Chaos is always with us, suggests In the Shadow of No Towers, Art Spiegelman’s first graphic novel in the 12 years since his Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus books. Chaos, however, has never been branded as has Sept. 11, 2001. The very unruliness of In the Shadow, a book that ennobles but hardly prettifies the Ground Zero created by the destruction of the World Trade Center, is an attempt to beat back that branding, to decommercialize a day Spiegelman refuses to reduce to a military recruitment poster.
The book opens with a computerized “image of the looming north tower’s glowing bones just before it vaporized,” stamped onto the middle of the front page of The World, a legendary New York newspaper. The date of that hoary broadsheet is Sept. 11, 2001. The World trumpets news of the assassination of then President William McKinley by Leon Czolgosz, an associate of “Anarchist Queen” Emma Goldman, herself accused of plotting to kill the president. This busy front page lends Spiegelman’s work the immediacy of a daily newspaper.
The power and heft of In the Shadow transcend and upend convention. This is no mere book — it is an artifact, a slab, a monument. Unpaginated, ungainly and heavy, it seems to demand its own space. A coffee table wouldn’t seem right for a statement so thick and unsettling. It might even collapse a bookshelf.
This garish, rumpled cartoon edifice is a cry that would outshout chaos, an attempt to grasp an event that seems to defy history. In melding humor and anger, In the Shadow wields a merciless magic. Comics have always been able to do that. But this is a comic book from, and about, hell.
Unlike a work that’s all text, you can “get through” this book quickly. Taking it all in takes more time. Patiently created, with great emotional trepidation, this book seems to signal the author’s fresh commitment to a world he’s just beginning to trust again. Published two months before the presidential election, it suggests that free speech is at least temporarily back in vogue.
Approach this book as you would the Trade Center if it still stood. Like a building, In the Shadow has a front door: The glossy black outlines of the two towers dominate this somber, fitful creation, as they did the darker, more subtly textured and singularly disturbing cover — Spiegelman calls it an “afterimage” — that he produced for the New Yorker the week after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Once you get inside this dark cartoon structure 14 inches tall, 10 inches wide and an inch thick, the world disorients, reflecting the effect of the attacks. After two pages in which Spiegelman reviews his career since Maus, In the Shadow goes lateral. This smooth, bulky thing, its backside populated by high-contrast silhouettes of ancient cartoon figures such as Olive Oyl, Dopey, Ignatz, L’il Abner and Mr. O’Malley, turns on its side, expanding from text to densely populated, stylistically diverse broadsheet-size panels, some of which took Spiegelman five weeks to produce.
Time, still too raw to add up to sensible history, is all that tempers these busy, diverse panels, which aim to evoke the immediacy and evanescence of the old New York funny papers, which surface in the form of cartoon references. Time fills the frames in Spiegelman’s explicit connections between 9/11 and “the Giuliani years, when the homeless all magically ‘disappeared’” as well as the just-passed GOP gathering (“And September ’04? Cowboy boots drop on Ground Zero as New York is transformed into a stage set for the Republican Presidential Convention, and Tragedy is transformed into Travesty…”)
In the Shadow depicts a world turned every which way and loose. It’s 9/11 all over again, sky falling and all. Plate 1 stylizes Dan Rather, humanizes the stunned Spiegelman, ennobles the city’s terrified populace and casts the two towers in an eerie, radiated orange, as if they’re still burning. Plate 2 suggests irony isn’t dead, in a panel billboarding an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie against a soot-filled sky. In that same plate, at right center top, Spiegelman and wife Francoise Mouly (the New Yorker’s art director) seem all antennae, hearing the crash of the first plane as a red “Roarrrrrrrr!!” The planes in the picture and in our recollection of that day’s world collapse simultaneously, freezing the Spiegelmans in the frame. As in an Egyptian frieze, background and foreground merge, the humans in the plate paralyzed by the dread of the moment.
Spiegelman realizes his daughter Nadja is at school at the foot of the towers and he must rescue her. He and Mouly rush through town to reach Nadja; in temporarily overcoming his nicotine habit, Spiegelman turns into the mouse from Maus, a Jew who mentally links the soot of that day’s Manhattan with the smoke of Auschwitz. These ghastly aromas lead Spiegelman/Maus to figure that if cigarettes won’t kill him, the nation’s poor air quality will.
In the Shadow is about overcoming paranoia, about coming to terms with a world in which news happens so quickly it’s instantly commercialized. The world Spiegelman deplores, loves and so vividly depicts is one in which rhetoric trumps passion, the threat of terrorism justifies continuous war, and Spiegelman finds himself living in the “state of alienation,” a country he says cries out for a third party, but not the “Ostrich Party” of the R. Crumb-like Panel 5 centerpiece.
In the Shadow of No Towers treats Washington as a separate nation. It’s a New York scold of the current administration. It’s also a profound act of engagement: Spiegelman quit creating comics for much of the ’90s and, at the turn of the century, was even disenchanted with the New Yorker, which he viewed as too complacent. In the Shadow puts him back in the polemics game.
When the German newspaper Die Zeit offered him free comic rein, Spiegelman jumped at the chance to create graphics about 9/11 that would align with the garish comic broadsheets of a century earlier. That may be one reason the end of this book features Spiegelman’s history of early comics and comic pages from such legendary and politically divisive newspapers as the New York American and the New York World. The last historic panel is a “Bringing up Father” page from Hearst’s New York American in which Father tries to prop up the Tower of Pisa because he can’t stand its being out of line. The end page sets a tumbling Spiegelman against contemporary headlines spanning the attacks, the war in Iraq and the latest dish about a Britney Spears video.
In the Shadow of No Towers is Spiegelman’s attempt to stand firm against a world that continues to collapse around him. It’s original, provocative and populist art, creation as affirmation, small but eloquent comfort.
Carlo Wolff is a free-lance writer from Cleveland.