I remember September 7, 2001 pretty well. It was a Friday. I had been working as a manager of sorts in an office. Small, private administration company. It had been hemorrhaging money because the owner made bad choices. Someone cleaned out their desk and went down the elevator for the last time just about once every week. It had been a rough few months. We went from a staff of around 15 to, eventually, one. I was in the final four. Survivor was a popular show at the time, so there were jokes about who would next be “voted off the island.”
That day, it was me.
I don’t recall what I did that weekend, but on Monday the 10th, I swallowed some pride and made my first trip to the unemployment office. I was in my early twenties, but I had the kind of job men in their 40s usually held. Had a lot of martini lunches, made a lot of big deals, had early signs of ulcers. I figured I would get another job like that one. I had some connections; I would start to sow seeds out there. Late in that day, one of the 3 remaining employees at that place called me and told me the owner was going to attempt to block my benefits. I started drinking immediately. Bourbon. Not just bourbon- Wild Turkey. My mind was on fire. I had finally reached the temperature at which patience burned.
My plan for September 11, 2001 was to show up at a public place and put the man I had worked for in the hospital.
The phone rang and woke me up. Old high school pal on the line. “Turn on the TV.” It was around 10 AM. Early for me. Must be a big story. I imagined that perhaps Michael Jackson died or something. That was the biggest news story I could conceive of. I turned the tube on. Uttered an expletive. Then, I heard my friends say four words that would be repeated many times:
“We are under attack.”
It’s cliché to say, but my life changed forever right then. I wanted to go to bed. That would’ve been impossible. I resolved right then to forget my old boss, my old job, or trying to chase those streets anymore. I wouldn’t do anything I didn’t want to do for money ever again.
I got back in touch with friends I had drifted from, reassessed a great many things, which was not uncommon for young adults at that time. I will also think of my life as before and after that event. I was at that age where things change, anyway. Not as much willingness to squander hours and experiences, time accelerated, values changed.
Comic books were ever present in my life, but in those immediately following days, the super hero daring do I had been following just then seemed shallow, foolish, and irrelevant. DC had just wrapped up a big Summer crossover called Our World At War in which name characters were killed only to be resurrected later and non-essential background civilians were killed by the truckload in the name of “impact,” then forever forgotten. Kansas was even wiped off the map by a blast from space. At the end of the run, after about 4 million pointless, unmourned storyline deaths passed through the pages and 400 bucks worth of tie-ins had been purchased by me, it was business as usual in the DC Universe.
The only idea right then that struck me as goofier than going back to my life as I had been leading it was continuing to follow the adventures of Superman, the omnipotent hero who managed to still change the world very little, who refused to kill the villains who sullied his planet. It was so far removed from anything plausible that it bordered on insulting, I wanted none of it. Most superheroes felt like absolute pointless, childish nonsense to me right then.
It’s true that in the wake of 9/11 all superhero fiction was a difficult proposition, but the stakes were perhaps no higher conceptually than they were for any but Captain America. A character born out of a certain pragmatic 1940s attitude, but certainly also the product of propaganda, the stories told about Cap in the immediate 21st century would determine if the character became newly relevant…or if he would sink into absolute out-of-touch obscurity.
In the relaunched Captain America comic, it fell in the hands of writer John Ney Rieber and artist John Cassidy to tell a story of Cap on the defense against a literally faceless enemy, a terrorist from an unknown locale that had been done wrong in American military intervention, scarred to the point of being entirely unrecognizable, hounding the “American Way” with acts of unbridled destruction and self-righteous fury. It was a story that tested the resolve of many readers, but for those open minded enough to see it through to the end, it was a treat.
“My people never knew!” Cap told him, in the final battle, as he was dispatching the enemy. “We know now. And those days are over- we’ve learned from our mistakes. But you- you say you’ve seen the innocent die- known that loss. Felt that suffering. You’re blind. You haven’t seen anything but your own pain. Your own hate- Or you’d die before you’d cause another man that pain- any man. Any woman, any child. You’re no better than the warlords who created you. Wherever you’re from.”
