In 2004, coinciding with the Presidential elections, Art Spiegelman released In the Shadow of No Towers. It was the first time his work had penetrated the bookstore since his Maus, which had since won a Pulitzer Prize and been added to many college classes on history and the holocaust; Spiegelman had been praised in newspapers across the country, often describing him as the sole mature comic book creator in history, and he had worked for The New Yorker, that bastion of elitism. In the Shadow of No Towers, a thick and well-designed book, became a bestseller in U.S. bookstores, often placed with the new releases and in history or social commentary, rather than with other graphic novels.
But Spiegelman’s work, while it has much to recommend it in terms of some of its aspects of its page layout and its value as a cultural artifact in response to 9/11, fails on numerous levels. First, it is slight, its packaging deceptive. Second (and most seriously), its politics is at times shockingly immature. Third, its invocation of comic strips from the first few decades of the 20th century does not seem apt to the subject.
Packaging, Format, and Self-Presentation
In the Shadow of No Towers is a mere ten original comics pages, each printed across two pages in the book, preceded by a two-page introduction. While the ten original comics pages by Spiegelman are large, mimicking the dimensions of newspaper pages, each split across two pages, they are really ten pages of material — and are even labeled as such — even if those are ten large pages. What follows this is labeled “The Comics Supplement,” after newspapers’ old comics supplements, and consists of a two-page introduction and seven plates reproduced from early newspaper comics, split over some twelve pages (or six pages, since they’re printed sideways like the main text itself). Even counting each of these as two pages, adding the volume’s 2-page introduction and its 2-page introduction to the newspaper reprints, the book totals 36 pages.
But printed on thick cardboard paper, the volume is massive, both in its dimensions and its width, which is about that of a 300-page book. It costs $20.
And that’s fine, as art objects go. It’s not out of sync with the format and pricing of some French volumes. But in the U.S., this sort of treatment is usually reserved for only the most elite product. Surely, most of the people purchasing this shrink-wrapped in bookstores have no idea what they’re getting. The volume feels like a con, although that might be due more to the publisher than to Spiegelman. Yet surely one can say that, in format and pricing, In the Shadow of No Towers screams elitism. It argues that this is a serious book, an important work by an important artist, meant to be consumed by the kind of readers who can appreciate the fact that no corners were cut, no expense spared.
Spiegelman makes the situation no better when, in his introduction, he claims that he “made a vow that morning [of 9/11] to return to making comics full-time[,] despite the fact that comix can be so damn labor intensive that one has to assume that one will live forever to make them.” Really? Did Kirby think he was going to live forever? But perhaps Spiegelman thinks that Kirby was a hack, and perhaps there’s some truth to that assessment. So to choose someone closer to Spiegelman’s aesthetic, how about Robert Crumb?
Surely, Spiegelman is exaggerating for effect. But he makes drawing a page, even an oversized page, sound like a Herculean task. And here we see that familiar elitist notion that rapid artistic production is always and automatically shoddy artistic production. It’s an assumption common in high literary and academic circles, like those of The New Yorker. It’s also transparently fallacious: while plenty of works are pounded out each year, with little attention to quality, plenty of classic works have been produced in manic spurts, and plenty of excellent artists have had impressive work ethics. Surely, the quality of the artist, and perhaps how seriously he takes his craft, is a more important indicator than the time he takes, measured dumbly in days and not in hours per day. But in elite circles, real art must take time, and the more time the better.
In other words, Spiegelman is saying, this is a very elite volume from a very elite artist, and you’re getting these 10 pages at a steal for $20. If this sounds more like a used car salesman than an elite artist, congratulations: you’ve successfully exposed one of the many ways elite literary culture contradicts itself. If this recalls Stan Lee’s shilling, congratulations again, and this only underlines the way in which Spiegelman, by virtue of working in comics, long seen as beneath serious artistic consideration, has more in common with Lee than with The New Yorker, at which he was always an uncomfortable fit, a guilty nod to the fact that comics are now deemed serious art, although no one in elite circles seems to know what to do with this fact. Except, perhaps, to hire that guy who won the Pulitzer Prize for making comics about the Holocaust instead of super-heroes.
