Sunday, December 2, 2001
Section: City Weekly, Page 1

In the wee hours before the Sept. 11 attacks stopped Walter Crane from working on his new comic book, he had been typing in his third-floor bedroom studio, hunched beneath his wall poster of ancient Rome, caught up in the adventures of his heroine, Sheba, a mummified cat on a quest to get into Egyptian heaven.

For his 10th-annniversary issue, Crane was writing a scene in which his Islamic character, a female creature named Buraq, walks in to a palace. Someone makes a chauvinistic remark, and then - BAMMO! - she'd have a swordfight.

When Crane had typed enough, he tried to sleep, but couldn't. A neighbor's burglar alarm kept going off, and when he finally got up and headed next door to get the noise to stop, his housemate told him to look at the news. After that, his grouchiness, the alarm, and Sheba didn't matter.

"It pretty much destroyed my concentration on anything," said Crane, 30, who has been drawing Sheba since art school in 1992 and hoping that its fans would grow beyond the 1,000 or so regular readers.

But now, with disaster and tragedy filling the airwaves, Sheba seemed irrelevant. What was the point, Crane and other local comic artists thought, of stories about superheroes and villains, and in Crane's case, the life of an undead cat?

Even worse for him, would his religious satire, such as Egyptian and Roman gods drinking in the Bacchus bar complaining of the new popularity of Mohammed and Jesus H. Christ, seem over the line now?

"I mean I sort of find myself wondering, `Oooh you know, is it even good for me to depict, you know, Muslims as being militant or something?"' he said.

He thought of packing up his cats and leaving Brighton. He imagined the collapse of the entire comic book business.

He eventually decided it would be better to spend time in the 'burbs with his family than to waste time drawing in his house off Beacon Street. He cleared his father's collection of Volkswagens off the lawn. He helped his sister move. He rebuilt the carburetor on his 1972 Saab.

A month and a half passed before he put on a hieroglyph shirt and took his books to a table at a comic book convention. At the late October gathering at the Hynes Convention Center, he joined artists who had their own Sept. 11 dilemmas.

Past the old comic book dealers, the life-size comic book weapon booth, and the stuffed Pokemon creatures on sale from a box for $1 each, the artists sat at tables signing autographs, selling comics, and talking. Were comics too silly in these times?

A few tables over from Crane, Andy Fish, of Worcester, said he had decided to suspend his e-mail strip. Adam Bomb, a big cutout of which was standing behind Fish, had been doing battle with villains who were knocking down buildings in Megalopolis.

After the real-life attacks in New York, Fish and his co-author, Tony Antetomaso, thought the episode was in bad taste. "When it happened, we kind of looked at it and said, `You know, two fat guys doing a comic strip, you know we should be doing something a little more worthwhile,"' Fish said.

But some of his 1,000 subscribers, grade school kids mostly, wrote to say they wanted Bomb to come back and fight the Taliban. And so he took on the Sand Worms from Mars, a Taliban offshoot. "We decided to do whatever we can to provide a little chuckle in everybody's e-mail everyday," Fish said.

Mike Brennan, the Arlington creator of Electric Girl, the story of an electrically charged teenager who can switch TV channels without a remote, thought he should work in references to the attack. But catastrophe seemed too big for his comic book. How could he get it in the story so that it was just right? "It's still so raw to me. I didn't want to rush and do something that I might not like," he said, from beside a row of yellow Blammo dogs, the stuffed editions of his heroine's pet.

Brian Anderson, of Holden, who was sitting by a 7-foot cardboard version of his werewolf - long pointy ears, hair to his waist, a trenchcoat, a knife strapped to his calf - had no plans to change Bloodkin. The story of the younger werewolf generation clashing with the older generation, set to come out next year, will have a place in post-attack America, he said.

"People are going to need escapism. They're going to need the fantasy, the dark fantasy," he said. "It's like going to an amusement park. It just refreshes you in a weird way."

From behind the table where a stuffed cat wrapped in strips of cloth perched above the books, Crane thought about Sheba. "I kind of hope, you know, that my own work has enough meaning to continue with," he said.

The cat's religious adventures didn't seem as trivial as Pokemon or the incessant superhero battles. But what if people took the stories too seriously? The jealous Egyptian mummy god does yell "Death to Islam!" on one page.

"I believe if Muslim fundamentalists saw my book, they might put a fatwa on my head," he said, referring to a death edict. "It's a funny way of looking at religions interacting with each other and not having one religion say that they're right, which as far as I'm concerned is why we actually have these kind of problems in the first place."

Lately he has been getting library books with Napoleon-era costumes and copies of drawings artists made of Egypt when Napoleon arrived. On the radio he heard a story about how the Koran doesn't insist that women wear burkas. Maybe he should have his Islamic character mention this. Buraq, whom he discovered in another Time-Life book, has a mule's body, a peacock's tail, and a woman's face, and is said to have transported Mohammed.

In the last few weeks with the retreat of the Taliban, Crane is starting to feel more hopeful. Life seems normal again. Nothing bad happened in Boston. The comic distributors are still printing.

He has decided he can't help himself. As silly as a mummy cat might be, this life of a comic book artist, the free time exchanged for small wages, is hard to give up. To him it's better than the corporate alternative of doing video-game animation - and the mere two weeks of vacation that job provides.

Besides he likes researching history and thinking up stories to follow the idea that first came to him when he opened one of his parent's Time-Life books on Egypt, saw a picture of a cat mummy and thought that would make a cool comic character.

Maybe post-attack America will be good for Sheba. If the economy's bad, people might be more interested in the cheap entertainment a $5 comic provides. "It's not like the world's going to spin off its axis and fly off into space or something," he said.

On the other side of the 6-foot mummy picture tacked to the door of his studio bedroom, the white paper clipped to his drawing table was blank. The library books were piled nearby, not far from his collection of Beatles Yellow Submarine action figures, of the type he'd like made for Sheba one day.

As his publisher's January deadline looms for the 16th issue, he has a plan. He will cloister himself in his room, unplug the phone, take occasional and alternating doses of beer and coffee, and finish the comic by working a month of long days and nights.