'Good Talk' on a Tragic Day: How Mira Jacob Recreates the Memory of 9/11
There is no shortage of comics that address the events of September 11th, the day in 2001 when the terrorist group al-Qaeda attacked multiple sites in the United States. The latest entry is Mira Jacob’s Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations (2019). Jacob may disagree with this inclusion, as only 16 of Good Talk’s 350 pages (read to the very last page!), Chapters 23, ‘Only in New York’, and 24, ‘Paper City’, focus on that day. The comic follows the creator from her parents’ arranged marriage to her life as a mother and wife in a mixed-race family in Trump’s America. However, Good Talk visually depicts 9/11 in a way I have never before read in comics. Rather than portraying the event or her memories of it, Mira Jacob depicts memory itself. Memories are, of course, subjective, but Jacob’s comic style represents memory in a way that is as familiar to me as the events of the day itself. I was nine years old when 9/11 occurred, and had been born and raised in a suburb of New York City. Along with millions of others, I have vivid memories of the event, yet never have I seen my own memories so well understood and articulated as Jacob does through Good Talk’s distinctive art style, in just sixteen pages of a larger narrative.
Frozen Bodies, Frozen Memories
In an interview with Electric Literature, Mira Jacob compares her style to that of a ‘90s zine’. This DIY aesthetic is best shown in the cut-out characters, with the uneven, white ‘halo’ outlining the shape of the grayscale bodies reminiscent of a child cutting out a figure from a periodical. Their eyes and bodies are positioned towards the reader instead of each other, meaning that there is no body talk between the characters;the posed, stiff forms are meant to be gazed upon by the reader and not enmeshed into a cohesive narrative. Repetition of certain character designs for background or minor characters helps with this. For example, a design first used for Mira’s high school boyfriend, C., is re-used on page 158, but this time it represents a bystander on the streets. The identity of the character changes because Mira is depicted as a young adult, rather than her high school self. The story in Good Talk progresses not because of the relationship of one panel to another but through Mira’s narration, making the words on the page the only indicator of progressive action in the comic. Good Talk can be an odd comic-reading experience: comics are a visual medium, and one sees the narrative progress through the variation of images from page to page. But this retelling of 9/11 justifies the idiosyncratic art style to me.
Susan Sontag, in Regarding the Pain of Others (2013), argues that, despite living in a world surrounded by and made up of moving images (internet ads on cell phones, streamed videos, etc.), humans remember events statically. In her own words, ‘Memory freeze-frames; its basic unit is the single image. [...] Each of us mentally stocks hundreds of photographs, subject to instant recall’. We, as individuals, remember events as images; this is how I remember 9/11. For me, 9/11 is watching my mother walking towards me across my school playground during recess. 9/11 is my jelly sandwich on cinnamon bread as she tells her boss she is leaving with me today. 9/11 is the black woman covered in ash from head to toe showing a reporter; her leg bleeding from a slit in her dress, as I watch on the old TV in my parents’ bedroom. My memories of 9/11 are those images, fossilized in my brain. They are as frozen as Jacob’s figures on the page.
These frozen bodies, unmoving through and after the trauma, mirror Sontag’s description of memory as photographs. Individuals tend to position their bodies and gaze towards the camera, as Jacob positions the bodies in her comic. Familiar sights – my mother’s face, a jelly sandwich – are made strange by the context of the memory: the unfamiliar surroundings and disrupted routine caused by the events of that day. So too are the familiar figures of C. and other peripheral characters changed due to their setting. The unnaturally posed bodies mirror the unnaturalness of memory itself and lend a visual credibility to Jacob’s narration of her memories of that day. The artwork resembles how my memories of that day appear, giving it a sense of pathos. However, the bodies would not be as effective if they were not properly framed by the surreal setting which Jacob places them within.