Even Spiegelman’s use of the term “comix,” which stems from the undergrounds, is elitist. Because this is not, like “sequart,” a term meant to better define the medium. It’s a term that’s generally reserved for underground comics, as opposed to mainstream ones, and it implies that they’re intrinsically better. In some ways, such as in expressing the vision of a single auteur, perhaps they are. But the term is too often used as a way of looking down upon anything even remotely mainstream, no matter how influential and good. It says to the literary snobs, “Oh, you’re right about comics. They are indeed paltry things beneath contempt. But there is this strain of serious comics, made by serious artists who take their time and rarely collaborate, called ‘comix.’ So just read those — which happen to be what I do — and you can preserve all your hatred for the actual medium.”
But Spiegelman goes further, adding that In the Shadow of No Towers “was originally going to be a weekly series, but many of the pages took me at least five weeks to complete.” Because, you see, he is a serious artist, and producing a single page of comics — or at least comix — simply does take five weeks. So really, it’s a steal at $2 per page, or $1 if you count each page as really being two. And this, when most comics cost around 15 cents per page and even a 100-page, $30 hardcover comes to 30 cents per page. Because, you see, this isn’t comics at all — it’s comix from a Pulitzer Prize winner who worked for The New Yorker.
Spiegelman’s not doing himself any favors here, as he negotiates this high-wire act of self-representation. Nor does he do himself much good by admitting, “I’d spent much of the decade before the millennium trying to avoid making comix.” Irrationally (or perhaps self-deceptively), Spiegelman later claims in the introduction that he’d “often harbored notions of working for posterity.” One might ask how an artist produces such work without actually working, or even by avoiding such work, as Spiegelman confesses to having done. Equally, one might ask how Spiegelman did not realize that he is exposing that his elitist notions about how much time comics (should) take really stem from his own laziness.
Many mainstream comics artists produce twelve 22-page comic books in a single year; even French illustrators can generally produce a 48-page graphic novella or graphic novel chapter per year. Moreover, Spiegelman’s art, while idiosyncratic and formidable, is hardly intricately detailed; while certainly competent, he’s no master craftsman on par with Little Nemo’s Winsor McCay, Les Cités Obscures’s François Schuiten, or Planetary’s John Cassaday.
And through his appropriation of newspaper comics, Spiegelman actually reminds us of these artists’ weekly output. But then, Spiegelman isn’t honoring these comics artist as high art. He can’t be, since they’re not comix. They were produced to deadline, exactly the opposite of how Spiegelman styles his own, serious artistic production. McCay didn’t need five weeks to produce a broadside, and there can be no doubt which of the two creators’ work deserves to endure.
To be sure, newspaper comics have long had a certain cache, in high culture circles, relative to comic books. Going back to broadsheet comics produced before the super-hero even existed is appealing because it manages to celebrate the medium while marginalizing the entire history of the original comic book, including super-heroes, as a strange historical oddity best forgotten in favor of the undergrounds, which can then be seen as a revival of the old newspaper tradition.
There is a careful ideological agenda being enacted here, in Spiegelman’s self-stylings, in his choice of inspiration, and in the book’s format.
All of it is pretentious nonsense, and few things are more offensive than pretension about popular culture. How do you deal with a spokesman for a popular medium who snobbishly despises so much of it — and even seems to look down on artistic production?
Politics in the Narrative Proper
“I’d never wanted to be a political cartoonist,” Spiegelman writes in his introduction, adding “nothing has a shorter shelf-life than angry caricatures of politicians.” Perhaps Spiegelman ought to have listened to the better angels of his artistic character.
Spiegelman’s second original page (as numbered as ten) depicts Osama Bin Laden and George W. Bush standing over a sleeping Spiegelman, depicted as one of the mice fromMaus; Osama Bin Laden carries a bloody saber, George W. Bush a U.S. flag and a revolver. A caption reads “EQUALLY TERRORIZED BY AL-QAEDA AND BY HIS OWN GOVERNMENT…” The image — which Spiegelman notes in his introduction “had made some editors visibly shudder” (perhaps with reason) — strikes me as almost a stereotype of the liberal response to 9/11.
