“’Icons of a more Innocent Age’? Graphic Narratives after 9/11.” Frightful Witnessing: The Rhetoric and (Re)Presentation of Fear, Horror and Terror. Edited by B. Kattelman and M. Hodalska. Interdisciplinary Press: 2014.
The terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, seemed to occur on two levels simultaneously from the moment the first plane hit its target: first, inescapably, they impacted on the reality of early-morning Manhattan, Washington and Pennsylvania, causing the death and injury of thousands and leaving an even greater number of eyewitnesses and rescue workers traumatised; on a different and more global scale, 9/11 became the epitome of the ways in which large-scale terrorism can get entangled in mass media cultures. This complexity necessitates broadening the scope of trauma study to include both, the individual pathology of trauma that has become a paradigm since its inception with 19th-century psychoanalysis, and its more hazily defined counterpart, ‘cultural’ or ‘collective’ trauma. The attention to individual shock and suffering is thus complemented by a second focus on the discursive level of rhetoric and figuration that is equally crucial to a post-9/11 context; it concerns not only the mediatized impression of spectacle, of aesthetic excitement that the planes crashing into the Twin Towers and their eventual collapse left, along with a lingering aftertaste of ethical precariousness; it also encompasses the later narratives of heroism, resilience or patriotism which characterized the post-9/11 public sphere, and in so interconnects individual grief and trauma with a complex discursive framework.
This article explores the ways in which a very specific form of cultural expression, namely the graphic genres, react to this double challenge as well as to the representational quandaries raised by trauma, such as the failure of understanding, the collapse and reconstructions of identity and alterity. Moreover, though, I will investigate the ways in which these cartoons negotiate the meaning of these attacks and interact with the dynamics of cultural trauma. With two very distinct examples as my starting point – Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers, and J. Michael Straczynski’s The Amazing Spiderman, I show how these can either become a meta-discursive space of re-assembling meaning and identity after the impact of trauma, or embark on the opposite path and tie into narratives of redemption, of heroism and catharsis. Sensorium of the mass media and popular culture, but also the format of choice by authors who are part of what Silverman designates as a contemporary, popular avant-garde graphic narratives account for responses to 9/11 that emerge from the first moments of shock and thus provide both a temporal and emotional immediacy to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. In the Shadow of No Towers and The Amazing Spiderman represent the opposing poles of this spectrum and are exemplary of the different stances such graphic modes might take in the context of terrorism and trauma; each is a representation of a highly pervasive, but mutually contradictory strand of remembering 9/11, as they foreground the easily marginalised potential of the imaginative sphere to engage in processes of remembering and constitution of meaning in the aftermath of terror and loss.