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Graphic Journalism Clarifies Official 9/11 Commission Report

A new book published on the fifth anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States uses comic-book style illustrations -- and the narrative techniques of so-called graphic journalism -- to simplify the government's 600-page official report on the attacks. It's a surprising merger of pop art with serious reporting.

In 2002, President Bush and the U.S. Congress authorized an independent, bipartisan panel to investigate the terrorist attacks that crashed jetliners into the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center, the Pentagon outside Washington, D.C., and a grassy field in central Pennsylvania. The attacks killed nearly 3,000 people. The so-called 9/11 Commission spent a year investigating the terrorist plot and why the U.S. government failed to stop it.

In July 2004, the commission issued a report of its findings and recommendations.

Slade Gorton, a former U.S. Senator from Washington state and one of the ten members of the commission, says the panel's concern was to write an objective, factual history of the relevant events and decisions that led up to 9/11.

"We were historians," he says, "We simply laid out the facts as we saw them."

Gorton says commission members were initially taken aback when they heard about the planned publication of a book that condenses their official report from about 600 pages to 150 pages and uses an increasingly popular style called graphic journalism to recount the facts, a style many people associate with comic books: panels filled with multi-colored illustrations and short blocks of text. Members were "astounded" at the plan to use a "comic-book" style -- says Gorton -- then "astounded" that it worked.

"When we saw it, when we saw this production, we said, 'Boy, that's exactly right.' They are faithful, true to what the 9/11 commission report itself said."

The new book, titled The 9/11 Report, A Graphic Adaptation is being released by the New York publishing house of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attack.

Editor Thomas LaBien says the book is a groundbreaking achievement. "I work at a publishing house that has really never published graphic novels at all," says LaBien. That posed a challenge when he proposed the project to his colleagues since they had always focused on serious fiction and non fiction.

The authors made their serious intent clear from the start. Ernie Colon, 75, a veteran comic-book illustrator, remembers his exact thoughts the day of the attacks in 2001: "I just went through this stage of disbelief. I kept saying as I looked at the TV screen, 'This is unbelievable.' I kept repeating that over and over again."

Colon says that when the commission released its report, he felt he and Jacobson could help "clarify" the report.

"I tried reading it," he says, "and found it very difficult -- not because it wasn't well- written, because it actually is. But because by the time I got to page 60, I forgot what happened on page nine -- [due to] a lot of Arabic names, a lot of events, places -- [details like] which planes took off at what time, which ones crashed at what time."

Colon says he and his friend Sid Jacobson, a longtime writer and editor of comic books, "are in the business and craft of clarifying things." For about a year and a half, the two collaborated on this new book, which, Colon says, was emotionally difficult. "There were instances when I would do some research and come upon a photo I hadn't seen before. And it would stop me cold. There was a close-up photograph of a young police officer with his hands held as if in prayer and tears streaming down his face. What he was looking at were people jumping from the buildings. That was just awful."

Ernie Colon says that using the genre of graphic journalism makes the commission report easier to understand for an average reader and more memorable. "It's really just a continuous panel-by-panel understanding of what's going on. We're hardly the first to utilize this kind of medium to impart information. Even earlier than World War Two, the U.S. military discovered that the easiest way to show a military person how to maintain a rifle, truck, or engine on an airplane was to put it in this format: visual."

Editor Thomas LaBien says he and the authors were very careful to keep their personal and political views to themselves and stick to the facts and recommendations as they appear in the commission report. LaBien says his "role as editor was to have a running series of conversations with Ernie and Sid, to make sure the decisions they were making were thought through." Labien says that "the touchstone that we always returned to was accuracy: making sure the language in the graphic adaptation could be traced back to language directly from the original commission report, that the visual elements followed as accurately as possible what was known from the original report."

In a foreword to the new book, 9/11 commission chairman Thomas Kean and co-chairman Lee Hamilton commend Ernie Colon and Sid Jacobson for their work. Commission member Slade Gorton says the authors have done the country a great public service.

Ernie Colon and Sid Jacobson are collaborating again -- on a sequel with the working title After 9/11: America At War.