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9/11, Comics, and the Threatened Orders of Pictorial Media: Non-Fictional Comics as Historical Re-Enactment

By Lukas R.A. Wilde


The assessment of the capabilities of drawn images to refer, to represent, and to document will usually take a fundamental distinction to photography as its starting point. My contribution argues, however, that we should not confuse a certain technological aspect of photographic media—their indexical dimension—with their capacities in documentary practices. This becomes clear if we look at representations of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Popular films took years to address the events beyond metaphors and allegories. Within the fictional discourse of many television shows set in New York, 9/11 was a major reference, but only ever mentioned verbally, or with recourse to the actual footage. The contrast to the comic book industry and editorial cartoons could not be more striking. In graphic media, the towers and their collapse were reconstructed, again and again, within the respective diegetic present. One of the recurring discourses surrounding 9/11 was, indeed, a profound irritation between fact and fiction on the one hand, and between representation and the represented on the other—precisely at the nexus of photographic indexicality. My contribution approaches these questions with a closer look at one transmedial documentary practice that often goes unnoticed: historical re-enactment. As a ‘site’ of investigation, 9/11 shows how the conventionalized order between media can shift quickly in a relatively short span of time.

1. Films, Comics, and the Paradigmatic ‘Picture Event’

The hijackings of four passenger planes for suicide attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and, supposedly the White House on September 11, 2001, were almost immediately inscribed into history as major threats to the US-American order. In a very general fashion, an ‘order’ can be conceptualized as an arrangement of elements related to each other in certain ways which structure social groups or even whole societies. Orders stabilize and structure the options, possibilities, and perceptions for future actions. They are perceived as threatened when agents become convinced that their options for action are uncertain, when daily routines and behaviors are called into question, and when agents feel they cannot rely on each other anymore. The concept of a ‘threatened order’ thus questions the manner in which a social configuration can change dynamically in a short span of time, especially when faced with an existential threat.

Figure 1: “CNN 9/11 LIVE Coverage 8:46:26 A.M – 9:00 A.M,” Youtube. Accessed 25 November 2018.

While the question of whether the 9/11 attacks in fact constituted a ‘historical rupture’ or a ‘turning point of history’ must be seen skeptically in hindsight (see Holloway; Wilde, “Falling in Line”), it was certainly an unprecedented disruption of the news and the wider medial landscapes. All the screens, on all the channels, continued to present the same images, over and over again, in perpetuity and slow motion (fig. 1). The “absolute event, the ‘mother’ of all events, the pure event” (Baudrillard 4) was, above all, a paradigmatic picture event: “The attacks produced more pictures, bigger pictures, and more prominent pictures” (Denton Jr. 11). One could argue that the political re-ordering that took place afterward, from the US Patriot Act to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, were not so much justified and motivated by something that happened on the island of Manhattan (to the ‘actual’ participants), but by a broadcast and mediatized event on television screens around the globe, experienced as “by far the most photographed event in history” (Andén-Papadopoulus 101; see also Zelizer) by millions of viewers. The prolific comic book critic R. Fiore was certainly right to point out in The Comics Journal—later to be reprinted in The Best American Comics Criticism (Schwartz)—that “[t]his was an event that belonged to the camera and the camcorder” (Fiore 46), not to any ‘graphic’ recordings.

Figure 2: Spiegelman Cover; The Empty Image as a Cipher for the Invisible and the Taboo of Representation.

Then again, September 11 similarly involved issues that were invisible and beyond the reach of the photographic image; this includes all the events that happened inside the airplanes, or inside the towers, existing mostly as part of the undocumented cultural imaginary. A traumatized Art Spiegelman, present that very day, reported he felt “haunted now by the images he didn’t witness” (6). The “visual culture of disaster,” as Thomas Stubblefield (2014) has labeled it, was consequently often addressed in terms of absence and invisibility: pictures of the falling men that were almost immediately banned from publication (see Becker, 235-265), the ‘phantom presence’ of the Tribute in Light-installation, and the monumental void of Michael Arad’s memorial. One of the first pictorial manifestations of this absence was provided by none other than Spiegelman himself, years before inscribing himself in the (at least academic) post-9/11-discourse with In the Shadow of No Towers (2004). Spiegelman contributed the famous black-on-black-cover to The New Yorker (on September 24, 2001) in which the towers could only be glimpsed as a spectral after-image (the motive was later reused as the cover for No Towers’ Viking and Pantheon Books-collected editions, fig. 2). The fact that representations of the World Trade Center attacks and their immediate ramifications were seen as highly problematic in certain medial context, was especially relevant for cinema. Cultural historian David Holloway notes: “Until […] 2006, Hollywood audiences could have been forgiven for thinking that there was no war on terror and that there had never been a 9/11, so evasive or oblique were the industry’s engagements with contemporary events” (Holloway 86). 9/11 and its political consequences were mostly treated in allegories and metaphors. Almost five years later, American or Christian heroes on screens were still mostly fighting sci-fi Martian armies (War of the Worlds, 2005), nineteenth-century Mexican armies (The Alamo, 2004) or twelfth-century Muslim armies (Kingdom of Heaven, 2005). While Holloway is mostly concerned with representations of the ‘War on Terror’ (and not 9/11 directly), one must also consider the erasure of the towers in many trailers and films afterward (see McSweeney). Stubblefield consequently discusses a general “taboo of representation” (Stubblefield 8). While a few experimental independent films address the events shortly after (such as the portmanteau film 11’09″01 from eleven directors, 2002), these were mostly produced outside the US and shown to small audiences in art cinemas. Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore’s ‘performative’ documentary about the attacks and the administration’s responses, is certainly the exception, but it was soon denied funding by Disney and prevented from distribution by Miramax, illustrating “the limits beyond which Hollywood conscience liberalism would not go during the ‘crisis’ years of the early war on terror” (Holloway 99). It also has to be mentioned that most of the films closely associated with 9/11 and the ‘War on Terror’ did not perform well at the box office (see Pollard 29).

