After the Brussels Bombings: Rethinking Heroes and Villains

tintinThis is not the blog post I had planned to write on April Fools’ Day.  But reverberations from the recent Brussels bombings (and now the Lahore attacks) shifted my attention, compelling me back to 9/11 and its explosions.  Read on.

Playing pranks seems less funny these days.   Never to everyone’s taste, practical jokes designed to shock or frighten people can cause emotional overload in our post 9/11 world.  That is especially true this April Fools’ Day, just a week after terrorist bombings in Belgium’s capital city of Brussels.   In solidarity with victims there, people on social media have posted pictures of Belgium’s best-known cartoon character, Tintin, crying in horror.  This boy reporter has been popular with kids and readers of all ages for more than eighty years, even featuring in a recent successful film, The Adventures of Tintin (2011).  Tintin’s tears—given his brave globe-trotting adventures—are meant to contrast innocent, noble emotion with the evil callousness of these cowardly attacks.  Tintin is the hero held up in contrast to villainous terrorists.  Yet real life is never that simple.

Tintin_in_America_Particularly in such early volumes as Tintin in the Congo (1931; 2002 – 2006) and Tintin in America (1932;1974; 2011), this Belgian character often displayed the racism of his creator, Herge (pen name of author/illustrator George Remi).  Belgian Herge (1907- 1983) was also anti-Semitic.  Although these attitudes moderated during the course of 25 Tintin volumes, some of Herge’s illustrations remain offensive, his plots cringe-worthy.  I am not alone in noting the irony of Tintin’s being used as a symbol of humanitarian unity this past week.  Actual wars have been waged against and in defense of the colonialist, prejudiced views sometimes found in Herge’s works.  And, while unforgiveable, the murderous acts of some terrorists can also be traced back to social inequities bred by such political systems.  Of course, terrorists often act out of their own racism and religious prejudice, couched in the rhetoric of warped religious righteousness.   It was another sort of cartoon image—a depiction of the prophet Mohammed, deemed sacrilege by Islamic terrorists—that was their rationale for slaughtering staff at the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo magazine in 2015.  Now, hate-filled Al-Quaeda may have targeted Christians in Lahore, Pakistan on Easter Sunday, killing both Christians and Muslims in that attack.

61v5SVT4HUL._SX360_BO1,204,203,200_Graphic literature has addressed such acts of violence in many ways.  Some graphic journalists, such as Joe Sacco, realistically examine the complex, simmering tensions and hostilities that may lead up to and explode in violence.  (His Palestine (1996), Footnotes in Gaza (2009), and Journalism (2012) were discussed here in October and December, 2015).  The identity and sometimes even the possibility of unadulterated heroes and villains are called into question in his works.   Precisely detailed events, even when rendered through conflicting narratives, and realistically-drawn faces and figures are Sacco’s style.  Yet other graphic literature depicts the physical chaos and emotional mayhem of violent acts in more surreal ways.

41W6DQNGD9L._SX340_BO1,204,203,200_Acclaimed author/illustrator Art Spiegelman, who lived in lower Manhattan during the 9/11 attacks on its Twin Towers, created an astonishing memoir of what that day and its aftermath were like for him, his wife, and two children.  In the Shadow of No Towers (2004)—designed initially as ten over-sized, double page newspaper supplements—first appeared as a semi-regular feature over two years.   Its full-color pages are unified by the image Spiegelman said remained “burned onto the inside of [his] eyelids several years later . . . the looming north tower’s glowing bones just before it vaporized.”  Vertically or horizontally, this skeletal image appears in each supplement, often bracketing or anchoring other drawings that deliberately yoke fantasy to the bizarre realities of that violent day.  The “inner demons” of a homeless person appear alongside skewered images of political leaders; Spiegelman himself sometimes appears as a mouse, a characterization made famous in his earlier, award-winning family history Maus (1980 – 91; 2011) ; and political emblems such as Uncle Sam, the American eagle, and the Statue of Liberty break frames, appearing as ominous or ridiculous figures in the aftermath of Manhattan’s devastation.  For Spiegelman, these figures have ceased to be the reassuring patriotic icons of previous generations. 


