- Reviewed by
In the early post-9/11 years, a number of journals released special issues devoted to initiating critical dialogue and creating counternarratives to those established by the Bush administration. Though dissent was widespread, it was not then publicly welcomed, and, likely for this reason, these special issues shared one narrative thread: a plea that scholarly inquiry not be taken as a negation of the suffering of those left dead or grieving. Critic after critic made clear that—though questioning the demands for unified nationalism—they were appropriately horror-struck. Published in 2011, Portraying 9/11: Essays on Representations in Comics, Literature, Film and Theatre largely abandons this caveat. Ten years seems sufficient critical distance to have escaped the fear of an easily bruised audience; it now goes [End Page 196] without saying that to question the political fallout of that day is not to question the suffering it entailed. Free of the necessity of careful reassurances, the essays Véronique Bragard, Christophe Dony, and Warren Rosenberg have compiled abandon binaries by seeking out the space between the micro and the macro, the individual and the collective, the personal and the political. Where the collection falls short is in moving from the national, which it handles well, to the international, which it largely excludes, remaining problematically US-centric. Allowing for the inability of any single collection to satisfy the breadth of work this new field calls us to, however, Portraying 9/11 serves as a solid critical introduction to both the familiar refrains and the subversive threads of 9/11 discourse.
Exploring comics, more traditional literature, and stage and screen performances, this collection concerns itself chiefly with memory: how the events of 9/11 were encoded in individual and collective consciousness, and how their meaning continues to evolve today. “Memory,” the editors observe, is “subject to assimilation, appropriation, and even distortion” (5). What most impresses here is that while individual essays attempt to answer questions—thereby potentially “assimilat[ing]” and “distort[ing]” the narrative in favor of specific interpretations—the collection as a whole resists that tendency by opening the discourse up to contradictions, making little attempt to reconcile “the intense and sometimes cathartic need to record a reaction [with] the seeming impossibility of representing it” (1). Even the editors’ repeated use of the word “rupture” (1,4,8) implies expansiveness, contributing to their insistence that “what we now commonly refer to as ‘9/11’ is semantically surrounded by an almost infinite list of peripheral terms, events, and ideas including the War on Terror, imperialism, fundamentalism, globalization, as well as the East and the West” (3). The “rupture” this collection portrays, then, is a product of both the aftermath of that day and the decades prior to it. There is no one set of perpetrators, no exhaustive list of victims, no clear bias with which to read the binaries that have emerged. Instead, this collection demonstrates “that 9/11 has plunged America . . . into a crisis of representation with itself” (8). Though the Western locus of its gaze is troublesome, its nuanced evaluation of that “crisis” is both timely and thought provoking.
Most of Portraying 9/11’s essays explore ambivalence, setting the groundwork for comprehending art’s role in discussions of foreign policy, ethics, and empire. In “Covering 9/11: The New Yorker, Trauma Kitsch, and Popular Memory,” for example, Timothy Krause reads New Yorker covers as “mediat[ing]” (12) the public’s complex relationship with 9/11. Matthew J. Costello, in “Spandex Agonistes: Superhero Comics Confront the War on Terror,” and Marc Oxoby, in [End Page 197] “The Mediated Trauma of September 11, 2001, in William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition and David Foster Wallace’s ‘The Suffering Channel,’“ make similar moves, tracing literary counters to such media-driven oversimplifications as the “blameless” American and the “savage” terrorist (Costello 31). Both Dan Hassler-Forest, in “From Flying Man to Falling Man: 9/11 Discourse in Superman Returns and Batman Begins,” and Stephan Packard, in “‘Whose Side Are...