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Powells.com
Saturday, September 18th, 2004


 

In the Shadow of No Towers

by Art Spiegelman

A review by Chris Bolton

For those of us on the opposite coast, especially those who had no close friends or relatives directly involved, the World Trade Center attacks can seem as distant, ephemeral, even safe as newsreel footage of Pearl Harbor. It can be difficult to grasp the true magnitude, having only seen the towers collapse on a computer monitor or a TV set. And in the rush to move beyond anguish and disbelief toward resolution and revenge, our society seems to have swept its collective emotions under the rug. The recent report by the 9/11 Commission fills in a lot of the details of what happened on that horrific day -- from multiple angles -- but they're only that, details. None of those eyewitness accounts quite encompasses the maelstrom of emotions evoked by September 11th, 2001.

With In the Shadow of No Towers, Pulitzer Prize-winning artist Art Spiegelman documents his own experiences and feelings, even as he grapples with the personal and political aftermath. Every two pages of this mammoth book contains a single, giant comic strip that melds the autobiographical with the editorial; depictions of Spiegelman's own account encircle a political cartoon that takes aim at the Bush administration's exploitation of 9/11. At times the two bleed together, as when Spiegelman's cartoon doppelganger comes forward to wrestle with his despair over the march to war in Iraq while caricatures of Bush and his monstrous cronies march by overhead, referencing a nightmare Spiegelman's eleven-year-old son had.

The artist came to worldwide attention twelve years ago with Maus -- for which he deservedly received the Pulitzer Prize -- a two-part graphic novel that put the Holocaust into a personal perspective, relating the experiences of his parents and revealing the flawed, all-too-human natures of its survivors. Spiegelman taps a similar vein in In the Shadow of No Towers, placing himself in most of the strips, sometimes as a human caricature and other times reprising the rodent-headed alter ego he employed in Maus.

The book opens with a reenactment of Spiegelman and his wife, Francoise, rushing to the base of the towers after the second plane hit, to get their teenage daughter out of school. Subsequently the comic Art Spiegelman comes onstage to wrestle with his doubts and anxieties. Agonizing over the post-9/11 patriotic fervor that gripped our nation (and arguably clutches it still), Spiegelman speaks for many -- myself included -- when he writes of himself, "He hardly knows anyone who supports the war and no one who voted for that creature in the White House. The state he lives in is the state of alienation, down in the dumps in the dark indigo heart of the Blue Zone..."

Struggling to deal with his shock and outrage at a time when anyone could be accused of terrorist complicity for not acquiescing to the government's agenda, Spiegelman finds comfort and connection in old comic strips. The last half of No Towers begins with an essay covering the creation of the color comic strip and surveying some of the more daring, innovative, or outright embarrassing ventures, among them The Katzenjammer Kids, Krazy Kat, and Little Nemo in Slumberland. Anyone who has read Spiegelman's excellent book-length essay in Jack Cole and Plastic Man is aware of how engaging an essayist the artist can be, and this piece is nearly as intriguing as the sample plates that follow, comprising the rest of the book. While I would have preferred more of Spiegelman's original work, there can be no denying the often astounding parallels between these century-old strips and current issues; at times one can't help wondering if Spiegelman stumbled upon some "timeslip" wherein early twentieth-century cartoonists actually documented the post-9/11 insanity.

In her New York Times review, Michiko Kakutani compares No Towers to Maus and notes that "it lacks those earlier books' hard-won intimacy, their layered complexity and metaphorical weight." She seems to be forgetting that Maus was thicker, longer (consisting of two volumes), and thirteen years in the making -- not to mention that it chronicled events begun some four decades prior. If No Towers necessarily lacks the density and historical perspective of Maus, it more than makes up for it with a passion and immediacy on a par with Joe Sacco's journalistic comix like Safe Area Gorazde. In his introduction, Spiegelman explains that each strip took roughly five weeks to complete; had he waited to accumulate enough strips for a Maus-sized collection, the book likely wouldn't have seen publication for another forty years. One can only hope that, with distance and clarity, Spiegelman will one day return to this subject in greater depth. As rewarding as that volume would be, however, it cannot compare to No Towers' urgency, even desperation. This is Spiegelman chronicling events even as they unfold; at times there is a sense that he dashed home to portray an incident that had occurred only moments earlier, while it still pulsated in his mind.

The strips possess a logical and narrative flow that is simply astounding. One begins with a depiction of the "glowing bones" of the north tower (a pivotal image for Spiegelman -- the steel girders seemed to glow just before the tower vaporized -- "one that didn't get photographed or videotaped into public memory but still remains burned onto the inside of [his] eyelids several years later") that segues into the red-and-white stripes of the American flag before turning into the orange and red terrorist alerts, which lead to a reproduction of the county-by-county map of the 2000 election -- noting the red and blue areas of the United States -- before culminating in a self-portrait of Spiegelman clutching a picket sign with an upside-down peace symbol, surrounded by eagles and grim reapers colored red and blue. The strip has the visceral impact of a montage and the inevitable sense of forward movement one feels as day turns to night.

In the past ten years a great many underground cartoonists -- from Joe Sacco to Daniel Clowes to Craig Thompson -- have clambered to the surface to decisively claim the comix medium as unique from all other storytelling forms, able to utilize the marriage of word and image with an impact that neither film nor prose can achieve. Spiegelman is quite possibly the best of the lot, in terms of understanding the medium and utilizing its distinctive strengths to their fullest, most astonishing capacity. It is Spiegelman's gift to be able to depict the horror, confusion, emotional devastation, and rampant ugliness of 9/11 and its aftermath in a style that also manages, against all reason and sanity, to be engaging, sometimes hilarious, and always incongruously beautiful.

Three years after the terrorist attacks, the once-incomprehensible has become part of our routine, a fact of our daily lives, perhaps taken for granted by those whose lives were not directly, irrevocably altered by the disaster. In the Shadow of No Towers is a comix masterpiece that transforms a memory already crinkling with age, turning a darker shade of sepia with each passing anniversary, into a personal nightmare from which we've yet to awaken.


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