Panel 8 – Alternate History after 9/11

- Anna McFarlane, University of St. Andrews (UK), “Lavie Tidhar’s Osama (2011) and Alternate History After 9/11”

- Rachel Mizsei Ward (UK), “Impotent in the face of history – How superhero narratives (didn’t) engage with 9/11”

Lavie Tidhar’s Osama (2011) and Alternate History After 9/11

Lavie Tidhar’s 2011 novel Osama takes place in a world markedly different from our own. Most significantly, Osama Bin Laden is not a terrorist but a fictional character in the Osama Bin Laden: Vigilante series of novels. This pulp fiction, published under the pseudonym Mike Longshott, is at the centre of an investigation by Joe, a private detective. Tidhar’s novel cannot be categorised unproblematically as alternate history: while some historical facts are altered, and some of the differences between our world and that of the novel can be accounted for by these differences, there are surreal and psychological resonances between the worlds as well. Osama Bin Laden’s presence as a fictional character is a surreal leap and the ghostly presence of refugees from another reality reinforce these connections. Our main character is not who he thinks himself to be, as an enigmatic femme fatale tries to make him ‘remember’ a previous existence. The curious relationship that the novel has with alternate history is further complicated by its use of other genres and modes such as hard-boiled detective fiction. However, Osama consciously works with the discourse of alternate history in several ways to achieve its effects. The search for author, Mike Longshott, is reminiscent of the search for the author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy in Philip K. Dick’s classic alternate history novel, The Man in the High Castle (1962). There are also elements of steampunk, particularly in the novel’s evocation of the alternate London, which brings to mind William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s use of alternate technology in The Difference Engine (1990). This paper will consider Tidhar’s use of alternate history as a discourse to explore the status of history and alternate history in the aftermath of 9/11 and the other terrorist attacks referenced throughout the novel. Osama’s combination of alternate history with other modes reflects the importance of trauma, and the malleability of reality which hold a greater danger than the terrorist attacks themselves.

Anna McFarlane has recently been awarded a PhD from the University of St Andrews for her work on the novels of William Gibson. She is the co-editor of Adam Roberts: Critical Essays (forthcoming from Gylphi) and the winner of the Feminist and Women’s Studies Association Small Grant Award, 2013.

Impotent in the face of history: How superhero narratives (didn’t) engage with 9/11

The superhero narrative has become an important part of global popular culture with superheroes appearing in comic books, films, television programmes and computer games.  The majority of American superheroes exist in a version of the real world, experiencing our history as it happens. This has been a part of superhero narratives from their roots in the 1930s. For example the first issue of the Captain America comic book published in 1941 shows Captain America punching Hitler in the face. This paper will take one event – September 11th 2001 and examine how superhero narratives interacted with it, by creating an alternative history.

The events of 9/11 had a major impact on the comic publishers Marvel and DC because both companies are based in New York. In addition many of their characters are either based in New York, or based in a city that is analogous to New York.  After the terrorist attacks both companies released material dealing with the events, and used them to raise funds for survivor charities. Superheroes are an important presence in these publications. They are shown commenting on the events and interacting with civilians and emergency personnel. However although the heroes are shown as present during this historical event, they are unable to deal with it. I will analyse these images and discuss the inherent problems of superheroes when they are written to exist in the real world. The key problem being that when superheroes interact with historic events it either devalues the event or the superhero.  I will also discuss a 9/11 analogue that appears in Garth Ennis’ comic The Boys (2006-2008), which rewrites events and incorporates superheroes fully.  


Rachel Mizsei Ward received her PhD from the University of East Anglia in 2013. Her research looks at cross platform franchises, transmedia and licensing between film, television and games. Rachel has written chapters on the film Underworld and the role-playing setting The World of Darkness, and the Western horror role-playing game Deadlands.  She also has an article on Barack Obama as the Joker in Comparative American Studies. She is currently working on Islamic superheroes and a forthcoming edited collection about superheroes outside of America.