Television is certainly a different matter altogether, and probably a too complex and heterogeneous ‘object’ to afford easy generalizations. Stacy Takacs, in her book Terrorism TV, analyzed several scripted reality or ‘docu-fiction’ formats that address the ‘War on Terror’. Real life documentaries, such as James Hanlon, Gédéon Naudet, and Jules Naudet’s CBS production 9/11 (2002), reconstruct the known facts about the day from interviews and actual footage. 9/11 obviously plays a major role in fictional shows set in New York, as well. May Taylor, for instance, one of the main characters in CSI: NY (2004-2013), lost his wife on 9/11, and earlier fictional treatments in The West Wing (“Isaac and Ishmael”) or Third Watch (“September Tenth”, both 2001) are much discussed. However, the towers and their collapse are in almost all cases of fictional discourse mentioned verbally only. They are part of the diegesis without being shown. The fact/fiction-divide thus remains carefully guardedwhen photographic pictures where involved.

Figure 3: Klaus Janson in DC 46, Josh Krach and Scott McDaniel in DC 65 (Montage L.W.); Two of the Innumerous Graphic Representations Showing the Collapse of the Towers within the Diegetic Present.

The contrast to the comic book industry could not be more striking. To quote Fiore again: [A]ll of comicdom—mainstream, alternative and polemical—decided that the best response to the situation was to throw comics at it” (47). They did this in a very organized way: In a panel discussion on 9/11-comics held at the Library of Congress on October 2, 2002, Will Eisner noted that he “did not know of any other professional group that rose up like the community of comic artists did in response to 9-11” (quoted in Kennedy 372). 9/11 generated a long wave of graphic commentary, memoirs, and thinly disguised fictions from cartoonists and graphic artists. In contrast to the fictional treatment in film and television, the towers and their collapse were reconstructed, again and again, within the diegetic present. While the ‘real’ footage featured the reduced quality typical for ‘authentic’ live coverageshaky camerawork, dodgy focus, awkward zooms (see King 50)many spectacular drawings almost seemed to celebrate the destruction in the most beautiful artworks and dramatic angles (fig. 3)—and there were a lot of them, too. A wave of anthologies by most major comic book companies appeared within weeks and months of the event: DC’s and Dark Horse/Image/Chaos!’s two-volume collaboration 9/11: Artists Respond, Marvel’s Heroes-book and its subsequent A Moment of Silence, Alternate Comics’ 9-11: Emergency Relief (Mason), and the 9/11-issue #32 of PM Press’ political comic book anthology World War 3 Illustrated (Kuper). Countless smaller 9/11-projects (such as Joseph Michael Linsner’s non-fictional I Love N.Y.) can be mentioned as well (see Dean for an early survey). The list of contributors for the six 9/11-anthologies released between fall 2001 and early spring 2002 reads like a ‘Who is Who’-list of the industry at the time (see Kennedy).

Kent Worcester thus found that “hand-drawn images provided a means of mourning the dead, conveying anxiety, reaffirming civil values, and, for some cartoonists, of sounding the alarm” (“New York City, 9/11, and Comics” 140). While many of these treatments were fictional, they presented likewise an unprecedented interruption of the ‘regular’ fictional universes. The famous black issue #36 of Spider-Man by J. Michael Straczynski und John Romita Jr. not only showed Marvel’s superhero struggling to provide assistance on ground zero, it also opened with the emblematic lines “We interrupt or regularly scheduled program to bring you the following Special Bulletin” (1), mimicking the disruption of broadcasting on September 11 like an uncanny contamination of the fictional universe by a touch of the real. “The one thing I can not do,” Superman likewise reflects in the metaleptic short story “Unreal” by Steven Seagle and Duncan Rouleau in DC’s anthology, “is break free from the fictional pages where I live and breathe…” (16; for more on fictional Superheroes and 9/11, see Costello; Dony and van Linthout; Kading).

