By Bill Kohlhaase
Outside New York, The 9/11 Commission Report attracted only passing attention from the general public. Earlier generations poured through The Warren Commission Report on the Kennedy assassination and, later, the Watergate transcripts. But The 9/11 Commission Report was greeted with a big yawn, and not because it’s a whitewash (in certain ways it is). The Warren Commission was a whitewash, and everybody was interested in it. The 9/11 Report isn’t as tedious as the endless ramble of the Watergate transcripts, with their deleted expletives. Written in a fairly accessible style, The 9/11 Report doesn’t demand much of its readers—even a congressman could follow it.
Maybe the public took its cue from the Bush administration, which fought the formation of the commission and then resisted cooperating with it. When the president finally agreed to appear, he did so only in the company of Vice President Cheney, adding credence to the theory that Bush is the VP’s puppet. The Commission was unable to talk to the people who could shed the most light on the attacks—the detainees in U.S. custody at Guantanamo and elsewhere—and had to take their answers second-hand from the CIA. (For a detailed account of the difficulties faced by the commission, read Without Precedent: The Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission by Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton, the commission’s chair and vice-chair). The President’s partisans wanted nothing to do with the investigation, knowing full well that the truth would make the administration look bad. The rest of us aren’t sure we can trust it.
Or maybe we’re just too jaded and lazy to wade through the report’s 428 pages, not counting appendixes and notes. The commission added little that was new, because so much of the information it wanted was kept from it (and from us). Still, the report, especially its first chapter, “We Have Some Planes,” is something of a page-turner. Its first two paragraphs chillingly introduce the fateful day as “temperate and nearly cloudless,” while thousands make their way to work in the towers and Mohamed Atta and Abdul Aziz al Omari arrive at the airport in Portland, Maine.
That same chill is generated by The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation by veteran comic illustrators Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón. A sort of abridged account of the report, it brings the tragedy to life in ways different than films like United 93 and World Trade Center—ways challenging to the imagination that readers of comics, once and current, will recognize. In short, there’s no longer any excuse for ignoring The 9/11 Report. You can read it on the toilet.
As creator of Richie Rich for Harvey Comics, Jacobson seems an unlikely candidate for the task (he was also an executive editor at the superhero-thick Marvel Comics). Colón spent time in charge of Green Lantern, Wonder Woman and others for DC Comics. That superhero commercial style defines the adaptation. Box cutter-wielding terrorists battle passengers, brave firemen bark directions, and smirking politicians utter such nonsense as “There are bigger fish to fry.” There’s nothing experimental or cheaply drawn here, although the portraitures can be inconsistent. Sometimes President Bush looks like himself, sometimes he looks like he wishes he looked, and sometimes you’re not sure it’s him at all. Hamid Karzai, as he takes over a newly “liberated” Afghanistan, looks something like Donald Duck.
There are also wonderfully illustrated panels: the flaming aftermath of Flight 93, the eerie remains of the towers that open chapter 11, the full-page illustration of Donald Rumsfeld in various shades of gray complaining that the executive branch is “stove-piped.” But there’s no forgetting this is a comic. As Flight 77 slams into the Pentagon, it does so with a red “BLAMM!” any comic fan will recognize.
The genius of the adaptation is in its attention to details from the original report. When Vice President Cheney watches the burning tower, his speech bubble pops, “How the hell could a plane . . ,” the exact words the commission reported he used. It was no easy task illustrating some of the commission’s recommendations, such as expanded use of biometric screening programs. But Jacobson and Colón pull it off in ways that give the text more meaning. Like the report itself, there’s no editorializing here, except maybe the panel illustrating the 1997 realization that Osama bin Laden wanted to attack U.S. interests worldwide, in which three officials look at a map of Iraq covered with American flags.
The most chilling part of the book may be its final page, a report card of the president and congress’ response to the commission’s recommendations. The red D’s and F’s remind us how much has been overlooked in pursuit of other battles.
THE 9/11 REPORT: A GRAPHIC ADAPTION BY SID JACOBSON AND ERNIE COLÓN; HILL AND WANG, PAPERBACK, 133 PAGES. $16.95.