By Bravetta Hassell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 16, 2006; D01
If the mood on the plane that crashed into the side of the Pentagon, American Airlines Flight 77, could have been a color, it would have been a soft, translucent tan, according to a comic book about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Yes, that's right, a comic about the attacks is set for publication late next month.
Industry veterans Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón have collaborated to produce "The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation," which is being published by Hill and Wang, the nonfiction imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
The book condenses the nearly 600-page federal report released by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States to fewer than 150 pages, and the creators say they hope their book will help attract young readers and others who might be overwhelmed by the original document. With sans-serif captions, artist renderings, charts and sound-describing words such as "Whooom!" and "R-rrumble," the adaptation recounts the attacks with parallel timelines of the four hijacked planes.
But can a topic as massive and sobering as Sept. 11 be dealt with effectively in the pages of a comic book?
When a first draft of the book, two-thirds complete, came across his desk, Hill and Wang Publisher Thomas LeBien says he was "absolutely struck with it potentially being a wonderful idea."
Jacobson and Colón worked hard to "make sure we were both honest and respectful," LeBien says.
Adds Jacobson -- emphasizing that he used "99 percent" of the commission's words in the adaptation: "We very possibly fell into some comic book tricks, but it truly didn't bother us, and for the most part, it shouldn't bother people."
And the illustrations?
When it came to the faces of officials such as Vice President Cheney or of the 19 hijackers, he worked from photographs.
"I do research and draw off the pictures," he says.
The two are well established in the graphic world. Jacobson, 76, the creator of "Richie Rich" series, used to be editor in chief of Harvey Comics. Colón, 75, who drew "Richie Rich" and "Casper" for 25 years, also worked for Harvey before a short stint as an editor at DC Comics -- the home of characters such as Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Superman and the Flash. He also illustrated for Marvel Comics, where Spider-Man and the X-Men were created.
Jacobson and Colón began working on the 9/11 project about a year and a half ago after Colón learned that the commission's report was in the public domain and that several movie producers were considering making a film based on it.
"I called Sid about what I had just seen in the paper," says Colón, who said he'd tried to read the original report but found the overlapping timelines confusing. He thought he and Jacobson could do a good job distilling it.
"There are going to be a whole bunch of kids, teenagers and adults that will not read the report," Colón says, adding that comics might offer an alternative. "The educational system at large has resisted them, I think, because of the term 'comic book.' I like to think of them as something that has more purpose."
The effort for the two longtime collaborators and friends was bicoastal. Colón lives on Long Island and Jacobson in Los Angeles. Jacobson e-mailed the illustrator what he visualized and Colón would scan in his drawings and send them back.
LeBien sent the book to the commission's former top officials in hopes of winning their approval. He got more than that.
"When I first heard about it, I was very concerned," says former New Jersey governor Thomas H. Kean, who chaired the commission. "But when I looked at it, it was absolutely accurate."
He and vice chairman Lee H. Hamilton wrote a foreword for the comic, which also includes an adaptation of the report card on how the commissioners' recommendations have been implemented. Kean says he's hoping the comic book will lead more audiences to the original report, which landed on bestseller lists after its release two years ago.
"I didn't think we'd be a bestseller, and I didn't think we'd be turned into a comic book," Kean says.
This is not the first time difficult topics have been tackled graphically. In "Maus," which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992, comic book artist Art Spiegelman tells the story of his father, a Holocaust survivor. And Marjane Satrapi remembers life as a little girl during the Islamic revolution in "Persepolis," a graphic autobiography. And "In the Shadow of No Towers," Spiegelman's comic book diary about his Sept. 11 experiences, was published in 2004.
"The 9/11 Report" will be marketed to general readers as well as comic fans, says Jeff Seroy, senior vice president for publicity and marketing at FSG. The book is the first of several nonfiction graphic works from Hill and Wang, which also plans to publish biographies of Malcolm X and Ronald Reagan later this year.
But as the nation approaches the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, just how ready are Americans to see those events recounted in the popular culture, be it a comic book or feature film?
"United 93," the feature-length film about the fight between hijackers and passengers on the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, didn't pull audiences into the theaters when it was released in April. Another test will come next month, when Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center" will be released.
LeBien resists comparisons to Hollywood films. "This adaptation is very different," he says, underscoring that the book uses only the facts of the commission's report. "The thing that I worry about most is that people will make that kind of conflation."
No matter how well done or factual a work is, there is still emotional fallout for the families of 9/11 victims, says Caitlin Zampella, interim executive director of a nonprofit survivors group, Families of September 11 Inc. The organization listed on its Web site the theaters where trailers for "United 93" were appearing, for example, so that families would not be taken by surprise.
"We can't control what people do or don't do, but we encourage people to practice good self-care," she says.
Neither she nor Tim Sumner, whose brother-in-law died in the South Tower of the World Trade Center, is sure about this next wave of Sept. 11 works.
"I want there to be good historical reference now," Sumner says, but he's not convinced a comic book is the right form.
"There are some legitimate efforts out there, which are probably worth doing from a historical perspective," he says. "While having not read the book, it sounds pretty cheap."
Says LeBien, "If somebody picks it up and looks at it and starts to read it with some care, they'll understand that it's respectful."
Colón and Jacobson said they weighed sensitivity issues, such as whether it was appropriate to use words such as "Blam!" to denote explosions.
"You have captions, you have balloons with text, you have sound effects," Colón says. "Doing without any of that would make it not readable." He didn't think anything could be presented in graphic continuity without the full language of the comic book genre.
Adds Jacobson, "Our feeling was that it would look like a silent movie without it."