Before addressing this controversial comic, let’s establish one thing: anything by Rick Veitch is newsworthy and deserving of better than being written off. Veitch is one of the legends who renewed American comics in the 1980s, whether it was his trippy work for Epic Illustrated, his bizarre pop-culture super-hero odyssey The One, his succeeding Alan Moore on Swamp Thing, or his absolute revisionist 1990 classic Brat Pack.
Rich Veitch never got the acclaim of an Alan Moore or a Frank Miller, and it’s easy to see why. He didn’t initially have an extended run like Miller had on Daredevil or Moore had on Swamp Thing, and when Veitch did get the opportunity, he had the thankless task of following in Moore’s shadow, rather than redefining a property from scratch. His Swamp Thing was hit or miss, but filled with brilliant concepts (Swamp Thing could alter his body, and he actually grew a huge brain to solve a quandary he was in) and some truly great issues (his Superman issue of Swamp Thing is still one of the best Superman stories ever written, period). Unfortunately, he walked away from the title when DC wanted to censor the culmination of his run, which would have featured Jesus, portrayed as a sort of white magician, still a good guy but not necessarily as the inapproachably perfect Judeo-Christian messiah.
The other reason Veitch didn’t get the acclaim was his aesthetic. While Frank Miller bent towards hard-boiled tough guys, fusing detective novels with Japanese influences, Veitch was way out there, more interested in crazy, mind-bending concepts. Yet somehow, they didn’t take off the way Grant Morrison’s did. As an artist, Veitch is undeniably brilliant, and there’s a reason Moore turned to him to illustrate two later classics, Supreme and the Greyshirt stories in Tomorrow Stories. Veitch often experiments wildly, and he’s done as much to advance panel compositions and how comics can structure stories on the page as just about anyone. But his art, while very precise, has a droopy look to it that’s hard to describe, as if everything’s being viewed in the morning, as the acid’s wearing off but is still being felt. While I happen to love it, it’s not to everyone’s taste, especially in an industry in which artists seem defined only by their fascist glorified realism and ability to draw hot girls.
All of which is to say, without belittling the titanic accomplishments Veitch has made since Brat Pack (including the brilliant Maximortal and the almost-as-brilliant Greyshirt: Indigo Sunset, not to mention the experimentation of Can’t Get No), that Veitch is tremendously, even ridiculously under-appreciated. It’s a crime that he doesn’t get more work and that his place in comics history isn’t more widely known. He may not be the king of Olympus, but he’s in the pantheon.
That said, he’s not doing his reputation for crazy work any favors with The Big Lie. Paying any heed to 9/11 conspiracy theories is one of the quickest ways to marginalize yourself these days. And that seems to be where most “discussions” of The Big Lie begin and end: this is crazy stuff most people don’t want to touch.
Yet that also makes The Big Lie a brave thing for Veitch to do. Because surely he knows this political climate. From his experience on Swamp Thing, he also knows the personal consequences that taking a moral stance can entail. But he believes in getting these ideas out there, and he’s chosen to do so for the tenth anniversary of 9/11, consequences be damned.
That is how Veitch has spun The Big Lie: that it’s not about pushing a conclusion, so much as raising questions. And indeed, before and after the comic, quotations and evidence are provided. Even within the narrative, the emphasis is always about bringing up evidence, rather than pointing to the Bush administration or any other culprits; yes, that’s there, but it’s implicit. Veitch has said that he doesn’t consider The Big Lie a “Truther” comic for this reason: it doesn’t make claims about the truth behind 9/11, so much as raise questions.
That’s a fair point, in that one doesn’t want to dismiss anyone raising questions by lumping them in with the real wackos who claim to know all the answers. Having said that, I do think The Big Lie goes beyond simply asking questions. It mostly does that, but in its universe, there’s no doubt that the Twin Towers were destroyed by a controlled demolition. That’s enough for me to label it a Truther comic.
And just for the record, I don’t buy the conspiracy theories myself. I’ve seen Truther documentaries, which I thought were compelling, but I’ve also read the rebuttals, which I find far more compelling. There are legitimate discrepancies among eyewitnesses, but eyewitnesses are notoriously inaccurate. The way the buildings collapsed did surprise the experts, but experts have offered explanations that account for the collapse pattern. I admit that I’m troubled by the slow military response, after the first plane hit the World Trade Center, as I was on 9/11 itself. But I keep coming back to my own belief that it’s hard to keep a secret between five people in a room, let alone a huge operation on this scale. And the Bush administration? It wasn’t exactly the most competent, and we now know a huge percentage of private details about the administration’s thinking. I don’t believe that the administration that bungled Iraq so badly, from start to finish, could possibly successfully execute and cover up 9/11.
