Jeffery Moulton, author of The Superhero Response: How 9/11 Changed Our Superheroes and Why It Matters, talks about how superhero comic books responded to the events of 9/11 and how they continue to hold a mirror to society today.
Q: What inspired you to write your book The Superhero Response: How 9/11 Changed Our Superheroes and Why It Matters?
A: A few years after 9/11, I was driving home late one night and I was thinking about the first Spider-Man movie. It’s something I do when I drive. And I was wondering to myself what made it so popular. As I got to thinking about it, I realized that a large coincidence with what made the Spider-Man movie popular, I think, was how it tied into 9/11, or more specifically, how it tied into the narrative of 9/11 that was being used by the politicians at the time. And I started researching it, diving into it and researching it, and I turned to the comics after that to learn more about the character and how the character had evolved over time and how things had impacted it.
I was taking a master’s course at the time, studying for my master’s, and I wrote a paper about that. My teacher thought the paper was really good, and got me an invite to present at the Popular Culture Association conference in San Francisco. I had a lot of people coming up to me afterwards and asking a lot of questions about it and kind of pushing my theory further. People started asking, “Well, what about other superheroes? How did it affect them?” My teacher said, “You know, this would make a really excellent book and you should do this.” That was how it got started. The more I started digging into it, the further down the hole it went. I found so many different parallels and connections between how things changed after 9/11 with how we tell those superhero stories that it just became — for about three years — my whole world. It was pretty much all I did and all I talked about and all I thought about.
Q: What surprised you the most while researching this book?
A: I think that what surprised me the most was how much the characters have changed and how much they haven’t changed. In the comics industry, they talk about how comic book characters have the illusion of change. Peter Parker, for example, has changed slightly; he got married, but then they took it away. That’s what happens a lot in comics. You have these recurring storylines, where it looks like the character’s going to progress and then it’s taken back. But they’re always a little bit different.
Q: Comics were first among most pop culture art forms to respond to and comment on 9/11. Why do you think they were able to respond so quickly?
A: I think there were a few different reasons. At a very, very basic level, I think that comics are faster to produce than a lot of other pop culture. It’s faster to get a comic book out than it is to get a movie made, for example, or even to write a novel or something like that. But I think, beyond that, there’s a very close tie with the comic book industry, which was located primarily in New York, and so the industry professionals were all very much in the thick of what was happening at 9/11. They were ground zero. They knew people that were directly affected: co-workers or family or friends. They knew people that had been physically affected by what had happened, and so it was very, very personal to them, as an industry. Additionally, with that, you had these characters — Spider-Man is a really good example, but the Avengers in particular — they’re located in New York City and I think they had to respond. It was their territory, their turf that this happened, and you couldn’t have something that big happen in the real world without it all spilling over into the comic. It was personal to their characters. It was personal to them.
New York and Marvel are so tightly tied together. That was one of the real innovations that they brought to the comic book industry, actually setting [the comics] in a real location. And, like I said, when something that big happens, in a real location, and that many people are killed — a lot of people were comparing it to comic book villain plots. It was that kind of scale. I think they had to react. I think they had to respond, for themselves and for their city.
Q: Are there any stories that you think handled this particularly well, that really stood out for you in your research?
A: The most obvious one of course is the Civil War story arc, which was Marvel’s attempt to directly talk about 9/11 and the impact of 9/11 and they did it so in a figurative way. I also think that Infinite Crisis, on the DC side — it’s not directly tied to 9/11 but it was very much informed by the time.
The big one for me honestly, and I know it’s a controversial issue, was “The Black Issue” of Spider-Man, which was the first reaction. I think that it, inadvertently, or maybe a little bit purposely, kind of informed a little bit of the comic book reaction to 9/11 because it was directly dealing with it. It’s when Spider-Man arrives [at Ground Zero] and he’s too late. … His character, almost more than anybody, is tied to New York. Spider-Man is a New Yorker, and so I think his tie to that city, his tie to the people there, it became a big deal, and you even saw it in the movie. The movie also carried that forward with Tobey Maguire, that whole idea. He was part of it and so, for me, those are the ones that stand out the most as being impacted, and obviously Civil War — Civil War was a deliberate attempt to address it and talk about it. And some of the others were maybe a little bit more removed but those are the ones that really stood out to me.
Q: How would you say that 9/11 impacted the tonal shift of the superhero world in comic books and in superhero movies?
A: The Dark Knight was a major, major touchpoint, as far as reactions to it. … As far as tone went, it made things a lot darker. It changed things. When I first wrote the book, the working title I had was Fallible and Flawed because what happened with the superheroes was that they became a little more fallible, they became a lot more flawed, and you see that in The Dark Knight. He makes mistakes. It’s kind of interesting — you see this shift — if you go back and you look at the Tim Burton Batman, from the ’80’s and the early ’90’s, he only really gets hurt one time in all four of those movies. In The Dark Knight, you see Bruce Wayne takes off his shirt and his whole back is covered with scars and bruises. That was a big shift, in that these superheroes could now be hurt. They could be wounded. They made mistakes.
And then they used [the film] as a way to talk about and to debate the policies of the Bush Administration and the War on Terror. Batman invades a country in The Dark Knight. They point out he doesn’t have jurisdiction to do that, but he does it anyway. He goes to another country and removes, physically removes, a national from the country and takes him to get information out of him. It’s a big deal. He uses warrantless wiretapping. He uses torture. He goes to that edge, and it gets him a lot darker, and it’s basically a visual debate about what we’re doing in this war on terror — is this right, is this moral, is this what needs to happen in order to fight a villain like the Joker, who has no agenda other than to cause chaos? It was all about 9/11. It was all about dealing with that terror, dealing with that fear, but also seeing these superheroes that used to be these perfect things that hardly ever hurt — and now they’re very hurt and they’re very wounded and they struggle and they make mistakes. And the villains are a lot more vicious and a lot more successful. So you had this big shift in the way things were and in that tone.
Q: In what ways would you say that our world today is being reflected in pop culture?
A: It still continues. I think that’s what comics and pop culture in general do best. They reflect the society and the culture in which they’re created, and they really help us put a mirror to ourselves and see who we are. … 9/11 was a huge deal. It was a massive, massive thing to our country and to the world, and it changed things and so comics had to change. It kind of goes back to what I said earlier: they have this change while not changing at the same time. … We’re seeing this kind of evolution of the move forward because we’re evolving and that’s what makes these stories relevant and that’s what makes these stories important.
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