Other works approached the uncertain borderlands between fact and fiction from the other direction. One must first consider editorial cartoons, which covered almost no different topic in the weeks leading to the Afghanistan war (see Lamb and Long). Uncomfortably “[b]ridging the gap from fiction to fact” (El Refaie 175), editorial cartoons present real situation and events “as something that they are not in order to arrive at a new definition of what they are” (Edwards 128). Drawings of burning towers, smoke, and debris could be found in almost every newspaper (for a detailed discussion, see Wilde, “Falling in Line”). Many of the smaller comic book publishers, too, recorded the autobiographical experiences of writers and artists (what Fiore mocked as ‘earthquake stories’—”[t]he main reason for listening to an earthquake story is to find out when the other fellow’s mouth stops moving, so you can tell your own,” 47). Some also illustrated or recreated the facts that were already known or reflected upon the relation to actual global politics (especially within Alternate Comics’ more critical Emergency Relief and WWIII Illustrated, see Worcester, “New York City, 9/11, and Comics” 147-150). It also has to be mentioned that Art Spiegelman’s 9/11-work is considered by many as one of the most openly political and critical responses to the non-fictional discourse surrounding 9/11, and maybe the earliest ‘literary’ one (see Keeble 17-39). Spiegelman’s uses the graphic medium to record his actual impressions and conflicting experiences—he was present in Manhattan that very day because his children went to school only a few streets away (see the many approaches to the relation between memory and graphic representations in Spiegelman’s work, by scholars such as Basu; Beadling; Cho; Chute; Gauthier; Glejzer; Jenkins).

In a preliminary summary, comic books and cartoons, as industries, or maybe even as media, embraced the creative treatment of 9/11—between fact and fiction—in striking contrast to popular photographic media. There are many reasons for the “unique status that the graphic novel assumed in the wake of 9/11” (Stubblefield 153). Producing a film or a television episode is much more time-consuming than drawing a cartoon or a short story (see Witek). To Stubblefield, comics “[p]osed somewhere between the immediacy of news and the afterwardness of art” (153). Another reason can be found in spatial proximity. New York City is considered the ‘Comic Book Nation’s’ capital. The planes, therefore, “landed on the industry’s front lawn” where most of the comic book publishers were still located at the time, Worcester concludes (“New York City, 9/11, and Comics” 153). Additionally, few areas of popular culture—with the possible exception of Rock, Pop, and Jazz—are more entangled in the United States’ national identity than comic books, Christoph Reinfandt finds (130). In the present essay, I would like to take a somewhat different approach from the perspective of media theory.

For our understanding of graphic media’s capacities within documentary practices, as well as for the narrower assessment of their role within the reflection of 9/11, I am going to conceptualize ‘graphic recordings’ as a media-specific form of ‘historical re-enactment’. Accordingly, the many functions of graphic re-enactment or, more generally, of re-actualizing the past, cannot be determined by ontological-technological considerations. Instead, I would like to show how a transmedial and media comparative view will be indispensable for any such assessment. What 9/11 as a case study indicates, is that the historically situated protocols and routines of media use, of comprehension and interpretation, can shift dramatically in a relatively short span of time. In other words: If September 2001 resulted in a ‘threatened order,’ the subsequent processes of re-ordering pertained especially to the ‘regular’ interrelation of pictorial media, positioning graphic recordings of 9/11 in interesting ways.

2. Photographic Media, Indexicality, and Documentary

The assessment of the capabilities of drawn images to refer, to represent, and to document will usually take a fundamental distinction to photography as its starting point: From this point of view, a drawing always has to make up for something that seems inherent to photographic media. I argue, however, that one should not confuse a certain technological capacity of media—the indexical faculty to produce ‘photochemical or digital trace-recordings’—with their conventionalized applications, practices of use, and their associated modes of interpretation and comprehension. From a theoretical point of view, indexicality is neither a necessary nor a sufficient criterion for documentary practices. In a recent article, media scholar Jens Schröter traces two interconnected historical discourses that each claimed a medial predisposition towards fictionality or factuality based on ‘objective’ technological conditions. On the one hand, there has been a claim that digital media are inherently fictional: that everything in digital culture becomes a mere simulation divorced from physical reality. On the other hand, photography and film are often considered in an inherent relation to ‘reality,’ an ‘innate’ capacity to truthfully (if selectively) represent or give access to (some part of) reality. Siegfried Krakauer and André Bazin come to mind (see Rushton for a survey), as does Roland Barthes’ conception of the photographic “that-has-been” (76). Roger Scruton even speaks of a general “fictional incompetence” of photographic media (25).

Figure 4: Taken from Hooper n. pag.; A Photograph of the Fictional Entity James Bond.