Art Spiegelman left The New Yorker in protest over what he called “the widespread conformism of the mass media in the Bush era.” He explained:
From the time that the Twin Towers fell, it seems as if I’ve been living in internal exile, or like a political dissident confined to an island. I no longer feel in harmony with American culture, especially now that the entire media has become conservative and tremendously timid. Unfortunately, even The New Yorker has not escaped this trend.
In a parallel move, a liberal Christopher Hitchens left the liberal magazine The Nation after reading several reader letters that described how, on 9/11, the writers realized they lived in a fascist state. No semblance of “I felt American” or “I realized terrorism must be stopped” or “I felt rage” — instead, more rhetoric from Americans hating America in a nation with a shockingly progressive amendment that allows them to do so.
And of course, both Spiegelman and Hitchens have a point. But interestingly, seem to have each overreacted, Hitchens becoming too often an intellectual apologist for Bush doctrine, while Spiegelman here claims to be “equally terrorized by Al-Qaeda and by his own government.”
To be sure, the Bush administration has terrorized people, especially the press, into deeming any criticism of its policies as anti-American. It’s also suspended the sacred right of habeas corpus in certain cases, gives suspects over to foreign countries to be tortured, and a host of other quite legitimate concerns. One thing it hasn’t done, however, is kill thousands of New Yorkers.
Perhaps someon in Iraq could claim to be “equally terrorized by Al-Qaeda and by his own government?” But a New Yorker with post-traumatic stress disorder after intimately experiencing the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil in history? How politically biased does Spiegelman have to be to think that?
Spiegelman’s obviously straining here, and not only to produce political commentary in a tumultuous time. His narrative starts with his experience on 11 September 2001, then increasingly gets distracted by anti-Bush commentary. Spiegelman himself seems to recognize this, writing in his introduction that “new traumas began competing with still-fresh wounds and the nature of my project began to mutate.” He recalls how he’d planned at least three additional sequences depicting his experience on 9/11 and shortly thereafter. His narration of his day, on 11 September 2011, is good enough that one can regret that he didn’t stick to his original plan and complete that story. Yet by the fifth page, he abandons his narration of that day completely. It returns briefly on page six, as if he’s trying to steer his story back on course, but page six then jumps forward to an unrelated incident, and then Spiegelman surrenders completely to his passions. The A-plot of 9/11 disappears, not unlike those towers, and all that’s left is the wild B-plot of flailing political commentary.
Addressing Bush, Spiegelman writes, “You rob from the poor and give to your pals like a parody of Robin Hood while distracting me with your damn oil war!” Criticizing Bush as anti-progressive or harsh on the poor is certainly fair game, although the alarming gap between rich and poor Americans didn’t start with the current administration. But thinking Iraq an “oil war,” although conventional, shows a remarkable lack of contemplation: the U.S. could have opened Iraqi oil through the U.N.’s oil-for-food program, and oil companies routinely disdain destabilization of oil-producing countries while generally not caring that the stabile government selling oil oppresses or kills its people.
Lower on the same page, Uncle Sam’s attack on hornets, equivalent with terrorists, leads them to attack in force — “madder now den effer!” Uncle Sam’s response? “Sting again dose Noo York smart aleckers, und see if I care!!!” While Uncle Sam’s attack on a Saddam Hussein bug — “wrong bug!” — seems apt, the overall implication of the strip is that attacking terrorists will only anger them. The Bush supporters who cry that liberals are appeasers would find ample evidence here: implicitly, we should just give in when attacked, since any counterstriking will only anger the terrorists already sworn to our destruction. The implication is that Bush does not care for New York if he does anything that would provoke terrorists. One can only imagine the shock if people had responded to Pearl Harbor this way! — imagine, “attacking the Japanese will only provoke them to hit us again!”
