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December 16, 2008

Influences

Posted by tom
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After I said, “My life is like a comic book!”—which became the impetus for American Widow, my graphic novel memoir about life after my husband died at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001—I ran and read Art Spiegelman’s Maus. I’d always known about it and the controversy it caused as a comic book focusing on an intense and painful subject. But I never read it because up to that time I avoided Holocaust literature.

But that was the beginning of my graphic novel education.

From there, through a friend, I met comic artist David Chelsea. He was my first teacher in this genre as we prematurely collaborated on American Widow. After reading his book David Chelsea in Love, he recommended Scott McCloud’s seminal work, Understanding Comics.

McCloud’s work gave me greater understanding and sensitivity of the genre as I went on to read more first-person works: Lynda Barry’s 100 Demons, Joe Sacco’s Palestine, and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. These graphic novels gave an immediacy and intimacy to the stories they told. These books, along with Maus, were proof to me of the beautiful, accessible, and moving outcomes that were possible from the genre.

So if someone asked me what graphic novels influenced me, these were among the first books that I read and loved.

It was when many years had passed and I was working on a final draft of American Widowfor publicationwith my editor, Chris Schluep, that I realized I also may have been influenced by a very different kind of comic artist who had preceded all the rest.

Ted Rall’s “Terror Widows,” published in March 2002, was a six-panel comic strip that depicted the 9/11 widows as greedy, cold-hearted, media hogs. It came out at a time when life seemed extra hard and impossible for me to bear, when people who supported me turned their backs and complete strangers were saying all kinds of horrible things about the 9/11 victims’ families. But somehow, all of these other things were less devastating than seeing “myself” in this particular comic.

Click hereto view the comic.

(Oddly, there are very few sites that post this comic anymore. Not even the Wikipedia article on Ted Rall references it, nor does it even mention it under “Controversies,” even though it was one of his biggest, if not the biggest. And the only thing I could actually find by Rall about “Terror Widows” was “Terror Widows: The Last Word,” in which Rall describes his own victimization as a result of the strip.)

I wonder why this piece was so much more painful than everything else. I think the answer to that provides also a truth about the nature of comics—about those comics that are poignant and meaningful and also about those that are mean and scrawled. Simply, it’s a powerful medium that makes me think of how certain religious groups are afraid to have their picture taken—because it would steal their soul.

To create my own images (via Choi, the artist) was so therapeutic, perhaps because I took back my own soul, which had been so taken in this hypergraphic ordeal. And also, as I created images of others, I admit, I did experience an immature kind of satisfaction taking small revenge depicting people who made me cry in my darkest hour: unsympathetic Red Cross workers, Kenneth Feinberg, the Special Master of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, and Ted Rall among them.