Sunday, November 21, 2010

Review: 9/11 Heartbreaker

Review 9/11 Heartbreaker Craig Staufenberg September 11 Comic Book Cover self-published original graphic novel ognWriter/Artist: Craig Staufenberg
Published: 2010; $4.99 (print), or $2.99 (digital)

I think September 11 meant something different to my generation than it did to others. That isn’t to say that how some people feel about it is more valid, or more consequential, than what anyone else feels – just that, among the different ways it affected people, many of those differences seem to play themselves out along generational boundaries. Looking back, I often feel like I’m in the peculiar position of being one of the youngest people to remember – to really remember, I mean, with some burgeoning sense of maturity and of how the world really works – the difference between what it was like before and after that day.

Everyone has their own story, their own memories, about September 11. For me, it was the year before I started high school. My history class watched in horror as the second plane hit on live television. We were afraid – not for our own safety, as some of the younger students were, but because I think a part of us knew there was no going back. We were getting older, and had all but left our childhoods behind. The past had been slipping away from us for years, but we didn’t realize it until a huge piece of it was literally destroyed before our eyes on TV.

It may sound self-centered to frame national tragedy in terms of the everyday, adolescent struggle of coming to grips with the world. But in the end, I think that’s exactly how it affected a lot of people; after all, we were young, and we were self-centered, and that’s how young, self-centered people tend to think. Perhaps ours was a special case, too – we grew up believing that our world was one kind of place, and in an instant it forever became an entirely different one. It was the ultimate bait-and-switch. For many people my age, September 11 was an “end-of-the-innocence,” “coming-of-age” experience.

What I’ve just discussed is my own truth, and it’s different from my father’s and my grandfather’s truths, even though it lies rooted in the same factual events. Our sense of understanding is subjective like that, and so is memory. So perhaps it’s fitting, then, that Craig Staufenberg, author of the original graphic novel 9/11 Heartbreaker, titles his personal website “Memory is Fiction.” And perhaps it’s also fitting that Staufenberg, who began the book as a means of exploring our generation’s memories and feelings about September 11, has created one of the most poignant and thought-provoking reactions to the events of that day that I’ve had the pleasure of encountering in any form of media.

At just 28 pages, 9/11 Heartbreaker is a fairly short book. But it’s packed with meaning, and with an entire generation’s own subjective truth. For people like me who were around high-school age at the time of September 11, it will ring perfectly true; for those who weren’t, I imagine it will offer a fascinating alternative perspective on that day.

The story follows a young woman who in the first few pages meets Peter, a man who records young people’s memories of September 11. The stories our unnamed main character encounters through Peter’s website (which were culled from real-life stories collected by Staufenberg) are so gripping that they incite her to action. Realizing how important it is to remember our history – the various subjective truths of everyday people, if you will – she set out to record them in her own way, just as Peter has.

There’s no plot twist, no loopy postmodern narrative techniques; it’s all about the mental journey the main character goes through as a result of hearing these stories about an event which, until now, she hadn’t thought of so intensely. The artwork is fairly uncomplicated, and it brings to mind the simple beauty of artists like graphic novelist Danica Novgorodoff (Slow Storm and Refresh, Refresh). The story is more heavily driven by its prose – as it should be, since much of the book is made up of personal testimonies about September 11.

What I like most about 9/11 Heartbreaker is that it works not just as a means of preserving one specific perspective on one isolated event; it also shows us how we might learn from it, and more generally how we might strive to record and remember the things that are important to us. We can do that in any number of ways, from taking pictures to writing down our thoughts about the world to simply learning about our cultural heritage. After all, if something happened that no one remembers, then in a way isn’t it almost like that thing never happened at all?

In many ways, I feel as though the effects spiraling out from the main character’s meeting with Peter run parallel to the effect this book had on me. Much like her, I hadn’t given much thought prior to reading the book to the unique effect September 11 had on people of my own age group. Maybe five or ten years from now, I’ll look back on some of the conclusions I’ve drawn here and scoff at my own ignorance for thinking that I’ve sort of figured things out. But if I’ve taken anything away from this book, it’s that the very act of recording your thoughts is an important process, and perhaps looking back on these ones again will lead me to reach even more definitive conclusions one day when the time comes.

I think that’s what this book is about, in the end: the importance of being able to accept our own subjective truths as well as those of others, and of doing our best to preserve them. Those truths can be about September 11, a first love, even our own reflections on a book that makes us think about our world in a new way. If memory is indeed fiction, then it’s important for us to try to remember as much as we can, as best we can, in order for us to learn and move forward from those memories. As long as we keep doing that, I don’t think we can ever truly forget about the things that are most important to us.

