.”

This refusal to blame and desire to spread responsibility around for things not done marks the entire Report. One of the more important examples of the refusal to blame is that concerning the now-famous August 6 Presidential Daily Briefing, or PDB. When interviewed in April 2004, Bush said he didn’t know terrorists were in the U.S.. This was a lie, as numerous officials’ testimony indicated. When Bush asserted in his testimony that the August 6 PDB, with the famous section unambiguously titled “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in U.S.,” was “historical” in nature, he was also lying, and the Report glosses over this moment, missing the opportunity to plainly state what the briefing actually said and to point out the discrepancy.

Other examples include the refusal to challenge the president’s explanation for his remaining in the classroom he was visiting for seven minutes after having learned of the first plane—he is reported to have said he “felt he should project strength and calm until he could better understand what was happening”—or to challenge the White House obfuscations about the Vice President’s decision to issue the shoot-down order he was not empowered to make (which Scooter Libby described Cheney making “in about the time it takes a batter to decide to swing”—and he meant this as a compliment). The desire to spread responsibility around, regardless of facts and historical context, also results in the attempt to apportion blame equally between the Clinton and Bush administrations, which, as countless analysts point out, is inaccurate, as it ignores the difference between the historical contexts, in particular the opportunities which presented themselves to the Bush administration and did not present themselves to Clinton’s.

The Adaptation shares these faults of the Report, and its visuals reinforce them. some examples:

Of withheld judgment: “memories differ” about what was said about Bin Laden during the Clinton-Bush transition. Below, a few of the weird image-of-probity-and-unanimity drawings of the Commission
An image of the Report itself, surrounded by boxes which are not dialogue boxes but could be, as if the Report itself were talking; below, the Commission talking but determined to refuse active voice or agency

Refusals to come to conclusions about responsibility (which sometimes appear under the heading “conclusions”) appear next to tricky but outright evasion and more subtle forms of attention-deflection. Practically buried in the narrative, in two small boxes, is a semi-conclusion about a large matter, the Atta trip to Prague to meet with an Iraqi intelligence officer, which concludes that it didn’t happen while avoiding mention of who “alleged” that it occurred in the first place or any discussion of why it would have been alleged.

Even more subtle is the lack of visual interest in the two panels devoted to Bush’s self-serving and dishonest testimony about the August 6 briefing. The August 6 Report wasn’t historical in nature; that he said he did not recall discussing it doesn’t mean he didn’t; he had been advised that there was a cell and he hadn’t done anything. It’s worth noting that the murkiness of the language is the result of the White House insisting there be no direct transcription if Bush and Cheney were to testify.

These aspects of the Report and Adaptation can be explained, in part, as due to White House attempts to undercut the commission’s work by asserting that some of its members—Democrats—were partisan. There was also a campaign to discredit Richard Clarke, as well as other critics. Beyond these attempts and the commission’s being in a difficult position from the start, having to fight with the administration over who would appear, and how, over funding, over time, was the commission’s desire for unanimity. Elizabeth Drew reported on this desire, writing: “The main partisan division within the commission, I was told, was over how hard to press the White House for information that it was holding back. In its effort to achieve a unanimous, bipartisan report, the commission decided not to assign ‘individual blame’ and avoided overt criticism of the President himself.” The upshot of all this was, in DeMott’s words, that the commission’s report “can’t call a liar a liar.”

But these failures can also be understood as the result of the influence of the triumphalist narrative on this history’s construction. This influence can be traced throughout the Adaptation, even from its cover’s inclusion, next to the title, of the image of the fireman with his hand over his face, an echo of the popular desire to find heroes, evident in the way people called the office workers who died in the Towers “heroes.”

It can be seen even in the most visually striking and in some ways least problematic sections of the Adaptation, the twenty-page timeline following the four flights on the morning of September 11 and the closely following six-page timeline showing when various agencies on the ground knew what was happening. Set against a black background, tracking the relentless forward movement of time toward four conclusions we already know about—and doing it twice—the timelines offer a textbook example of graphic narrative’s ability to spatialize time.

Already evident, however, is the triumphalist influence, in elements which emphasize the superhero story roots of graphic narrative, including cartoonish rendering of sinister, swarthy bad guys and use of sound renderings.

But more important than the demonized enemy element of the superhero genre influence (an influence which is more relevant to what we actually get in the Adaptation than the alternative comic or subversive graphic narrative) is this emphasis on the heroic. In addition to the cowboys and Indian language of some of the reproduced testimony, we get Bush as head cowboy. It’s everywhere, but you can see it here, in the heroic clenched fists (especially in contrast to Clarke) and bomber jacket; note also the progression down the page from Congress to Bush to soldiers, presenting the military action as the will of the people.

The heroic self-image central to what Tom Engelhardt calls “victory culture” is evident in these moments from the Adaptation. What this comic-book version of the Report makes plain (with apologies to more sophisticated graphic narratives and those who love them) is the comic-book quality of the triumphalist narrative. The infantilizing two-dimensionality of the worldview insisted upon by American triumphalism is too flat for dissent or complexity. Its influence on historical narratives of  9/11 cannot be overstated. This influence can be seen in the cover’s fireman even more than in the rancor toward those who tried to understand the enemy, such as Susan Sontag or Bill Maher, a rancor driven by what Joan Didion (in her short book Fixed Ideas: America Since 9/11) calls a “belligerent idealization of historical ignorance.” Triumphalism must have “evildoers,” but it needs heroes more, and complicated accounts blaming our own are not welcome.  The reason it needs heroes more is evident in an image in the section on commission recommendations towards the end of the Adaptation.

This nightmare, the smoking gun that could turn out to be a mushroom cloud, as the president’s men and women argued in the run-up to war, is an old nightmare and, as Paul Boyer and others have demonstrated, a powerful cultural force. The sense of vulnerability awakened since our use of the atomic bomb is at the heart of post-45 triumphalism. And it is also key to our reaction to 9/11, as Engelhardt argues in a recent essay, because the image of the towers’ destruction resembled our imaginations of nuclear apocalypse. Pointing to the immediate references to Pearl Harbor and nuclear winter, the naming of the World Trade Center site “ground zero,” and the discrepancy in reactions to events at that site and to those at the less apocalyptic-seeming Pentagon, Engelhardt argues that the histories constructed of that day and of what led to it would have been very different (as would events since) if unconscious fears of the nation’s vulnerability had not been so played upon by the visual impact of the Towers’ collapse.

Note the vision of the end at “The End”

Reading histories right—that is, reading accounts of the past critically—requires attention to the larger narratives informing those accounts, sensitivity to the fantasy stories and nightmare visions that shape them. If you’ll pardon the pun—and I’m not sure I would—the Adaptation is a good illustration of this necessity.