The Brave & the Bold

On September 11, the world needed superheroes. It found them not in comic books, but in real life.

"I'm repulsed by the plague of violence and death ravaging our nation and feel frustrated, even helpless, to combat it," Steranko wrote in a posting on comicon.com. "I find it particularly disturbing that the artistic form with which I'm most closely identified has seemed to turn its back on the virtues upon which it was built...Today's comics are possessed by brutality, destruction, depravity, cynicism and obscenity." The debate has only begun to rage and does so in plain sight.

Comics always served an important function during wartime; they've rallied support for the troops and raised money for savings bonds. Superman fought grotesquely caricatured Nazis and Japanese soldiers; Joe Simon's Captain America was duking it out with Hitler months before the United States entered World War II. And the medium has never shied away from incorporating topical issues into its panels and word balloons; in the 1960s and '70s, even superhero comics were populated by drug addicts, battle-scarred Vietnam veterans and racist hate mongers. Like all media, it reflected--and distorted--the horrors of the everyday. But that was before war struck our shores and claimed thousands of innocents. It was before movie producers, such as Jerry Bruckheimer, started wrapping crass nihilism in jingoistic red, white and blue. It was before millions, if not billions, were made off catastrophes marketed as populist "art."

On September 10, violence sold. On September 11, you couldn't give it away.

"You just try and use what strength you have to tell a story that will make the world a better place," says DC's Levitz. "People need different emotional messages. People need different entertainment messages. Writers and artists, in whatever medium they're working in, try to respond to that by telling stories that add meaning to life. Violence has certainly been a tool in that. Anything that affects people's lives with drama or comedy has been a tool in that, and you just look at each circumstance as the world evolves, and you try to deal with the best ways that as a storyteller you can use your tools for what people need.

"This is not only an act of war come home to our shores, but whether you live in New York or the most remote town in America, it came into your living room. I don't know what that does to the world, and I don't know what that does to our role as storytellers. We have to search that out, and it will be a difficult task."

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