It was this very pragmatic take on the character that Ed Brubaker riffed on when he took on the book, weaving elements of intrigue and espionage into the DNA of the character, playing on the wartime grit that time had washed out, but had just splattered back on. It is this version of the character that film goers met over the Summer at the multiplex in Winter Soldier- a complex and complicated warrior, ready to do what must be done for the greater good, a beacon of light in a murky world of gray.
Finding conventional Superheroes forever tarnished, I developed more and more interest in military and espionage stories. I wasn’t alone. The Bourne trilogy would be a smash, and the relaunched James Bond franchise, which took a harder and “back to basics” look at a character that had become a self-parody in decades past, would be thrilling in the role of the “blunt instrument” in the employ of Queen and Country. Daniel Craig was like the sort of second coming of Steve McQueen, an actor who felt legitimately tough. A sharp contrast to Pierce Brosnan, who seemed a bit like a JC Penny catalog model. Casino Royale, closely modeled after the gritty Cold War era book it was based on with some obvious updates, was the first new action movie I saw after 9/11 that reflected where my head was.
The zeitgeist had changed. Similar films and television would follow, such as 24. For the first time in a long time, a frustrated public demanded blood lust and realism -but not actual reality, as that was more than a little depressing- in their heroes. The term “antihero” had been big through the previous decades, but now locked in a righteous war, a war of ideologies as well as of literal fighting, death, and destruction, the public seemed okay with promoting the hardasses who didn’t always “try to find a better way” than end the lives of their opponents straight from “anti” to “hero.”
Brubaker, after and during working on Cap, would do crime comics on the banner, appropriately enough, of a title called Criminal. He also had a book about a villain in the witness protection program called Incognito. It felt like it was all practice for his current big project, Velvet. Velvet is about the sordid things a very Miss Moneypenny type character got into, battling a conspiracy and trying to clear her name. It’s hard to fathom any of these comics being the top sellers they are without the modern malaise we have since the towers fell.
Wednesday, September 12 2001 saw the release of Devil’s Due’s G.I. Joe revival, which I had been looking forward to but skipped, because the reality of what was going on just shattered my suspension of disbelief. It’s odd when you consider how much the 80′s G.I. Joe team was ahead of its time, battling a terrorist group in a clandestine war, but it wasn’t time for that yet. It would be a good year or so before I read those stories…and found them wanting.
It wasn’t until IDW took on the Hasbro toy company’s top property that the potential in the concept was met. Chuck Dixon set up the Joe team as being like an elite group of Seal Team Sixers to the Nth degree, allowing their deaths to be faked so that they might become ultimate secret weapons in the main G.I. Joe book, but it was Mike Costa and Christos Gage in the Cobra book that really flew some heavy altitudes. The aloha shirt clad Magnum P.I. riff character Chuckles went from an 80′s kid punchline to the most important character of the story, as he infiltrated the cult of Cobra in a storyline with a beginning, middle, and explosive end, complete with a genuinely shocking climax.
Fanciful, mystical, or farfetched ideas in my escapism have become much less compelling to me than more pragmatic storytelling in art and ideas. My new found passion for espionage as well as my lifelong love of comics and tendency to develop interest in styles and cultural trappings of times gone by caused me to eventually investigate Jim Steranko, whose work I had only seen here and there growing up, such as mentioned briefly in Les Daniels’ Marvel book.
It’s not just that the images and layouts in those comics had a very adult quality, a really sophisticated sensibility, that have been rarely rivaled since. That 60′s S.H.I.E.L.D. book… The Cold War jitters mirrored our own tenuous times. The mortal Nick Fury, grizzled, aging, one eyed and ubiquitously cigar chomping, two fisted and ready to take on anything, a G-Man with a plan, became in my mind the best kind of hero for a fractured world.
Maybe it was always that way…but it took one very bad day for me to figure it out.