However, Schröter argues very convincingly that referentiality and the ‘fact vs. fiction’-divide cannot be reduced to (or deducted from) inherent technological properties. The application of media forms for factional or fictional purposes, Schröter states, cannot be separated or disentangled from historically situated practices, entwined in formal styles, conventions, techniques, and discourses (see 122-124; see also Zipfel). The majority of people would probably describe one of the many iconic photos of the young Sean Connery, presented in a typical James Bond-posture (fig. 4), as a picture of the fictional person James Bond—and not of the actual individual Connery. One way to approach this apparent paradox is to ascribe photographic media in fictional use a double referentiality: a photograph can represent Sean Connery representing James Bond. The Bond-photograph would then be treated as a documentation of a theater stage performance. In this view, supported by Scruton and many others, the non-fictionality of photographic media would again be primal and intrinsic, only to be ‘subverted’ into a contingent fictional application later.

However, indexicality is not the same as documentary. As much as photographic trace-recordings are entangled in discourses of ‘factuality,’ no one seriously questions the capability of the written word to represent (aspects) of reality truthfully, otherwise most historians, journalists, and scholars would be confronted with serious problems. The same holds true for the opposite claim: not all recordings of “the necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens” (Barthes 76) will satisfy the conditions of a documentary. What has been ‘put’ there can be staged or deceptive, manipulated and manipulating.

Especially within film theory, many fine-grain analytical models for pictorial reference have been developed that deserve a revision for comic books. Although there has been no shortage of work on documentary comics in recent years (see Mickwitz, for instance), I draw on a model from film studies instead, in order to expand the state of research in a media-comparative fashion. I am going to present a short reflection on Frank Kessler’s triple distinction between the ‘filmic,’ the ‘profilmic,’ and the ‘afilmic,’ which seems especially helpful as a point of departure for the question at hand. Building on Etienne Souriau’s classic terminology of filmology, Kessler understands the ‘filmic’ as everything one is able to perceive in the cinema or on the screen. It includes all formal choices within the editing process, a carefully selected soundtrack—everything that counts as a signifier within a ‘filmic’ situation. The ‘profilmic’ is everything in front of the photographic lens. If the ‘afilmic’ is reality, which a documentary claims to represent (to a more or less faithful degree), indexicality is severed from it on many levels: “Strictly speaking, indexicality can only play a role at the level of single shots. As soon as there are several shots, one deals with a form of discourse which can never carry the guarantee of indexicality as a whole” (Kessler 70; my translation and emphasis – L.W.). The layer addressed as “referential meaning” in film narratology (see Persson 30-32), the spatiotemporal domain in which the represented situations are ontologically and causally connected to each other, must always remain a hypothetical construction. What one can ‘see in’ pictures—sometimes addressed as ‘picture objects,’ seemingly presents itself to our senses as substitute stimuli. It cannot be conflated with what it is intersubjectively taken to re-present. Per Persson distinguishes the intelligibility of depicted objects within the “perceptual systems” (28) from the higher construction of a represented spatiotemporal domain (30-32). The latter is often conceptualized as a (fictional or non-fictional) storyworld that one can merely triangulate by means of “mental models of who did what to and with whom, when, where, why, and in what fashion” (Herman 9).

However, it gets even more complex than that: The ‘afilmic’ necessarily includes the world in which the production crew operated in, to record a ‘profilmic event’ in the first place. The ‘profilmic’—the only realm which can be recorded ‘indexically’—will always be more or less manipulated, more or less staged, depending on the many ways the crew interacts with the afilmic world that it is trying to represent (and thus to construct as the filmic). A ‘documentary mode’ of interpretation and comprehension (see Winston 253) tries to reconstruct the relation between the filmic and the afilmic—not with the profilmic, since the afilmic must include judgments about what went on in front of the camera, and to what end; what was selected, manipulated, staged, or interacted with. The afilmic, to summarize, is mostly an epistemic horizon of interpretation and comprehension that entails the communicative situation as a whole.

Whether the recipient draws on immediate perceptual schemata to ‘see’ profilmic objects, or whether he or she relies on much more complex mental models to re-construct this spatiotemporal domain that a film claims to have recorded: In the end, the documentary contract promises to increase the recipients’ abilities to judge that something ‘was the case’ within the afilmic, which includes all aspects of production in a profilmic situation. With this in mind, it becomes easy to see why Souriau’s and Kessler’s models do not have to change fundamentally when transferred to comics, even though no layer corresponding to the profilmic exists in the medium of drawing. It is not some technological a priori which establishes the fiction/non-fiction distinction, but a mode of reception, as Roger Odin has argued prominently (or a “mode of address,” in Mickwitz’ corresponding terms, 13). This mode of address and reception must be guided by specific codes and conventions, promising a re-actualization of an epistemic dimension. They are necessarily embedded into specific (cultural and historical) medial practices and discourses that regulate what counts as ‘marked’ and ‘unmarked cases’.

In order to have a clearer understanding of the capability of drawn pictures to represent, or to document, facets of reality, I take a closer look at a common documentary film practice that often goes unnoticed: historical re-enactment. I am first going to draw on some film-historical observations, in order to situate re-enactment practices within a broader transmedial and media-theoretical perspective on re-actualization. With this on hand, I am going to reevaluate representations of 9/11 in photographic and drawn imagery.