Spiegelman’s human characters—including his family—are drawn as awkward cartoon figures, with minimal features and sometimes garishly-colored faces, reflecting the nightmare of that September morning and the following days.  Characters from cartoon history also populate this memoir.   Spiegelman uses kid characters such as the early 1900s Katzenjammer Kids, mid twentieth-century family man Happy Hooligan (here “Hapless Hooligan”), and the long-running duo of Maggie and Jiggs to  comment sardonically about political events in a post-9/11 world.  Boldfaced capital letters shriek
“THE SKY IS FALLING!” while at another point Spiegelman declares the “OSTRICH PARTY” would better describe US politics than the Republican elephant or Democrat donkey.  There are no heroes here—only survivors.

images (15)Even this book’s villains are depicted farcically—a grinning Al-Quaeda leader is drawn with a dog’s long snout as he holds a bloody scimitar.  Similarly, Saddham Hussein, the dictatorial leader of Iraq, is drawn as a supposedly easily-squashed spider, punningly labelled an “IRAKNID.”  Mocking terrorists and anti-U.S. regimes in this way makes the immensity of the 9/11 attack seem even more horrible, U. S. efforts to retaliate and prevent further terrorism somehow ludicrous.   The complex content of In the Shadow of No Towers, including the detailed comics and U.S. history covered in its extended afterword and collage end papers, makes it best suited for readers teen on up.

861343Younger readers, however, would understand and appreciate how more mainstream comics quickly reacted to 9/11 and its aftermath.  Marvel Comics produced two tribute volumes honoring victims of that attack and the first responders who came to their aid.  In Heroes (2001) and A Moment of Silence (2002), superheroes such as Captain America and the Hulk worked alongside firefighters and police—the “world’s greatest heroes.”  Profits from these volumes were donated to families of the killed and injured.   DC Comics superheroes appeared   in two other collections: 9/11: Artists Respond (Volume 1, 2002) and 9/11: The World’s Finest Artists Tell Stories to Remember (Volume 2, 2002). While heroism was not called into question in these and similar works, villainy sometimes was. 

bu9J4QkThe first comic book issue of Spiderman to appear after the Towers fell dramatized this shift.  Its all-black cover represented the emotional impact of this attack on native New Yorker Peter Parker, the teenager who is secretly Spiderman.  He explains that no one, not even superheroes, could imagine the events of 9/11, that some things are “beyond words” and “beyond comprehension.”  Strikingly, in this issue 36 of Spiderman, even supervillains are shown mourning the loss of innocent lives.  Their horror speaks to the enormity of terrorist acts and, remarkably, to the shreds of human decency within even the greatest villains.   Food for thought and discussion for all of us here, whatever our ages.

Before the Brussels and Lahore bombings, I had already thought of revisiting the concepts of “hero” and “villain.”  My focus today was going to be on two fine graphic 51niH6CC-pL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_novels that challenge traditional views of this dichotomy: author/illustrator Noelle Stevenson’ Nimona (2015), and Baba Yaga’s Assistant (2015), written by Marika McCoola and illustrated by Emily Carroll.  Both books feature teens who for their own reasons want to be villains, not heroes.  And both reveal surprisingly sympathetic aspects of the fantastic villains with whom they apprentice.  I see that the American Library Association has just included these books on their61yD87GEkBL._SX352_BO1,204,203,200_ 2016 Update of recommended graphic novels for grades 6 -8.   This adds further luster to Nimona’ s nomination for several national awards, and Baba Yaga’s Assistant’s place on the New York Times best-seller list.  Enjoy these books yourselves, even as you introduce them to readers tween and up.  Both bear rereading, too, for illustration details and shifting color palettes that deepen characterization and plot. 

61kKFmJgB8L._SX366_BO1,204,203,200_Perhaps these graphic fantastic fictions will also provide springboards into a discussion of terrorist villainy.  As for me, I am waiting for my library copy of a related nonfiction graphic work: Terrorist: Gavrilo Princip, The Assassin Who Ignited World War I (2014; 2015).  I hope author/illustrator Henrik Rehr’s book for teens will shed some light on recent events for me even as it illuminates the past.  In our atomic era, sadly, the phrase once used hopefully about Word War I—“the war to end all wars” —suggests cataclysm rather than peace. 


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