Friday, May 9, 2008

The 9/11 Report: a Graphic Adaptation and New Literacies

In the fall of 2004, 72-year-old Ernie Colon bought and read the 9/11 Commission Report, realizing as he did that only a fraction of the book’s buyers would do the same. With tons of free time even though he was employed as a security guard, he wondered if more people would read the Report if it were presented in an easier to understand format. He called Sid Jacobson and put together the nonfiction graphic adaptation of the 9/11 Report.

The two had worked together at Harvey Comics in the fifties, on titles like Richie Rich and Casper, the Friendly Ghost, but had moved into other fields as the superhero comic wiped out the children’s market in the nineties.

Their graphic adaptation of the 9/11 Report has won kudos from many. I found the book quite moving, and as Colon surmised, the only reason I know a lot of what I do about that Tuesday morning is because of their effort. For instance, the report states that at most, 2,152 individuals died at the WTC who were not rescue workers or on board one of the two planes. Of that number, 1,942 were at or above the impact zones. That the evacuation of the building was such a resounding success was something that I hadn’t been exposed to, even with all the coverage.

The tone set by the creators is a calm and factual one, reflecting the prose of the Report itself. The likenesses are well rendered and the information is presented in such a way that it is easily digestible. Their accomplishments will be followed with another title, After 9/11: America’s War on Terror (2001- ), and the pair have another three in the works.

This being the case, I wonder why this technique isn’t used more often. Though series like the ‘For Beginners’ have had a fair amount of success, there has been little crossover into other genres. So much can be taught in a form that many find more palatable than prose. We’ve seen how well Scott McCloud was able to discuss some fairly heady work on comics by writing in the form, and thousands of kids, including me, have read comic versions of historical classics like Moby Dick.

The popular criticism is that our country is getting dumber and prefers the graphs and photos of USA Today to the lengthy texts of the Wall Street Journal. But what if we look at that as not a failure in literacy but a shift to a different kind of literacy? With this new perspective, perhaps we can begin to see that these readers may very well be interested in reading things like Jacobson’s and Colon’s The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation.

There may very well be a hole in the market. Somebody should fill it.


Anonymous said...

But what if we look at that as not a failure in literacy but a shift to a different kind of literacy?

I think it was you who pointed me towards Everything Bad is Good for You, which I should actually lay my hands on some day. Isn't it argued there-- though I've seen the same argument elsewhere-- that modern Americans are much more proficient at extracting information from visual media? If that's true, just as much information, if not more so, could be extracted from a graphic novel as "ordinary" prose. It might be a different sort, but it's just as valid. It makes me think of the novella version of City of Glass vs. the comic; I think the latter communicates almost the same ideas, but does in fewer pages with fewer words. Rare was the moment in reading the novella that I encountered something that I didn't remember from the comic.

Jon Polk said...

I forget the exact parameters of Johnson's argument, though as you say the same points have ben made elsewhere. I believe that a big focus for him is form over content, which would support our theory here that information transmitted in graphic novel form may be easier to assimilate than information presented merely in prose.

As for City of Glass, that is on an ever growing list of paper topics I will one day get around to writing (hopefully).