3. Re-Enactment and Documentary Practices

Going back to the 1980s, one encounters a film-historical event that remains highly illuminating for the discussion of the capacity of pictorial media to ‘record’ or to make ‘factual claims’ about reality. Director Errol Morris’ documentary The Thin Blue Line (1988), released within that year, reconstructs the true story of Randall Adams, a man convicted for the murder of a police officer and sentenced to death. Morris worked through the case again, producing a film which, in the end, caused Adams’ sentence to be reviewed. The alleged convict was released from prison approximately a year after Thin Blue Line’s cinematic release. The film has won countless documentary awards since and was chosen as “the most political work of cinema in the last 20 years” (Anderson n. pag.) by a Variety retrospective on documentary films in 2006.

Figure 5: The Thin Blue Line (1988), 0:58:30: The Re-Enacted Night of the Murder.

On closer inspection, this praise for merits in the field of documentary should come as a surprise. Morris used many techniques that might now be well established in documentary film, but they were seen as highly unconventional at the time. The director edited out his own interview questions, for instance, and he used a quite melodramatic score by Philip Glass. What sparked most controversies after the film’s release, however, was the director’s use of historical re-enactment. Again and again, the events leading up to the murder—and the occurrence itself—are presented by actors on stage, each take recorded in slow motion and highly suggestive lighting (fig. 5). While these techniques seem to be at odds with the non-fictional framing of the work as a whole, Morris’ intention—what could be called the ‘documentary contract’ promising a relation between the filmic and the epistemic dimension of the afilmic– was never in doubt for most viewers. In fact, the filmmaker later recalled that he was asked by one reporter of the Dallas Morning News: “So, how is it that you managed to be on the roadway that night?” (quoted in Morris n. pag.). While this is clearly a ridiculous notion in hindsight (the crime occurred six years earlier, in 1976), it shows that the ‘protocols’ connecting documentary to the indexical dimension of film were in fact highly salient in 1988—up to the point where Morris was given the benefit of the doubt, assuming his presence with a camera at the scene of the crime.

This occurrence—whether true or exaggerated—becomes all the more puzzling if one assumes a broader film-historical perspective. The audience’s reaction to The Thin Blue Line does indeed seem to be entrenched in a very specific, contingent moment of film history. Historical re-enactment was not at all unusual as a common practice in documentary films only a few decades earlier (see Glaser, Garsoffky, and Schwan; Hißnauer). Early documentaries on World War I such as M.A. Wetherell’s The Somme (1927), for instance, regularly re-enacted historical scenes with actors and props on a set. An exemplary German academic article on film documentary of 1959, for instance, elaborates on the importance of “serious and justified re-enactment” (“ernsthaftes und gerechtfertigtes Nachgestalten,” Baumgartner 345) as a matter of course. Film historian Christian Hißnauer thus concludes that it was only the emergence of direct cinema and the handheld camera by which ‘liveness’ and ‘raw trace-recordings’ were associated with documentary—as its only justified mode—to begin with (299). Up into the late 1960s, the problem of documentary was mostly considered an ethical one, not something that was bound to a specific technology. Consequently, most documentaries were hybrid-films of archive material, documented research, interviews, graphic illustrations, and re-enacted sequences (see Mundhenke 196-205). It is thus highly problematic to equate a fictional scene with one which has been staged, without paying attention to whether the staged scene is indeed meant to be fictional—or, in contrast, based on historical documents.

The 1988 incident seems even more rooted in a certain historical moment if we look at documentary practices some 20 years later. In Germany, popular television-historian Guido Knopp is notorious for his shows about German history. Knopp is mostly concerned with the Third Reich and National Socialism, but also with the events leading to the German reunification. In 2008, a critic of the journal Stern—who does not like Knopp’s show “The Germans” (Die Deutschen) very much—has this to say:

Giant battles are reduced to three close-combat brawls, until the vanquished descends into the grass in a theatrical fashion. […] Sometimes, the characters even talk […] in dull soap opera dialogues fabricated by Knopp’s team. The identity-creating prehistory of the Germans sounds like a peasant theater from Tegernsee (Gäbler n. pag.; my translation – L.W.).1

The criticism here is a twofold one. On the one hand, the reviewer is incredulous about Knopp’s ideological narrative and the accuracy (or adequacy) of his representations: ‘people don’t behave or talk like that.’ This criticism, on the other hand, is connected to an aesthetic judgment about the production’s choice of acting style, of camerawork and editing, which seems ‘theatrical,’ old-fashioned, and deeply immersed in the ideological baggage of the “Bauerntheater,” a kind of peasant community theater. The representational format of the re-enacting itself, however, is reaffirmed by this criticism, which only questions Knopp’s specific ideological and stylistic decisions.

