Art Spiegelman Sees no Towers

Art Spiegelman is best known as the author of Maus, the extraordinary two-volume graphic novel about a son's attempt to understand his father's survival of the Nazi Holocaust. In that book, Jews are depicted as mice and Nazis as cats, and Spiegelman employs a broad array of comic-book conventions to tell his story, which angered some of those for whom the Holocaust is a sacrosanct subject—unrepresentable unless one approaches it with earnest tragic piety and uses only the most dignified literary forms (the first-person witness account, the modernist novel, the poem). But Spiegelman's use of what he calls “comix” turned out to be brilliant and totally justified, since it was the autobiographical story of an American-born comic-book writer's struggle to get at horror one generation removed. The very form he was using, with its animal characters, dialogue bubbles and easily decodable semiotics, emphasized how far removed Americans like himself, raised with frothy pop culture, are from the Holocaust, yet at the same time it demonstrated that even this most pop of forms could depict much of the anguish and subtlety the subject demanded. Maus was a triumph of postmodern art: it ironized and valorized its own form of presentation at the same time; to use Jean-Francois Lyotard's famous phrase, it “presented the unpresentable in presentation itself.” Put another way, Spiegelman's use of comics gave his readers that “distance” Bertolt Brecht said was necessary for a reader or theater audience to approach horrific tragedy.

Maus was Spiegelman's 13-year labor of love and obsession, and after he finished it, he seemed to emotionally downshift. He started a comics magazine, RAW, and got a cushy staff position at The New Yorker, contributing covers, occasional one- or two-page comics, and articles on the history of comics and the graphic novel. And then came Sept. 11. Spiegelman lived only blocks from the World Trade Center—he could see it from the window of his Soho apartment—and his daughter attended high school in the immediate vicinity. Suddenly, he was living with unspeakable horror again—this time at no generational or imaginative remove—and he dealt with it the way committed artists do: he made art about it. First came the now-famous “black-on-black afterimage” of the suddenly absent towers in the New York City darkness—a somber, supremely elegant elegy The New Yorker used as the cover for its first post-Sept. 11 issue and which Spiegelman reproduces as the cover for his new book about his Sept. 11 experience, In the Shadow of No Towers. Then came his decision to do this book. (It's no accident, incidentally, that Spiegelman originally published most of this material in foreign magazines and newspapers [LA Weekly was one of the few stateside papers that gave him space], no more accidental than books that see Bush Jr.'s America as an imperial state—notably Noam Chomsky's 9/11 and Norman Mailer's Why Are We At War?—contain material that was largely produced for the foreign press: in the Age of Ashcroft, the American press's gun-shy self-censoring has reached sickening levels.) In the Shadow of No Towers is a hefty volume: though it's only 42 pages long, it's printed in full color on heavy cardboard stock, and when opened up flat, it's broadsheet size—19.96 by 14.6 inches, by my measurement—which, Spiegelman comments in his introduction, “seemed perfect for oversized skyscrapers and outsized events.” The book is mostly taken up with 10 of these huge comics, which he drew between the end of 2001 and the second anniversary of the tragedy in 2003. And the first thing to be said about it is probably that Spiegelman shows that comics are every bit as appropriate a form to explore Sept. 11 as they are for the Holocaust. One reason is the broadsheet form allows Spiegelman to create collages of material whose tonal discordances almost uncannily reproduce how emotionally fragmented Sept. 11 was for so many of us. In the first plate, titled “Waiting for That Other Shoe to Drop,” Spiegelman juxtaposes five different cartoons in five different styles—everything from homages to '40s-era Sunday comics to Pop Art Leichtenstein to post-R.Crumb paranoia. The jittery jumping from style to style and tone to tone captures our frantic attempts to get a hold of the event, to comprehend it in terms that were familiar but that we realized were inadequate to the unprecedentedness of it all. In the end, the juxtapositions themselves become eloquent: paranoia, humor and slick irony sit side-by-side with a sublime sadness—which is how, I think, many of us recall our own emotional terrain on that day and the days that followed.

At the top of the eighth plate, Spiegelman writes that “the blast that disintegrated those lower Manhattan towers also disinterred the ghosts” of a bunch of comic-book characters in Spiegelman's head—the Katzenjammer Kids, Happy Hooligan, the couple from Bringing Up Father and others who helped make comic strips an art form—that he's studied so lovingly over the years and incorporates into these strips like childhood friends returned to calm him in the face of his despair. The effect isn't only calming, though; Spiegelman's use of them points both to the continuity of the comics tradition and the disruption that events like Sept. 11 create: though the great comics of the past were never innocent and were even occasionally subversive, none of them were asked to deal with tragedy on such a grand scale.

Spiegelman's politics are, as he puts it in a recent comic strip, “deep blue state,” which is probably an understatement. He doesn't understand conservatives, and he doesn't want to. His politics seem dictated mostly by paranoia, an instinctual mistrust of the sinister “cabal” of the Bush-Cheney gang. Paranoia, seems to me, is nowhere as a basis for any kind of effective politics, but it can give us effective art when it probes the depths of helplessness that many of us feel in the face of an administration that has given us a ruinous war and the most class-driven economy in decades yet still commands the allegiance of war-adrenalized bubbas and frightened soccer moms nationwide. Spiegelman speaks to the discombobulated rage of the left beautifully.

The book isn't perfect by any means: In the Shadow of No Towers is written and drawn in the almost literal heat of events, and given Spiegelman's tragic shrug of a sensibility, it often leans too heavily upon the used-up iconography of Munchian Scream-like despair or the put-upon befuddlement of Harvey Pekar. Spiegelman's a scrupulous stylist, a master imitator of others as well as an initiator of his own style—in its constant quoting of comic tradition as well as its extension of it, the book is practically “The Waste Land” of its genre—but it's more eloquent about the chords that terror plays on it than on how we should respond to it. There's something about the book that says: After the Holocaust, hey, what did you expect?

In the Shadow of No Towersby Art Spiegelman; Pantheon. Hardcover, 42 pages, $19.95.

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