Location is Everything
Good Talk’s backgrounds and page layouts work alongside the character depictions to create the zine-like aesthetic. The illustrated characters overlays realist photographs, producing an unnatural looking mixed media image. It creates a distancing effect, leading one to look at the artwork instead of reading the story, which, in comics, is traditionally conveyed by the artwork. Instead, Good Talk is unified by a constancy in page layout and design, as the majority of pages each consist of a single panel (or a splash page). This consistency makes the comic more visually cohesive; so to does the gutter coloring, which varies by chapter depending on the chronological setting of the story. White signifies the narrative present (the time when the story occurs), while dark gray signals the narrative past (i.e. Mira, the character, narrating a flashback). There are some exceptions; for example, a two-page spread illustrates the process of teenage Mira’s brain that leads to a racist comment on the subsequent page. The experimental pages are a welcome deviation as they encourage the reader to reflect on why they differ and what Jacobs is trying to communicate. The most rewarding of these page variations can be found in the chapters addressing 9/11.
The first of these variations can be seen on pages 162-163. A 2-page spread (see Fig. 2), the first page shows individuals on the ground listening to what the news says is occuring. The bodies are cluttered around adult Mira and speaking together. A woman to the right of the group comes asking to borrow a phone as her husband is still in Tower Two. Her body extends beyond this first page onto the second one, resting atop two backgrounds. The second background now an aerial photograph of Tower Two on fire, plumes of black smoke against the blue of the New York City skyline. The woman serves to bridge the two backgrounds acting as a visual transition between the interpersonal experience of the Towers burning on the ground to how it is objectively seen in the air. The two backgrounds, symbolizing the personal and the factual understanding of 9/11, are connected through a human’s experience. The two backgrounds symbolize different lenses for viewing the same event. Jacob performs a subtle variation, linking the background of these two pages, but it carries a lot of weight. Sontag notes how the attack on the World Trade Center was initially described by those who witnessed or survived the attack as ‘like a movie’. This transition is very akin to a movie transition as it shows a change of scenery. The smoothness and naturalness of this transition amplifies the effect of the following variation on the subsequent page.
The very next page, the first of Chapter 24 (see Fig. 3), is all black, a black that pops due to the dark gray border surrounding it. This chapter discusses the aftermath of living in post-9/11 New York. Instead of showing corpses of the dead, the page uses the actual ‘Missing’ posters of the unaccounted for dead. Here, instead of ink atop a photographic background, photographs are placed atop an inked background. These yellowed, crumpled pages are stacked atop one another to construct an outline of the now destroyed Towers and surrounding skyscrapers. Because of the mixed media -- photographic image of a poster atop a black inked background -- one again is looking at the image instead of reading it. It is once more distancing, but it makes the portrayal of Jacob’s memory of post-9/11 all the more credible. One is seeing the lives lost. ‘9/11’ has become shorthand for a number of concepts and realities. It is a word tied down by tragedy, political actions, historical reality, and notions of patriotism and Americanism. It can be easy to forget that 9/11 has a human face -- or several. The sparseness of the page layout and the lack of a photographic background allowed the posters to standout and therefore encourage the reader to examine 9/11 from more than just a political angle. These and the other variations present in Chapters 23 and 24 are effective in making the reader conscious of 9/11 -- not just to know 9/11, but to recall and re-remember this complex, lasting event.
A Good Talk Indeed
The artwork of Chapters 23 & 24 of Good Talk movingly recreates Jacob’s memories of the events of 9/11 and their aftermath. The story these chapters tell about how the experience of being a woman of color and a New Yorker changed in the wake of 9/11 is made all the more meaningful by the deliberate construction of memory. If reading about being a woman of color in post-9/11 America interests you, I thoroughly recommend reading Good Talk. The 9/11 chapters were the most impactful personally, but the comic is overall a thought-provoking and entertaining read (I also recommend Mira Jacob’s Instagram, featuring more of her comic work). I found much to relate to in Good Talk given my own experiences as a woman of color from New York, but Jacob’s art style allows any reader to empathize with her individual story. Discussing 9/11 in any medium always a difficult task, but Good Talk is a welcome addition to the 9/11 comics canon. It was a “good talk” (and read) indeed.
Jacob, Mira, Good Talk (London: Bloomsbury, 2019).
Baker, Jennifer, ‘Mira Jacob’s Graphic Memoir “Good Talk” Makes Awkward Conversations Beautiful’ [Mira Jacob interview], Electric Literature (28 Mar 2019) <https://electricliterature.com/mira-jacobs-graphic-memoir-good-talk-makes-awkward-conversations-beautiful/>.
Sontag, Susan, Regarding the Pain of Others (London: Penguin, 2013). Ebook.
Writer: Rachel Davis
Editor: Holly Roberts