While the analytical value of these cursory observations should not be overstated, they do seem to reflect a general tendency. From about the turn of the 21st century, many popular and artistic forms of re-enactment have attracted the attention of cultural critics as truly transmedial phenomena (see Agnew, as well as Cook for surveys). These practices, build on precedents in docudramas such as the PBS production An American Family (1973), became widespread through the increased popularity of reality shows like MTV’s The Real World (1992-2013), and now include many documentary theater performances. A critically acclaimed example for the latter is Milo Rau’s famous Hate Radio of 2012, a 60-minute re-staging of a Ruanda radio event of 1994, in which listeners were goaded into genocide. The concept also applies to large crowd-spectacle performances, such as so-called ‘war re-enactments’ of the Battle of Gettysburg, sometimes involving many thousand (professional and/or amateur) actors. “Reenactments of the German colonial past in Namibia and the Afrikaner legacy in South Africa, fictional American Indians in Germany, and medieval crusaders in Australia point to the fact that reenactment is a global phenomenon not necessarily confined to autochthonous historical events,” Vanessa Agnew concludes (328). Even historians such as R.G. Collingwood, E.P. Thompson, or Michel de Certeau have adopted re-enactment as a historiographical tool.

Following media philosopher Maria Mühle (2013), these practices are considered to be at odds with documentary only if a general distrust of the sensory qualities of experiences is adopted—in contrast to allegedly ‘purer’ or more ‘rational’ verbal descriptions. Regardless of whether representations of the past are aiming at immersion or at critical distancing, Mühle argues (130-134), they must always be thought of as a form of re-actualization, in written texts not differently than in more ‘perceptually salient’ forms of media (such as film, theater, happenings or, one could add, comics). Both ends of the medial spectrum (the verbal/visual-divide) are merely different forms of appropriating—or mediating—a past which must have been accepted as a ‘horizon of truth,’ an intersubjective epistemic dimension, all along. It should thus be helpful to situate the ‘documentary quality’ of comics within this larger transmedial or media-theoretical perspective. The ‘picture objects’ in comics can be regarded as a theater stage—an idea proposed by many pioneers in comics studies, such as Dietrich Grünewald or Fusanosuke Natsume (89; see also Wilde, “Die ‘Cartoon’-Bildlichkeit von Comic, Manga und Animation”). The actors on a stage may represent (fictional or non-fictional) entities by using their bodies and physical props, while pictures employ surrogate stimuli. With this in mind, the initial examples from September 2001 can be reexamined in illuminating light.

4. Threatened Orders of the ‘Pictorial Everyday’

One of the recurring topics surrounding the discourse on 9/11 is a profound irritation, or even a destabilization, between the fact/fiction-divide—precisely at nexus of photographic indexicality. A common perception of observers was that the attacks themselves appeared to have sprung out of Hollywood disaster films. Historian Jack Holland described in detail how “[c]onfusion, numbness and a void in meaning dominated the immediate experience of 9-11 for many watching Americans […]. Where partial understandings were achieved, rather than from foreign policy discourse, they were generally taken from popular cultural sources” (279). The statement “It was like a movie” can, accordingly, be found in countless eyewitness accounts (see Waldhof). Even Saddam Hussein was quoted as saying: “When we watched what was happening in America for the first time, we thought it might be another American movie. Later, we found out it was a real movie” (quoted in Maher n. pag.). Films like Independence Day (1996), The Siege (1998) or Fight Club (1999), which have been celebrating the spectacular destruction of New York in high-resolution imagery for decades (fig. 6), were even blamed for providing the template in the first place (see Scheffer for an overview or King for an extensive discussion). Five weeks after the event, director Robert Altman famously stated:

Nobody would have thought to commit an atrocity like that unless they’d seen it in a movie. How dare we continue to show this kind of mass destruction in movies. I just believe we created this atmosphere and taught them how to do it. (quoted in Bates n. pag.)

Figure 6: Independence Day (1996): 0:47:00; Well-Known Photographic Images of the Destruction of New York.

Despite the fact that the pictures of planes hitting towers were photographic ones, their indexicality was thus not a given, quite the contrary—it had to be painfully re-established, making the borderline between factual and fictional pictorial spectacle unreliable for years to come. “Elements of similarity between the real and fictional spectacles seem to have caused a great deal of discomfort for many commentators at the time,” Geoff King summarizes (48; see also Frank in more detail). To some degree, this even cuts both ways: Many conspiracy videos on the web—such as the widely watched YouTube-clip Theory of Ghostplane by CollinAlexander (user name)—did in fact not only question the coherence of the official accounts. They went to great lengths to prove that CNN’s photographic footage could also have been the product of editing software and digital picture manipulation (see Nachreiner 205f.).

