Flashback: How Comic Books Tackled 9/11: Then and Now

Alex Ross


It has been over twenty years since the September 11th, 2001 attacks, yet for any American old enough to remember, it feels like it was just a few years ago. However, it has been over a generation since we witnessed the attacks. For many of today’s comic book readers, it’s just all history to them. They weren’t alive when it happened, and some had parents that hadn’t even met 20 years ago.


When the event was still raw, amid the painful aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, comic book artists and writers were among the first in the artistic community to respond creatively. The many moving stories they drew and wrote prompted both mainstream and alternative comic book publishers to produce anthologies of visually compelling work. 



Like all Americans, comic publishers like Marvel and DC, whose offices were in New York City at the time, were shocked at what happened. Marvel, perhaps far more than DC, turned to the characters that had brought entertainment and joy so many times over the year, Marvel sought to utilize them to honor the real life heroes of the attacks and the weeks that followed, and to bring hope to its readers.


Full-page art from Marvel’s Heroes #1 (2001) by Phil Winslade


Marvel Comics put out Marvel’s Heroes shortly after the attacks and DC Comics released DC’s 9-11 The World’s Finest Comic Book Writers & Artists Tell Stories to Remember early in 2002. Both comics were “benefit books” whose creatives, production staff, printers and distributors took no payment for their services. Even the cost of the paper and ink was absorbed by the publishers and all money earned went to 9/11 relief funds. 

Shortly before Marvel’s HEROES hit stands, an all-black cover appeared for Amazing Spider-Man #36 in December 2001. Centering on Spider-Man and other heroes’ efforts to aid the first responders in helping at Ground Zero, the issue offered a clear message: no matter how great, interesting, or fun the fictional protagonists of the Marvel Universe had been over the years, the true brave people of the moment—and on an ongoing basis—were the paramedics, officers, and firemen who waded into the situation on that day and the days and weeks that followed to help their fellow human beings. Also, by revealing the vulnerability of the characters as they struggled with the moment, Marvel sought to reassure readers that even champions with super strength, great tactical minds, or radar senses would be scared and angry and confused in light of such a sudden and cruel attack. And even if heroes could be overwhelmed the reader should feel ok with his or her own complex and overwhelming feelings. We all feel this way right now, the issue promises, but we can all be strong too—just like our heroes.



HEROES featured work from the likes of Neal Adams, Paul Dini, Dave Gibbons, Joe Quesada, Walt Simonson, Kevin Smith, and countless others, it continued to honor the first responders and feed that still aching need to do something, anything, to feel a bit more active and a bit less rocked back on our collective heels. Arguably the key moment of the book comes when an exhausted Captain America finds the strength to continue from the inspiration of NYPD and FDNY, an obvious metaphor for the strength each citizen could draw from each other.



A few months later, Marvel released the final of the three 9/11-related projects, MOMENT OF SILENCE. Here, the focus had shifted some. Finally a few steps removed from the maelstrom, MOMENT provided a nearly wordless platform for contemplation, for allowing ourselves to slow down, to stop, and mourn those we lost and embrace those who survived along with us.



The three projects, all said, raised over a million dollars for the Twin Towers Fund, the largest comic book fundraising project to date. Through its efforts, Marvel had connected readers with their heroes and offered a sense that all of us might not be as alone as we feel, while raising money. With three books, the company fulfilled both the drive to alleviate the psychic pain of the attacks and provide tangible help going forward. 


DC Comics, Dark Horse, Chaos!, and Image Comics took a lightly different approach publishing two volumes in omnibus paperback format that served as a moving memorial to the events of September 11, 2001. In vivid pictures and intensely autobiographic words, graphic artists celebrate the skyscraper heroes who still sustain us. Contributors included Frank Miller, Dave McKeon, Jeph Loeb, Will Eisner, Trina Robbins, Mike Diona, and dozens of others.


DC Comics coordinated the second volume alone.




Image Comics, on the other hand, offered readers conspiracy stories and controversy a few years later. Writer Rick Veitch, presented a Twilight Zone take on the tragedy that was a shocking portrayal of the events in a 9/11 one-shot about the fall of the Twin Towers called “The Big Lie”. The comic centered on a time traveler who heads for her husband’s office, where he disbelieves she is, in fact, his wife, because she looks older than the woman he left to go to the office this morning. The time traveler explains to an unbelieving audience how the planes about to crash into the Twin Towers aren’t the real reason they collapsed, that explosives were deliberately-planted throughout the buildings. Definitely on-brand for both Veitch and Image.



As we approached the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, Joe Quesada and John Romita Jr gave readers a glimpse of the Marvel Universe looking back on that day in the Marvel Comics 9/11 Tribute, “The Four Fives.” The entire comic was just seven pages long and culminated with Spider-Man joining Captain America at the World Trade Center monument. Only the first two panels contain any dialogue, and nearly the rest of comic remains silent, showing images of people around America in mourning as the bell tolls loudly during the ceremony.



John Romita Jr’s art was filled with his love for New York City and the United States., and I think this 9/11 Tribute may be the best thing Joe Quesada ever written. The short comic goes from a poignant, beautiful tribute to a heartbreaking reminder. 





Originally published on September 11, 2021

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Jamison Ashley

Comic geek, movie nerd, father, and husband - but not necessarily in that order. Former captain of this ship o' fools secretly training everyone's computers and snarkphone spell-checkers to misspell 'supposebly.'