A new graphic adaptation of The 9/11 Commission Report— excerpted this month in Slate—has won a spot on the New York Times best-seller list and kudos from the commissioners themselves. The project, which arrives just as comics seem to be finding a new respectability, feels decidedly current, but its creators are unmistakably old-school. The book is the brainchild of Ernie Colón and Sid Jacobson, two industry veterans who met decades ago at Harvey Publications, where they worked on such classics as Richie Rich and Casper the Friendly Ghost. Jacobson was in Los Angeles and Colón in Long Island when we spoke last week by phone; I spoke again with Colón this weekend.
Slate: Whose idea was this project?
Sid Jacobson: Oh, Ernie’s.
Ernie Colón: I had been trying to read The 9/11 Commission Report and found it tough going. I got confused with the names, places, events, what times planes took off. … I thought, Sid and I are in the business of clarifying things. So, I gave him a call.
Slate: You’re in the business of clarifying things? What other projects have you taken on where you’ve done that?
Colón: Oh, at Harvey we did things for children, like about going to the dentist. Also, I did with my wife a comic book for the Raynham Hall Museum here in Long Island, which was the original house of the Culper Spy Ring during the Revolutionary War. They sell the book every single time a busload of kids comes in.
Slate: So, it sounds like, for you, the appeal of the 9/11 project was narrative. Did you also consider the question of audience? I was holding my copy when I went into Starbucks this morning, and the barista said, “Oh, The 9/11 Report, I haven’t gotten through that yet,” and I said, “This is actually a graphic adaptation.” I flipped through it for him and he said, “Huh! Maybe I could get through that one.”
Colón: Good, good, that’s great.
Jacobson: I don’t think we kept in mind children per se. We wanted to do it for all people, for young and old.
Slate:How did the collaboration work?
Jacobson: I live in Los Angeles. Ernie lives in New York. So, this entire book was written via the Internet. I would write the script full out, in panels. Ernie could then take that and make additions and changes and send it back to me.
Slate: How did you decide what to keep and what to cut?
Jacobson: I just, as I went along, decided what I thought was most pertinent. It was done page by page, chapter by chapter. The best compliment was from the commissioners themselves, who thought this was such an incredible retelling of what they had done.
Slate: You two have collaborated for many years. When did you first work together?
Colón: That was at Harvey Publications. Sid was the editor, and I drew Casper the Friendly Ghost and Richie [Rich]. We connected quite immediately.
Slate: How did you get into the business?
Colón: I never thought of doing anything but comics, except maybe being a pilot. When I graduated, Fredric Wertham had just come out with that book, The Seduction of the Innocent. He closed quite a few comic shops. (Some of them may have deserved it, because the field was being ruled by horror comics at the time.) So, for years I couldn’t get a job. Then Harvey Publications hired me as a letterer, and they found out six seconds after I got the job that I couldn’t letter. I still can’t letter. So, they hired me to draw.
Slate: And you started with the Casper character?
Colón: The Casper character started with Paramount Studios. But when Harvey took over, they refashioned the character: They put feet on him; they stopped referring to him as a “dead boy.” In the movies he was just stuck with coming out of his grave and scaring a few people inadvertently—that was the end of the short. At Harvey, the writers were so good. They came up with the Ghostly Trio, and Wendy the Good Little Witch, and Spooky the Tuff Little Ghost, and they created this whole world.
Slate:I read that you adapted various classics for the Richie characters, including the children’s book The Secret Garden. Is that right?
Colón: I did some classics for Boys’ Life: Treasure Island, Don Quixote, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Jacobson:The Secret Garden is something I did at the Harvey magazine.
Slate: So, you’ve adapted books to graphic form before. How is it different to work with a nonfiction text?
Colón: I’m still practicing the same craft as when I did Casper or the superheroes, in that I’m doing a graphic narrative. But doing nonfiction presented different challenges. The research was very difficult. I’m crossing my fingers and telling you that Google and I are like that.
Slate: What was it like for you to draw so many characters who—unlike Spider-Man—we are all so familiar with photographs of?
Colón: The ones that were most difficult were the ones that ordinarily would be easiest to caricature. The easier they were to caricature, the more effort I took to not caricature them. For example, Dick Cheney has a mouth formation that looks like a sneer. I drew him that way at first because it was recognizable. My wife looked over my shoulder and said, “He looks villainous!” And so I changed it so it looked less like I was making a statement. I didn’t want to do that to anybody.
Slate: As you put this together, did you find that there were conventions from more traditional comics that were particularly useful in telling this story?
Jacobson: Well, I think the timeline [which follows the four planes on the morning of Sept. 11] was a great trick of ours. That took the most work, but it made a potent point.
Colón: That was Sid’s idea. It was a terrific idea because precisely the problems that I was having with the book, the timeline really solved for me.
Slate:You can see so clearly how information wasn’t communicated that morning. What obstacles did you face as you put this together?
Colón: What we tried to avoid was any hint of our own political opinions. That was absolutely imperative for us.
Slate:I was going to ask about that. When you talk about the transition from the Clinton administration to the Bush administration, you have an image of President Bush alongside a text box that says, “President Bush said he felt sure President Clinton mentioned terrorism but he did not remember much being said about al Qaida.” And then you have an image of President Clinton alongside a quotation bubble in which he says, “I think you’ll find that by far your greatest threat is Bin Laden and the al Qaida.” I felt like that privileged Clinton’s memory of the transition over Bush’s, because you see Clinton saying this thing he claims to have said. Was that intentional?
Jacobson: This is what they reported. This is all from the commission report.
Slate: Right, but in the way that you drew it, because you show Clinton speaking these words, it seems to give his story more weight.
Colón: That wasn’t intentional. Anything that was in a balloon, which actually means that it’s a quote, is directly from the commission report.
Jacobson: Oh, yeah, we didn’t create any of those. Any dialogue for a prominent person—anyone in the administration, anyone in previous administrations—were exact quotes.
Slate: How many decades put together have you been working in this industry?
Colón: Let’s see, I’ve been at it—
Jacobson: He has counted them.
Colón: —I’ve been at it for over 45 years.
Jacobson: I think it would have been a good idea.
Slate:What’s your next project?
Jacobson: Our new project is the war on terror, after 9/11.
Slate:And are you adapting another work?
Jacobson: No. We’re adapting newspaper—basically newspaper stories.
Slate:Ah. A much vaster project.
Colón: Yes, it is. Poor Sidney.
Jacobson: Wait! Wait! Your turn will come.
Slate:Sid, when you were breaking down the commission report and trying to figure out which parts of it to include, what did you want to leave readers with?
Jacobson: Well, the important thing to me was their conclusions. We thought it was incredibly important to make this available in a more understandable package. Just the fact that so little has been done yet—to me, to both of us, it shows that not enough people have understood what was said.