Review: ‘American Widow’ by Alissa Torres and Sungyoon Choi
By Alissa Torres; Illustrated by Sungyoon Choi
Villard, September 2008, $22.00
Luis Eduardo (“Eddie”) Torres started a new job as a foreign exchange trader at Cantor Fitzgerald on September 10th, 2001. He was thrilled to get it – he’d been out of work for a few months, his wife, Alissa, was then seven months pregnant, and he was a Columbian national, so his immigration status could have been compromised by staying out of work too long.
Seven years later, we all remember what happened on September 11th, but perhaps only New Yorkers remember Cantor Fitzgerald as clearly. Their headquarters was at the very top of One World Trade Center: floors 101 to 105. That was directly above the impact site of the first plane; no one in Cantor Fitzgerald’s offices survived. Of the dead at the World Trade Center, nearly a quarter were Cantor Fitzgerald. Eddie Torres was one of them.
Alissa Torres quickly found herself a widow: one of the smallest of mercies was that her husband jumped, and so was identified quickly. And then she found herself a “9/11 widow” – alternately helped and hindered by charities, sought by the media, torn completely from her previous life. The fact that her husband had just started work – at a site whose records were utterly destroyed – only made things more difficult.
[[[American Widow]]] is Alissa Torres’s story, in her own words and presumably her own comics-panel layouts. The art is by Sungyoon Choi, a very young graduate of the School of Visual Arts; this appears to be her first major work. It’s also Torres’s first work in comics; before 9/11 she was an instructional designer for the New York City Department for the Aging and afterward she seems to have only written about herself and her late husband, with several essays on [[[Salon]]] and one in [[[Redbook]]]. (A search at Salon didn’t bring up those essays; nor does the Redbook essay seem to be online.)
Her story is touching and poignant, though Torres doesn’t tell it quite as well as she could have. The tone of American Widow is variable: sometimes it reads like a story Torres is telling for her young son, and sometimes it’s flatter, like reportage. There are many moments that feel like set-up, but few pay-offs. (A babysitter admits to falling asleep in the park, Alissa is “still” mad at Eddie the morning of 9/11 for something she never mentions, the Special Master, Kenneth Feinberg, is carefully and pyrotechnically introduced, but never appears again. There are a lot of moments like that – each one is realistic, but they haven’t been shaped well into a story.)
American Widow isn’t the story of Alissa’s life – we never even learn where in New Jersey she came from – nor is it really the story of Eddie’s, despite a few flashback scenes. It’s not even the story of their courtship and marriage; that’s taken care of in one short chapter early in the book. It’s the story of what Alissa Torres had to go through after her husband died – the story of her suffering. In this book, 9/11 ruined her plans for life – we do see some other people who lost family members, but the focus is entirely on those left behind.
She depicts herself as reticent to trade on her status as a “9/11 widow” and unwilling to go on TV, but she also spends large sections of American Widow going through all of her discussions with the Red Cross about how much money she would receive, and the calculations of that Special Master as to the worth of her late husband. Also, according to the publisher, her life since 9/11 has entirely been devoted to raising her son and writing about her husband’s death.
So American Widow is never quite as good as it could be – Torres is too close to her own story to be able to tell it well, and it’s really a story about one woman’s reaction to one horrible moment. (Torres’s emotional path isn’t particularly different from any other widow or widower.) Choi’s art is solid, but doesn’t call much attention to itself; it tells the story but not much more than that. American Widow will be a valuable piece of first-person history in a hundred years or so, but if Torres had worked with someone who knows how to craft real life into comics – someone like Harvey Pekar or Joe Sacco – it could have been immensely better as a story now.
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
Publishers who would like their books to be reviewed at ComicMix should contact ComicMix through the usual channels or email Andrew Wheeler directly at acwheele (at) optonline (dot) net.