On page four (as well as in the introduction), Spiegelman narrates how he formerly thought himself a “rootless cosmopolitan” but now sees himself as cosmopolitan but rooted in New York City. But on page seven, Spiegelman calls American flags “provincial,” preferring instead the symbol of a globe. This is well and good as an antidote to knee-jerk patriotism, as well as an acknowledgement that terrorism and state oppression are world problems, but Spiegelman doesn’t seem to notice his own contradiction. Certainly, “American” is less provincial than Spiegelman’s own identity as a “New Yorker.” But then, New Yorkers (especially elite New Yorkers) have long had their own provincial cosmopolitanism, as if the cosmos ends at the city’s edge.
What makes Spiegelman’s provincial condemnation of provincialism all the more perplexing is that he seems at times to know it, although he’s not aware of its dangers. In his introduction, he condemns points out Indiana’s provincialism, ironically, by relating it to his own: “It was as if I’d wandered into an inverted version of Saul Steinberg’s famous map of America seen from Ninth Avenue, where the known world ends at the Hudson; in Indiana everything east of the Alleghenies was very, very far away.” Steinberg’s map appeared on the cover of The New Yorker, which embodies this attitude to this day, reviewing happenings about town despite its readership being mostly based outside New York City.
No wonder some New Yorkers seem to think they own 9/11. Spiegelman seems to hint at this elsewhere in the volume, such as when he condemns (on page ten of his comic) the fact that the 2004 Republican National Convention was held in New York City as a “travesty.”
Spiegelman’s provincialism comes out on page seven, where he relates how “he’s barely ever been” in areas that vote Republican, “hardly knows anyone who supports the war” in Iraq, and knows “no one who voted for that creature in the White House.” He is not alone, but it’s hard not to marvel at the lack of intellectual diversity this demonstrates. It’s a fact Republicans have seized upon in criticizing elitist liberal commentators — and not without reason.
Later on page seven, Spiegelman’s earlier apocalyptic statements (while clearer in the introduction) become explicit: “I worry whether NYC or I will still be around to see if my page was well-printed.” He adds, absurdly and with an angry face on his comic incarnation, “It’s already a sure bet that quite a few Iraqis and G.I.s won’t get to see it” — as if Iraqis, a world away, and G.I.s (generally a conservative bunch), are likely to read his elite little comic strip! (Iraqis and G.I.s, you see, have a duty not to be provincial; let the world come to New York.) But Spiegelman continues, “and by the time anyone reads this, we may well be bombing some evil-doers elsewhere… Paris, maybe” — which sounds like high liberal exaggeration at best and a certifiable level of paranoia at worst.
Ironically, eschatology in the U.S. is usually identified with Christian fundamentalists who support Bush, a fact liberals often exploit in criticizing Bush. Spiegelman himself exploits this fact later, saying “my ‘leaders’ are reading the book of Revelations.” He doesn’t note that he’s producing a profoundly eschatological text.
On page eight, Spiegelman writes that “the killer apes learned nothing from the twin towers of Auschwitz and Hiroshima… and nothing changed on 9/11” because the President “wages his wars and wars on wages.” Equating Auschwitz and Hiroshima is dangerous business, except in the context of the shared horror they produce: one was an act of conscious genocide, the other an extreme act of war that may be responsibly debated. Such equivocation is food to the right wing, and it strikes me as exactly the kind of extreme moral relativism that ought to have been buried on 9/11. But what is the lesson that “the killer apes” failed to learn? That all killing is equally wrong? The lesson of Auschwitz ought to be “never again” — and enforcing that may require force of arms. Taking a lesson of peace at any price from Auschwitz and Hiroshima can only be called immoral and an insult to the victims of the Holocaust or the nuclear bomb drops.
Later on the page, a new Spiegelman analogue exclaims, “Look! Some guy counted as missing inside the Pentagon was actually on one of the planes that hit the towers…” He continues, “This proves the Pentagon was in on the attack!” The logic is clearly insane, preferring conspiracy to simple mistake. But at least Spiegelman seems to half-recognize it, showing just later a TV broadcast on which an Arab spokesman is reported to claim “no Jews were in the towers that morning.”
In his introduction, Spiegelman recounts how hearing “paranoid Arab Americans blaming it all on the Jews” resulted in his retreating from “conspiracy theories about my government’s complicity in what had happened” — conspiracy theories in which he’d “lost” himself “in those first few days after 9/11.” Spiegelman admits, “My susceptibility for conspiracy goes back a long ways.”