Once the non-fictionality of the photographic footage was re-established, however, another boundary between representation and the represented became increasingly problematic. For many observers on television screens around the globe, the images of the twin towers were the twin towers. A worldwide audience referred to their experiences as a ‘trauma,’ caused not by any actual danger, but by a televised event: “[P]eople seem fundamentally to have responded in the same way regardless of whether they were direct eye-witnesses to the events or second-hand viewers of it on the television screen” (Andén-Papadopoulus 90; see also Greenberg; Zelizer). Jean Baudrillard’s provocative claim that the images of 9/11 took their viewers and, by extension, reality itself hostage, or that “reality is jealous of fiction, that the real is jealous of the image” (28) seems like a metaphorical, yet fitting transcription for both entanglements between pictorial media and their reference. Although it quickly became clear to most viewers that, without a doubt, there were ‘profilmic events’ going on in New York that were partly visible on screens (see again King), scholars such as Clément Chéroux (see Diplopie 31) deny that the footage was documenting anything, serving instead only symbolic purposes—it failed to provide any explanatory context. If the documentary mode of reception is the establishment of a relation, not between the filmic and the profilmic, but between the filmic and an epistemic dimension (the afilmic), the footage from Manhattan was indeed strangely devoid of reference—precisely because it seemed to demand explanations, narratives, and frames, which we rightfully expect from documentaries, that could not be provided within the first few days. The ‘orders’ of pictorial media—or, with Richard Grusin (90), the “media everyday” and our “everyday media practices (70)—were thus in severe disarray, in more ways than one. If this is especially true with regard to photographic images of planes or collapsing buildings, it might hint at some answers why many or most television shows and films took years to re-actualize the events pictorially that was not considered irritating or offensive.

Figure 7: Igor Kordey and Chris Chuckry in Marvel, Heroes 17; A Dramatic ‘Re-Enactment’ of the Known Events in the Fourth Plane, Early as December 2001.

If one follows Stubblefield that “the empty image came to function in the aftermath as a kind of visual shorthand for the event of that day” (5), then it comes as no great surprise, that comics, cartoons, and graphic novels could partly fill that void. ‘Graphic realities’ could provide a different pictorial vocabulary (see Jenkins 313), clearly not subject to the same taboos of representation and re-actualization—or at least not to the same degree. In that specific historical context, the drawn image was never a suspect, never accused of blurring the line between fact and fiction, of representation and the represented. From this discursive position within media ecologies, the “veritable wave of graphic novels on the disaster” (Stubblefield 154) positioned itself mostly as a non-fictional commentary on, or as an autobiographical account of, 9/11. While critics mostly seem to agree that “[m]any of the stories and their themes are repetitious and clichéd” (McLaughlin 417; see again Fiore), it is noteworthy that they often made visible what could not be photographed in the first place. No less than two graphic works within the early comic anthologies tried to adequately re-enact the events within the fourth plane: In Marvel’s Heroes-issue, Igor Kordey and Chris Chuckry presented the passengers’ uprising as a dramatic splash page (17), while Paul Chadwick retold the incident in a 4-page black-and-white short story in Dark Horse’s collaborative 9-11: Artists Respond, vol. 2 (15-18, fig. 7). Even though there was no ‘profilmic space’ that could be captured, the epistemic horizon of reference was clearly what had actually happened to the best of the available knowledge (“what we know at this point,” Chadwick 16).

Figure 8: Will Eisner in Mason 45; An ‘Intericonic Transcription’ of the Threatened Pictorial Order.

What is more, graphic commentary also functioned as a reflection of the “picture-event” [Bildereignis] itself (Becker). Editorial cartoonists and comic book artists provided artworks and illustrations reflecting that it was the ‘mediated terror’ of pictures which shocked people throughout the world. One widely reprinted graphic commentary from Will Eisner, first published in Emergency Relief (Mason 45, fig. 8), shows a literal victim of the mediated terror in front of the television screen. Clouds of smoke and dust are filling his room and blood is oozing from the broken screen, as the difference between first-hand and second-hand trauma is—literally—dissolved. The cultural work provided by graphic re-enactments of 9/11 can thus be characterized by what Chéroux called “intericonicity” (“The Déjà Vu of September 11” n. pag.): a transcription or translation of an apparent ‘immediate’—or even inverted—reference, back into communicational contexts. One of the major topics of Spiegelman’s In Shadow of No Towers is also that it had become impossible for him to keep control over his own recollection, confronted with the many confusions between first-hand experiences and the mediated memory of mass-media. Facing the innumerable photographic images of 9/11 that make up part of our public recollection, Spiegelman uses drawings to look for motives and narratives—re-actualizations—of that day that are his and his alone (fig. 9):

The pivotal image from my 9/11 morning—one that didn’t get photographed or videotaped into public memory but still remains burned onto the inside of my eyelids several years later—was the image of the looming north tower’s glowing bones just before it vaporized. (n. pag.)

Figure 9: Spiegelman 1; The Artist Is Searching for a Reality beyond the Mediatized Pictures of Public Recollection.

The greater aesthetic distance that the graphic image seemingly has to ‘reality’ is thus based on a relative and fragile position within a larger media environment. A position which, in the case of 9/11, enabled it to communicate non-fictional perspectives, commentaries, and framings while photographic images suffered from disarranged codes of representation for years to come. Whether comic artists’ reactions mattered much more inside the comic subculture than beyond, as Worcester found with some justification (“New York City, 9/11, and Comics” 152), is a different question.

