Monday, September 11, 2006

Graphic Lit: The 9/11 Report

The arrival of “The 9/11 Report,” a graphic adaptation of “The 9/11 Commission Report,” has caused a bit of a kerfluffle among some conservative pundits, who seem to be affronted by the notion that such a serious subject could be treated with delicacy in the comics medium.

It’s a ridiculous concern, of course. If anything, comics make excellent teaching tools. They are able to impart complex, detailed information in an easy-to-read, narrative format (and if you don’t believe me, check out the safety placard in your airplane the next time you take a flight).

No, the question is not whether “The 9/11 Commission Report” could be successfully adapted into comics. Of course it could. The question is, have the authors managed to do so?

For the most part, yes. Writer Sid Jacobson and artist Ernie Colon do a commendable job of condensing and illustrating the commission’s report.

“I had known so many people who had tried reading [the 9/11 report] and could not get through it. It was too difficult for laymen,” Jacobson said from his home in Los Angeles. “Our feeling was we can make it easier and more accessible to all readers.”

“I’ve always felt comics can show more precisely what’s there than a photograph. A photograph can be blurry.”

Though dense at times, the book lays out in detailed fashion how the September attacks occurred and where the government failed to prevent them, covering many decades, countries and characters while doing so. To their credit, I never felt as though I couldn’t follow the story or be confused as to who was who.

The best example is the opening timeline, which shows in horizontal strips across the page how the attack went forward. In strict prose, it would be much more difficult to keep track of the different planes and times.

Which is not to say this is a perfect adaptation. At times, I’d trip on one of Colon’s overlapping layouts, and have trouble figuring out the order of the panels, only to have to start reading over again from the top.

There’s a more troublesome aspect to the book, however, that goes beyond the occasional narrative slip-up. The authors employ some traditional comic book tropes that would be more suited to “Batman” than here.

Sound effects, for example, are used with alarming frequency. A disturbing “Blamm!” in capital red letters overlaps the explosion at the Pentagon. Enemy soldiers are dispatched with a mighty “Flamm!” and even a “Pok!” The sound of a fireball going down an elevator is, apparently, “Shoom!”

“It’s a translation of sound. I don’t think we overused it. It was used in a precise way.” Jacobson said in defending its use.

This penchant for melodrama extends to other aspects of the book as well, though, as Jacobson says, only in small spurts. Exclamation points are used frequently, in sentences such as “We’ve got to stop them! Two Planes crashed into the World Trade Center!” and “How the hell could a plane — Oh, no! A Second One!”

It’s as though Jacobson and Colon — who have both had long careers at companies like Harvey and Marvel — couldn’t completely let go of the pulpish idioms that incorporated the comics they spent most of their careers working on.

Still, while these inclusions dull the emotional impact of the book, they don’t alter its effectiveness as a teaching tool. For those who found the original report rough going, or, more ideally, for students who are still learning about how the world suddenly became a lot more dangerous, “The 9/11 Report” is an excellent resource.

“We have had such laudatory comments by the Commission members I’m in awe,” Jacobson said. “I’m so fulfilled.”

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006


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