[9/11 Heartbreaker is available for purchase in either print or digital form. For the time being, people who order the print version can receive a digital version for free by contacting Craig Staufenberg personally. For more information on the book, including other reviews and interviews, feel free to visit his website, Memory is Fiction.]


  1. Great review Marc, a great review of what sounds like a really thought provoking book. I was about 11 at the time of 9/11 so I'm sure I didn't fully grasp what was happening, but knowing what I do now and having matured I think this would be a really well-written way to see how other people felt without having to personally ask them to drudge up memories of that time. Once again, great review dude.

  2. Wow Marc this was a terrific review. I mean words can't even describe all I want to say. But I know it was a read that left you with many thoughts. I remember I had just got to school, freshman year, going to Band and seeing the looks people's faces. There was an eerie silence in the room and we all just sat there watching.

    I think he went about creating this book in a very nice way.

    And you sir have done a great job by reviewing this book and giving it the light it needs.

  3. Heh Marc I dropped my blog for a while although no one really reads it anyways but I'm back and to my surprise hello kello is gone.
    I agree September 11 did affect people in 2002 but with a new generation rolling in we don't really react to it the way we did like with the Boston tea party in the 1700's no one nows what to think of it.

  4. By the way Marc Can I ask you to read my new marvel comic review 5 part series on heroes in the marvel universe I think you'd really like it. its about the 5 heroeos that made it happen Course I'm only 12 so it won't be as long a good as yours. By the way any comic reviews you could reccomend.

  5. As you point out, history is in some ways very subjective, and that's one thing that really deters me from studying it anymore. Nowadays many "historians" seem like they're trying to actually retcon reality for the sake of their own theses, so I'm glad that you're quick to point out this book doesn't seem to offer some type of postmodern spin or diatribe on 9/11's backgrounds. I know a few people who vehemently believe the loss of life on that day was a government conspiracy, so I try to look at in a way that I only know what I went through.

    on 9/11, I was a senior in high school and we all watched the coverage on TV. School was eery, and we honestly didn't do an academically related thing all day. After school we all called family members and friends to check in with them, and all I can think now is that it was so surreal that I had no clue what to do. In many ways Marc, I was probably as scared as you, despite being a few years older.

    I honestly feel like we'll never know the full truth of what happened that day, much like the rest of history. Don't get me wrong, I think people documenting history is important, I just can't stomach when others twist it into something it's not.

  6. You bring up some great points, Kello. A lot of what you said speaks to something I really liked about this book, which is that it does a good job of separating itself from politics and ideology. It's really less about 9/11 itself than it is about the importance of remembering why certain things are important to us, and why they affect us the way they do.

    I like that you mention subjective history, because I think it's something that's important to distinguish from "subjective truth," as I called it throughout the review. The latter, I think, is essentially how an individual or group feels about or reacts to something on an emotional, fundamental level. Subjective history, on the other hand, is what happens when someone tries to impose his/her emotional baggage onto history in an effort to prove a point. In many ways, I think subjective history is more grounded in the political/ideological debates of the day than it is in the actual study of past events.

    9/11 Heartbreaker is definitely an expression of subjective truth, rather than subjective history. Staufenberg doesn't try to shape the way the reader interprets 9/11; rather, he expresses the meaning that it had for a particular group of people. And whereas subjective history is something that should rightfully be called into question, I think the truth expressed in this book is one that has the potential to enrich the way we view the rest of the world -- whether we would consider it our "own" truth or not.

  7. @ Kello

    “Nowadays many "historians" seem like they're trying to actually retcon reality for the sake of their own theses”

    This is a great point. I think thesis concerns and “publish or perish” forces academics to keep coming up with new interpretations of events, whether or not they really feel the interpretation has merit or not. If you want to be a professional academic these days you just need to keep putting out work that sounds credible enough to get published. Jacques Barzan has some good things to say about this and the problems it creates, I think in ‘The Culture We Deserve.”

    Combined with the fact that the media prefers to focus on books and articles that “explode myths” and these issues are just going to keep intensifying.


  8. Wow interesting material, and rather thought-provoking comments. This was a pleasant read. Thanks!

  9. I've got a very similar experience - I think I was in a social studies class when it all went down. My close family/childhood friends were in a class just a few blocks away, and I remember talking with them about it later... but at the time it seemed so unreal and even though most of my family is in the city, and I knew so many people there, it never occurred to me to call them. Maybe it's just because it was the world before cell phones and instant communication - for me at least, I didn't have a cell until my senior year of high school, I think. My family was always behind the curve on such costly things.

    I dunno, I'm rambling. But on the subject, I guess it's one of the things comics can do best - help people discuss something that's hard to talk about, bring something heady to a large and something unsuspecting audience.