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Comic Book Authors Go Back to the Drawing Board

On the evening of Monday, September 10, comic book author John Barber was composing the next installment of an online comic strip set in Manhattan, "New York" (www.johnbarbercomics.com), a city he visited for the first time earlier this year.

Barber’s story concerns a character ("the kid") whose behavior oscillates mysteriously between heroism and violence. Although apparently located in contemporary New York, the story alludes to oracles, prophecies, vampires, and fables; and the action takes shifts from subway train carriages and streets — to distant psychological landscapes. A stand-up comedian – we presume it’s the kid, although in Barber’s New York nothing is entirely certain – begins a comic riff about the TV show "Friends," but then spins off, incomprehensibly, into dark revenge fantasies. The city, in Barber’s vision, is a place where "you can find anything … provided you’re not looking for it." The story, and the inventive visual presentation, hint at a meaning which always feels just a little out of reach, as if one more scrap of evidence, one more clue, could somehow make sense of the fragmentary narrative.

As Barber sat in his San Diego home that Monday night, thinking of the episode which he intended to create the next day, he pondered the kid’s future character development. The kid had suffered some form of personal trauma at an early age, Barber decided, leaving him painfully conflicted between a need to improve the world and a sense of helpless rage. The conflict, and the primal trauma, would remain implicit and ambiguous, left to the reader’s imagination. Barber concluded that there was no need to explain why the kid swung so mysteriously from altruism to anger; he was just like that. "New York" was just like that.

On the morning of Tuesday, September 11, Barber awoke to hear the news of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. He lay in bed motionless for an hour, stunned. "I literally couldn’t move," he said. "Every aspect of the events was completely unbelievable. I never imagined this could happen." For the next few days, Barber couldn’t work. The idea of creating comic books felt trivial, frivolous, almost — decadent. He wasn’t a rescue-worker or a fireman or a counselor, he was a comic book artist, and staring at the disaster on television, he felt powerless to help.

But by the weekend, Barber began to feel that he should be doing something. He felt that he had to find a way of reflecting the catastrophe in his work. "I couldn’t wait for a two-week grace period to go by and then just go back to the series without commenting on what had happened." On the Sunday following the attack, Barber saw an article in the L.A. Times about the violent reprisals against Arab-Americans which had taken place in the Los Angeles area that week. It angered him "to think of the idea of more innocent people being hurt," the artist said, so he created the next episode of "New York" on the idea of hatred. In the episode, Barber reveals that the story’s action takes place in the future, and that his main character witnessed the collapse of the World Trade Center as a child.

The kid’s early trauma was public and historical as much as personal, and his behavior — until then ambiguous, vacillating between heroism and rage — was now less ambiguous. "He’s a character who wants to do good, but who hurts other people," says Barber, who believes that his character’s moral conflict reflects the current political and culture climate of ethnic reprisals against Arab-Americans, and the coming military retaliation by the United States in Afghanistan.

After posting his new episode, Barber heard from friend and fellow comic book artist Jason Powers, who spent three days in the wake of the tragedy creating an online tribute to the tragedy (www.deafdate.com). Powers intends to devote his site to the tribute, which features a photomontage of the events in New York entitled, "Can’t Cry Hard Enough." "I felt compelled to do something," Powers comments in a message on the site, which has received 100,000 hits. "So, I did what artists do with their emotions and energy: create."

Like Barber, Scott McCloud, author of "Reinventing Comics" and the creator of several acclaimed online comic strips, has found a certain psychological solace in simply continuing with his work. On the morning of September 11, he was preparing to post the latest installment of a daily strip called "The Morning Improv" (www.scottmccloud.com), featuring a character that had been killed by a "desert god." A grief-stricken speech bubble reads: "Stupid, stupid, desert god." It occurred to McCloud that the phrase could be construed, by some readers, as an inappropriate reference to the terrorists. However, McCloud decided to post the cartoon anyway. "On the larger scale, comic books are trivial," he says. "But this was my own, tiny act of defiance."

McCloud suggests that the comic book industry will reflect the events of September 11 in a variety of ways. "There will be some genuine, thoughtful tributes. There will be some mawkish, sentimental reactions. And some will take advantage." He adds as a note of caution: "the line will not always be clear." Marvel Comics (www.marvel.com), many of whose comic strips are located in New York, will probably have to reflect the events directly, McCloud predicts. Marvel is supporting a fund-raising campaign for the American Red Cross using its Captain America character.

In a slowing economy, the future of the comic book industry remains uncertain, but Barber believes that like other art-forms, comic books will play an important role in helping to redefine America’s sense of identity in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. Fantasy is a crucial element of our psychological lives, but the form of that fantasy is now likely to take different shapes. Independence Day-style apocalypse scenarios will sharply decline in popularity, Barber predicts.

And now that the Unites States’ sense of security and global pre-eminence has been assaulted so traumatically, even Captain America’s role may now need to change. "After the attacks, I read something on a comic books message board to the effect, "I wish there were real-life superheroes,’ and I got really annoyed," says Barber, who thinks that future comic book fantasies may feature more altruistic superheroes. Grant Morrison’s new "X-Men" series (created several months before the attacks), is one possible prototype, he says. "It’s set in a world where a horrible tragedy has happened. The world has changed, and it’s the job of superheroes to try and make it better."

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