Wednesday, November 18, 2009

On the side with the butter

Eight long years after the collapse of the Twin Towers that horrible day in 2001, the date itself has become a nounand the cultural rubble is still falling.

Artistically, most of the world has moved on, although fears and worldviews and themes stirred up in the dust of the falling towers are still plainly there. It was a different story in the weeks after the event, with comics joining in with the general cultural confusion over the event. This saw the publication of several different books that produced a huge variety of stories and images, with an even greater variety of quality.

Unsurprisingly, the books produced by the most mainstream American comic publishers fared the worst. Squeezing the destruction of that day into the Marvel and DC universe was often ham-fisted to the point of actually generating humour out of a tragic event, with Doctor Doom's tears over Ground Zero standing out as the most misguided moment in any tribute.

Frankly, on worlds that frequently see entire cities destroyed with the loss of millions of lives, it is hard to see how the events of September 11 would even make a dent in the culture of these places. If anything, it once again showed that slapping brightly coloured superheroes created decades ago into a realistic setting is doomed to failure, no matter how good the intentions.

There were some genuinely moving and thoughtful stories in Marvel and DC's books that dealt with the date, but the ratio was much higher in those produced by publishers outside the usual superfist market. There were still some truly awful comics created in these books, with many creators taking the easy route out and retelling exactly how they heard the news and how it brought their whole world crashing down when they realised that bad things sometimes happen to good people, but there were still many that gave interesting perspectives on the event and its overall effects.

As is often the case in comics, one of the very best of these stories came from the pen of Alan Moore. Working with his creative and literal partner Melinda Gebbe, Moore gave us This Is Information, a genuinely moving meditation on the destruction and the events surrounding it. While a common foreign perspective of the event is that America brought down the destruction upon itself with short-sighted and massively violent foreign policies stretching back decades, Moore doesn't take this position, something that is especially admirable when considering how clearly and entertainingly he laid out the facts behind those policies in the brilliant Brought To Light with Bill Sienkiwicz.

Instead, Moore cuts through all the bullshit by presenting something that is absolutely drenched in pure humanity and empathy for all those involved. He baldly states how even one human life has so much more complexity and importance than the biggest building in the world, and how the destruction of that life throws it all into perspective. And in one of the most moving things Moore has ever written, he chooses a side.

In the aftermath of September 11, the idea that you were either with America or against it was repeated often, from bloggers with no power beyond their keyboard to Presidents with more power than they should probably have. For a lot of people, it really was this simple. There were bad guys and good guys and the only way to deal with the bad ones were to put them down like a diseased animal.

This idea is a standard in some of the great fictions people have produced for centuries, from ancient ballads to John Wayne westerns to Sin City. Unfortunately, the real world isn't that black and white and doesn't really work like that.

In This Is Information, Moore shows he doesn't care about this great divide between the white and black hats. In The Great Game of retribution and nationalism and death, always the death, he can't choose a side. Instead, he chooses life.

Moore chooses anybody with enough love in their hearts to stand up against the despair, he chooses humanity at its best, at its most pure. He chooses us, if we can be strong enough to transcend our own hatred and fear. He chooses your side. He chooses you.

In just a few short panels, with a sheer economy of words that is staggering, Moore makes it clear that there aren't any really sides, outside what we choose to see, outside of what we make up in our heads.

The same thing can be seen in Grant Morrison's Invisibles, where – sandwiched between all the time-travel and sexy assassins and witchcraft and explanations of the universe - the simple lesson that there never really were any good guys or bad is right fucking there.

The series kicked off with a tagline asking whose side you were on, but by the time the comic finished, just in time to kick off a whole new century, it had made it abundantly clear there really was no difference between the “good and evil” factions facing off against each other, where apocalyptic horror wastelands were just another facet of the Invisible College.

Despite their very public differences, Moore and Morrison share many storytelling interests, and their ability to see things from the perspectives of all involved is one of their finest. And it's one that must go a hell of a lot further than the printed page, out here in the real world.

There are so many out there who believe they are surrounded by enemies, and that the only way to survive is to fight back. But if we can step back from this destructive impulse and see it for the stupidity it is, then maybe we can see there is a side that has no side, that is outside death and revenge and horror.

That's the side I want to be on.