It was not until 2006 that this situation began to change again and popular photographic imagery could re-align with the graphic. Not only would a major blockbuster movie like Oliver Stone’s notorious World Trade Center heavily fictionalize the events—in comic books this happened much earlier, if one considers all the alternate histories of the event in comics such as Peter Milligan’s and Javier Pulido’s Human Target. In the 2003-storyline “The Unshredded Man,” #2-3, a character fakes his own death in 9/11 because he was a crooked accountant. And in Brian K. Vaughan’s and Tony Harris’ Ex Machina from 2004, the hero is able to save the second tower. In 2006, however, Paul Greengrass’ live-action feature film, United 93, finally took up a very similar project to Sid Jacobson’s and Ernie Colón’s The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation, released at approximately the same time.2 All these works claimed to factually represent, in pictures, what was not recordable: what had happened within the fourth plane that never reached its target (see Canavan; Gutweniger and Stubenböck; Pheasant-Kelly). United 93 and the Graphic Adaptation both adhere closely to the information available within the official report of the 9/11-Commission, the transmissions from the cockpit, and actual transcripts of phone calls (Jacobson’s and Colón’s book was even published by the Commission itself, see Britten; Wiederhold).

Figure 10: United 93 (2006), 01:01:00; An ‘Authentic’ Photographic Re-Enactment of the Events in the Fourth Plane.

While Greengrass’ film is certainly not a ‘documentary’ in the strict sense, he and his collaborates took great efforts to produce a ‘non-fictional’ framework of interpretation to affirm the authenticity of their work. They shot re-enactments with the actual individuals of the flight institutions (play-acting themselves as the films ‘factual’ protagonists). They included the actual historical TV footage of the day, seamlessly intermingling it with re-created shots of New York, and, finally, they refrained from most formal devices of ‘fictional’ films, such as a soundtrack or artificial lighting. Accordingly, critics judge it more as a “simulation” than a fiction (Pheasant-Kelly 147, fig. 10). If reality was ‘jealous of fiction’ before, fiction now became ‘jealous of reality,’ Vanessa Ossa suggests in her dissertation on post-9/11 characters. The same goes for comics from around the same time. The Graphic Adaptation was one of several comic books branded as “non-fiction” that made an impression on book retailers, turning up on high school reading lists and in airport bookshops. Worcester describes it as “the first full-scale effort to use comics to narrate the 9/11 attacks as history” (“New York City, 9/11, and Comics” 140).

Within this framework of comparison, more interesting differences between the imagery and mediality of comics/film could become apparent than their apparent (non-)indexicality. While photographic pictoriality presupposes a homogeneous continuum of perceptual appearances, drawn imagery can operate with different modes of abstraction, cartoonization, and pictogrammatic articulation, as well as with a more open signification of backgrounds as mere allusions for the emergence of narrative events (see Packard; fig. 11). Ernie Colón remarked in an interview how hard it is “to be true to the historical record” (quoted in Worcester, “The Ernie Colón Interview” 85) if one’s tools of representing (or re-enacting) real-life politicians are abstract line-drawings, bordering on caricatures—rather than actors with a gradual likeness to their roles (see also Turner).

Figure 11: Jacobson and Colón 7; Once Again, the Same Represented Situation in the Pictoriality of Cartoonized Drawings.

In conclusion, the (non-)fictionality of any given work, the ‘truth claim’ surrounding a representation, remains subject to respective notions of ‘mediality’: not in a technological-ontological sense, but understood as a framing mechanism surrounding recognizable forms and formats of representation in a given sociocultural context (see Wilde, “Falling in Line”). Technological aspects of mediality can certainly play a salient role for meaning-making—informing the schemata of interpretation as presupposed ‘unmarked cases’—, but so can the dominant discourses, conventionalized practices and applications, as well as the modes of comprehension and interpretation considered ‘regular’. What 9/11 as a site of investigation shows, is how the orders of media and mediality can become threatened and shift quickly in a relatively short period of time.


This research was made possible by the DFG Collaborative Research Center (CRC) 923 “Threatened Order – Societies under Stress” and its sub-project G07, “Media reflections: Threat Discourse and the American Order since the Attacks of September 11, 2001”. I would also like to thank Vanessa Ossa for countless valuable observations, comments, and suggestions.


[1] Original: “So werden gigantische Schlachten ‘heruntergebrochen’ auf ungefähr drei Nahkämpfe bis ein Geschlagener theatralisch samt Fahne ins Gras sinkt. Manchmal sprechen die Figuren auch: ‘Und was ist mit dir, Heinrich? […] Ich beug’ das Knie nicht vor dem Vetter, sondern vor dem Kaiser.’ So hört es sich an in den Folgen ‘Friedrich Barbarossa’ und ‘Heinrich, der Löwe’ mit einem von Knopps Team am Reißbrett erarbeiteten hölzernen Soap-Dialog. Die identitätsstiftende Vorgeschichte der Deutschen hört sich also an wie das Tegernseer Bauerntheater.

[2] One could also look at a second life action film with a very similar premise, Perter Markle’s Flight 93, also from 2006.

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