Thursday , September 24 2020
Art comics guru Art Spiegelman's flawed but fascinating take on 9-11. . .

In the Shadows of No Towers

Dealing with as politically charged a review subject as Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers (Pantheon), I feel the need to open with the following: I accept much of Spiegelman’s political take on 9-11 and its aftermath even if I don’t agree with all of the specifics. I suspect that many readers less in tune with the cartoonist’s shared assumptions will have a difficult time with this book. Unfortunate, but inevitable.
Spiegelman’s book collects a series of ten Sunday Funnies-sized pages describing the artist’s reactions to the attack on the World Trade Center. Completing the first strip in February 2002, the artist continued to produce his “weekly” strip on a monthly schedule, even though he was unable find a mainstream outlet in this country for the work. As Spiegelman himself notes in his intro, the only publisher outside of a more sympathetic European market was a small-circulation Jewish paper called Forward. By airing his own free-floating pissedness and paranoia so openly and unconcerned with nuance, the onetime Arts Comix darling has suddenly reverted into an underground cartoonist. Disconcerting for those who first came to the cartoonist through his Pulitzer winning Maus volumes or his New Yorker covers, perhaps, but bracing to those like me who first grew to love the man’s work through his strips in funkier comix titles like Arcade or Funny Aminals. Sure, this hardback’s coming out under a big American book publisher, but it still feels as immediate as the undergrounds where Spiegelman first cut his teeth. Last page of story even references the recent Republican Convention in New York.
Spiegelman’s style in No Towers owes much to the deconstructive underground comix he produced in the 70’s and 80’s. The book, which is comprised of heavy cardboard pages, is designed to be read sideways to accommodate single page compositions that’ll fit on two 10″-by-14½” pages. Each page is a compositional statement in itself – more than one strip frequently commenting on different aspects of the same topic as they frequently reflect the visual motif of each page. First page of the series, for instance, opens with a three-panel sequence showing a family’s shocked reactions to viewing the events of 9-11 on television, with a two-tiered strip immediately below dramatizing the joke origins of the phrase “waiting for the other shoe to drop;” below this is a three-panel strip showing the television screen from the viewer’s perspective, as Spiegelman ruminates on how diminished these images appear (“the towers aren’t much bigger, say, than Dan Rather’s head.”) On the right side of the page is a vertical strip showing a pixeled version of a skeletal tower collapsing in flames, which is taken up on the lower left side, too. Planted in the bottom middle is a large circular panicky New Yorkers as a giant shoe (“Jihad brand footware,” an advertising blurb notes) drops from the sky.
The approach hearkens back to Spiegelman’s pre-Maus collage style of strip composition – where he comically deconstructed newspaper strips like “Rex Morgan, M.D.” or “Dick Tracy” by placing their panels in absurdist situations – only here he utilizes early 20th Century comic characters as both a source of personal comfort and satire. “While waiting for the other terrorist shoe to drop,” the cartoonist notes in his final page, “many found comfort in poetry. Others found solace in old newspaper strips.” (A dubious declaration, but never mind.) Thus, he anthropomorphizes the two towers by recasting them as the Kin-der-Kids, a decision that at first seems dubious until the fifth page when he uses them in an eight panel parody to slash against the Iraq War.
Spiegelman has long been masterful when it comes to dissection and stretching the conventions of graphic layout, but where once he did this to examine the limits and conventions of form, now he utilizes it to convey his own intellectual fragmentation. No Towers is not the book to read for a measured discourse on either 9-11 or its political aftermaths. At one point, the cartoonist describes designing a poster for a parents’ protest to get the air ducts cleaned at his daughter’s school, but it’s rejected by the other parents for being “too shrill.” He’s prone to political broad strokes: at one point in a discussion of red and blue states, for instance, he characterizes the red zones as places where “44% of the Americans who don’t believe in evolution tend to gather.” (Beware the misplaced modifier, my son!)
But one of Spiegelman’s themes is the way that the events of 9-11 have driven so many formerly reasonable people into realms of irrationality that they’d never expected to visit. And so our hero, a man of many comic strip guises (personalized caricature, older “maus,” even Happy Hooligan) contradicts himself throughout the book: bridling when someone suggests that he might be suffering from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, yet later utilizing a pop psych concept like Displacement to discuss the War in Iraq. Does Art contradict himself? He contains multitudes. . .
Reading and rereading this volume over the course of this anniversary day, I found myself recalling Lou Reed’s great op-ed rock opus, New York, which was originally recorded during the Reagan Administration. A non-stop free-associative rant against the excesses of the era, Reed’s album was scattered and frustrating, heart-felt and brilliant. For every deeply incisive lyric on the disc, there was an equally off-the-mark overstatement. Same goes for No Towers, which moves from the intensely personal (a sequence where Art and his wife Francois look for their daughter in a school four block south of the towers effectively conveys both parents’ dread) to scattershot political analysis to touching evocations of the city itself all over the space of a single page. Is this big, bulky book an unmitigated success? Probably not. But it sure makes for good provocative comix.
Welcome back to the underground, Art.

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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