9/11 and Super-Heroes

The Superadaptoid has returned! I moved into a new place at the end of last month, and even though it was just a cross-town move, it still wrecked my writing schedule. But now I’m starting to settle in, so more blog posts will be coming soon.

I’m working on a series of Flash-related posts, but have decided to set them aside for the time being until I get a better feel for the direction that the current season of CW’s Flash TV show is taking. For my newest post, I’ve decided to tackle a more serious topic than usual: the effects of the real-world events of September 11, 2001 on the fictional settings of super-hero stories.

In spite of their escapist reputation, super-hero comic books originated out of real-world concerns. The earliest “Superman” stories by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster pitted the Man of Steel against social injustice and political corruption. Superman’s first appearance in Action Comics #1 has the hero investigate a plot to push the US into the conflict then brewing on the other side of the Atlantic.

From Action Comics #1 (June 1938)

From Action Comics #1 (June 1938)

In part two of his debut story, Superman coerces a Capitol Hill lobbyist into revealing that the arms industry is responsible for moving the world ever closer to war.

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Superman threatens lobbyist Alex Greer, from Action Comics #2 (July 1938)

Once war did break out in Europe, American super-heroes were fighting the Axis in comic books well before the armed forces got around to it in real life.

Captain America punches Hitler on the cover of Captain America Comics #1, a full year before the US enters World War II

Captain America punches Hitler on the cover of Captain America Comics #1 (March 1941), nearly a year before the US enters World War II

Soon after Pearl Harbor, the Superman newspaper strip showed Clark Kent attempting to enlist. Unfortunately, Clark’s x-ray vision misfires during the eye exam, causing the most powerful being on Earth to be classified as unfit for duty by the US military.

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It’s a ludicrous story, but the alternative would have required the storytellers to depict an invulnerable Kryptonian hovering over Guadalcanal or Anzio, using his unearthly abilities to change the course of battle, while in the real world his fans’ fathers, brothers, and neighbors died on those beaches by the thousands.

The expectation that Superman’s adventures would directly acknowledge real-world concerns put his creators in a bind: they could either undermine their character or make a mockery of the sacrifices that US servicemen and their families would soon endure. In the end, telling a ludicrous story was far better than telling an unconscionable one.

There are a variety of possible approaches for creators of fiction to take when addressing real-world events. One is to acknowledge those events directly, as super-hero comics did with World War II in the 1940s. Marvel Comics, a publisher whose identity has revolved around its ties with New York City, did this with a relaunch of their Captain America series several months after 9/11.

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Steve Rogers at Ground Zero, from Captain America #1 (June 2002)

The fact that 9/11 occurred in the Marvel Universe raises problematic questions, given that super-heroes routinely stop alien invasions with minimal difficulty. This story sidesteps those questions, noting only that Marvel’s premier patriotic hero (and, presumably, the entire superhuman population of New York City) “wasn’t here” on the day of the attacks.

Were they in outer space, fending off an imminent invasion by the Skrulls?

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Or perhaps Loki had trapped them all in Asgard again?

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Standing in the rubble of the World Trade Center, any answer that Steve Rogers could give to the rescue worker’s query – “Where were you?” – would sound just as absurd to the characters in the story as to the story’s readers. The 2002 Captain America relaunch placed the title under the “Marvel Knights” banner, incorporating it into an editorial line that was ostensibly aimed at a more mature audience than most of Marvel’s output. While World War II-era comics could easily embrace ludicrousness because their audience was mostly children, Marvel’s post-9/11 Captain America stories managed to both undermine their characters and insult their readers.

Creators can also acknowledge real-world events counterfactually by assuming that they occurred differently in the fictional setting than they did in reality. Perhaps the most famous example of this in comics is Alan Moore’s 1986-87 Watchmen limited series. Although he was writing more than a decade after the events he was referencing, Moore did with Vietnam what the Superman staff refused to do with World War II: depict an incredibly powerful superhuman determining the outcome of the conflict.

Dr. Manhattan in Vietnam, from Watchmen #4 (Dec. 1986); art by Dave Gibbons

An example of a counterfactual approach to 9/11 in comics is Brian K. Vaughan’s Ex Machina, in which the series’ protagonist responded to the attacks quickly enough to stop United Airlines Flight 175 in mid-air, thereby saving the WTC South Tower. Both Vaughan and Moore wrote some time after the relevant events, and also crafted self-contained stories that didn’t have to conform to the editorial mandates of a shared universe.

Super-hero Mitchell Hundred ruminates on the tragedy of a clearly fictional 9/11, from Ex Machina #1 (Aug. 2004); art by Tony Harris

Most importantly, Moore and Vaughan took a sociological perspective toward their subject matter: neither Watchmen nor Ex Machina are super-hero stories per se; instead, they are works of speculative fiction exploring the interaction between super-heroes and society. Abandoning any pretense of dealing with “the real world,” Moore and Vaughan argued that a world with super-heroes would not resemble our own.

A further approach is to reference real-world events implicitly, rather than directly, in a work of fiction. Marvel Studios’ Iron Man implicitly references 9/11 by using the US military operation in Afghanistan as its starting point, from which we can infer that the events of September 11, 2001 occurred in the Marvel Cinematic Universe just as in the real world.

Finally, fiction can explore real-world concerns through metaphor. As I wrote in an earlier post, there are two super-hero films that I think transcend the genre, or at least come close: 2003’s X2: X-Men United and 2008’s The Dark Knight. Both films deal with political violence in a post-9/11 context without any implicit or explicit references to the events of 9/11 or their aftermath. In my next post, I will say more about why I find these films so compelling, specifically by contrasting their metaphorical depictions of the post-9/11 world to the implicit representation of it in the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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