Do I have answers for all of the arguments and evidence raised by The Big Lie? No, but I’m fairly confident they’re out there, and I’ve already done enough idle research into the subject to satisfy me that I don’t need to do any further.
To his credit, Veitch avoids the most easily dismissed 9/11 conspiracy claims. So you won’t see claims, for example, that there were extensions underneath the aircraft, which are far easier to explain as shadows than as military modifications that few people saw and don’t show up in other footage. I’m no 9/11 conspiracy expert, but it’s clear that Veitch has done his homework.
Also, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with encouraging people to look at the subject. As long as one isn’t perpetuating information one knows to be wrong or discredited. And again, there’s no sign Veitch hasn’t been careful.
But most importantly, while The Big Lie obviously wants to raise issues, it must ultimately be judged on the basis of its artistic merit. Oliver Stone’s JFK is indisputably a masterpiece, a virtual textbook of cinematic devices. It’s polemic, but I don’t have to agree with its politics to appreciate it artistically. We all understand how Birth of a Nation and Triumph of the Will are cinematic touchstones and even beautiful, while we’re also (one hopes) repulsed by their politics. The Chinese film Hero is a more recent example, beautiful but politically repulsive. And even in comics, one doesn’t have to agree that Alan Moore’s Brought to Light is a full and complete depiction of U.S. foreign policy to appreciate the majesty of it language and its narrative devices.
Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not comparing The Big Lie with Triumph of the Will politically, a level at which there can be no comparison. Rather, I’m simply stating the obvious: artistic works are allowed to be polemic, and they can even be excellent works of art while being dangerous or repulsive for their politics. And this distinction is nothing new. In fact, it’s obviously got a great history in cartooning, the political cartoon being one of the great staples of American art, despite that many of the messages now appear dated or even repulsive.
And so we at last get to what I feel obliged to point out about The Big Lie, beyond its treatment of 9/11: it’s actually a rather good and engaging story. Surprisingly so, given the harsh criticism it’s received. And impressively so, give its subject matter.
Yes, it’s framed by an Uncle Sam figure, which is a bit over the top. But that’s a nod to that same tradition of political cartooning, and he doesn’t spout anything objectionable. Rather, his role in the narrative is very much like the Crypt Keeper, offering semi-ironic introductory and concluding remarks.
The story itself is focused around a time traveler from 2011, who goes back in time to save her husband on 9/11. That’s her only agenda, and it’s a fascinating one. 9/11 has largely been avoided, as a narrative device, in part because it’s so recent and remains so politically sensitive. But one could easily imagine a classic Twilight Zone episode focused on someone trying to stop Pearl Harbor.
At its best, that’s what The Big Lie feels like: a Twilight Zone episode, complete with a twist ending. In classic fashion, our protagonist isn’t believed, and she has to go about answering questions about this rather unbelievable terrorist attack she claims is imminent. These questions are what produce her conspiratorial responses, and most of the time they’re not statements of fact — they’re statements about what some people believe, with a little evidence thrown in.
But to return to the comic’s politics, yes, it questions the official story of 9/11. But no one could accuse it of attacking America or being unpatriotic. In fact, it reaffirms American values, and not only though the Uncle Sam framing device. It even includes the names of those who died on 9/11, going out of its way to show it’s not in the deplorable “little Eichmann” twisted, extreme minority of the left.
It’s worth contrasting how much heat The Big Lie has gotten, because of the Truther label, compared to Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers, which is far more troubling for its tendency to “hate America first,” as the right has dubbed it. Yet Spiegelman has been cautiously praised, while Veitch has been cautiously condemned. If anything, this situation should be reversed.
But what’s most painful about The Big Lie isn’t the depiction of 9/11. It isn’t the questions about the official story. It’s the parts of the story that aren’t conspiracy theory at all.
Because even if one believes the official story of the events of 9/11, as I do, no one can responsibly dispute that 9/11 might have been prevented, had the U.S. intelligence system worked correctly. And specifically, had the new Bush administration not openly said that terrorism wasn’t a priority. That was part of a “if Clinton did it, it must be wrong” attitude that also saw the Bush administration openly disengage (in fact, disparage engagement) from the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
This leads me into what is perhaps the most heartbraking moment of The Big Lie: when our visitor from the future has to reveal that, 10 years from 9/11, the United States is mired in a war in Iraq, which had nothing to do with the attack that day.
And of course, no one on 9/11 would have believed such a horror could happen. As terrible as a terrorist attack is, what was done in its name sounds like deranged dystopian science fiction, not anything recognizable as America. It’s completely unbelievable. And yet it’s all indisputably true.
Yes, the Bush administration picked and chose evidence to push the idea that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Donald Rumsfeld even set up his own de facto intelligence agency in the Pentagon to find this evidence, bypassing the normal intelligence process. Meanwhile, the real intelligence agencies, who understood the need not to have an a priori belief when gathering intelligence, were intimidated (in some instances by Dick Cheney personally) and co-opted (as with CIA Director George Tenet, who traded integrity for access and ultimately claimed the intelligence his own agency had already discredited was “a slam dunk”).
And of course, the Bush administration didn’t have a plan for rebuilding Iraq, outside of hoping that the U.S. would be welcomed as liberators and that Ahmed Chalabi, an Iraqi exile who had fed the U.S. hyped-up intelligence, could facilitate a new Iraqi government.
And Veitch can only be congratulated, as loudly as possible, for focusing on the six-figure civilian death toll in Iraq, which has been horrendously ignored by the U.S. media.
Again, none of this is in dispute. It’s not a conspiracy theory. It’s indisputable fact.
And it’s the tip of the iceberg. Because Iraq is only one of two wars, the other being Afghanistan, which wasn’t invaded under false pretenses but which almost immediately became a mismanaged opportunity for corruption and civilian death, much like Iraq. And while the U.S. was getting into these two arguably unwinnable wars, the Bush administration was also busy pushing the deregulation that would help tank the world economy. One can only guess how the characters on 9/11 would react to hear, on top of everything, of Hurricane Katrina and the preventable oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Or that an entire separate criminal system would be set up to deprive terrorist suspects (many of whom were snatched off the streets based on tips from paid informants with no evidence), including U.S. citizens, of their most basic rights, including habeus corpus, which the founding fathers fought for and which was expressly included in the Constitution.
It’s a global disaster movie, and none of it’s conspiracy theory. It’s the unfathomably dystopic product of the Bush administration. And seeing even a smidgen of it presented to the innocents on 9/11 is unfathomably painful to read.
It’s arguably The Big Lie‘s strongest moment. But it also suggests The Big Lie‘s greatest weakness.
Because with all of this, who needs conspiracy theory? The truth as we know it is already so unthinkably horrifying, so twisted and anti-American, that even if 9/11 had been an inside job (which The Big Lie, it’s important to say, does not depict), it would only be the icing on a cake that’s already heartbreakingly rotten.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t read The Big Lie. It’s by Rick Veitch; end of story. And it’s part of the American and even the global political discourse. It’s not wrong to ask these questions, and they’re not asked in any mean-spirited or anti-American way; nothing could be further from the truth. The fact that they can be asked is a testament to the free speech the United States still enjoys. And it’s clear, from the information and URLs provided after the story, that Veitch doesn’t intends this 27-page comic to be the sum of the debate. The fact that I don’t believe the World Trade Center collapse was a controlled demolition doesn’t mean that I’m afraid to look at the evidence (which I already had, seeing it as part of my civic responsibility as an informed voter). Nor does it mean that any call to do so should be treated as somehow anti-American.
But once you’ve done that investigation, there’s an even bigger picture hinted at in The Big Lie. It has to do, as the story so powerfully suggests, with how the future interacts with the past.
Because whatever you think about 9/11, the 21st century began there, on American soil, in fire and in heartbreak. No one owns 9/11, not the widows and widowers, not the right nor the left — and no, not even solely America. The question, once the smoke clears, isn’t only what happened. It’s what you’re going to do with that information.
Analyze and understand the past, but never lose sight of the fact that it’s what’s forward that matters most.
Few statements could be more American than that, in this country conceived of as an evolving, ever “more perfect” experiment.
Just as few things can be more tragic than looking back ten years and realizing the short-sighted, national nightmare your country’s been put through.
Here’s hoping we’re doing better, as a nation and a world, when the sequel comes out, on September 11, 2021.