In the page’s final panel, the mouse Spiegelman states “I lost my mind soon after” 9/11 — perhaps truer than Spiegelman would care to admit. After all, he adds “[I] lost my last speck of faith in the U.S.A. when this cabal took over” — which might be an understandable response to the 2000 elections but is lunacy as a response to 9/11.
One can only marvel at the fact that the same panel has an NYC cop telling Spiegelman to “lose that cigarette” — reflecting the city’s, and the nation’s, increasing anti-smoking propaganda and oppression, but critically failing to recognize that this propaganda and these oppressive gestures come predominantly from liberal political correctness.
This same failure returns on page nine, which recounts an amusing November 2001 anecdote about New York City getting back to normal after 9/11 but again focuses on Spiegelman’s personal politics. An angry but rather sane strip complains of displacement, as in substituting Iraq for Al-Qaeda, but again refers to the city’s smoking ban — though this time the city’s Republican mayor is referenced as the instigator.
We may again see here Spiegelman’s provincialism: because a Republican mayor implemented the ban in liberal New York City, the fact that such policies tend to be liberal in origin is irrelevant. If it doesn’t happen in New York City, it doesn’t matter.
Politics in “The Comics Supplement”
Spiegelman’s questionable politics continue into “The Comics Supplement.”
His history of early comics praises Pulitzer, the editor of the New York World, but one cannot help but think of Spiegelman’s own questionable Pulitzer Prize. Spiegelman writes that “Pulitzer decided to edify the… often uneducated immigrant readership with full-color reproductions of… world art… High Art planned for the masses” (italics mine). Here we see Spiegelman’s High Art pretension, which he has exhibited throughout his career — a pretension directly at odds with appreciating early comics, if not all comics. It is also a pretension hostile to the American people. Hearst, in comparison with Pulitzer, receives great criticism — but we must remember that the “High Art” elites, typified by Pultizer and The New Yorker, in part disdained early comics precisely because of their association with the hated Hearst. Pulitzer’s color supplement is praised as a technical marvel, but Spiegelman can’t resist mocking the hyperbole surrounding Hearst’s. When Hearst wins an artist away from Pulitzer, he does it out of “a bad case of supplement-envy” (a phrase that recalls “penis envy”), but when Pulitzer does the same with artist Rudolph Dirks, “Dirks fled Hearst for Pulitzer” (italics mine).
Spiegelman cannot resist repeating how Hearst was to blame for the Spanish-American War. Worse, Spiegelman adds that Heart’s “distorted reporting of the Spanish-American War — America’s first colonialist adventure — would have made Fox News proud.” Few could argue that Fox News isn’t biased, but Spiegelman makes it the epitome of biased war-bating. Worse, Spiegelman equivocates between the Spanish-American War and the Iraqi War, implying both are “colonialist adventures” drummed up by so much propaganda.
Spiegelman writes that removing the German nature of The Katzenjammer Kids during World War I “foreshadow[s]… the recent American experiment in vindictive euphemism that brought us ‘Freedom Fries.’” Of course, however stupid the American renaming of French fries in the wake of French obstructionism over the Iraq war, Spiegelman’s writing here contradicts itself by managing to be both vindictive but euphemistic, exactly the traits he criticizes.
Finding an old comic strip in which a Frenchman, blown up comically among a number of others on 4 July 1902, states “I detest the Fourth of July!”, Spiegelman adds “I tell you, some of those century-old crumbling newspaper pages seem like they were drawn yesterday!” But while the French were parodied around 2003 as bureaucratic sissies, it was hardly with any great malice; even President Bush stated that he respected their views. Moreover, the Frenchman of the strip is stereotyped as polite, in contrast with more recent parodies, and his quotation is hardly malignant. Spiegelman is straining.
The same kind of bashing of Americans as boorish prudes may be seen in Spiegelman’s treatment of Kinder Kids, which Spiegelman claims was cancelled within months because the editors were “unamused” with the artist’s “visually poetic formal concerns.” In fact, historians believe that the strip was cancelled because its pages were being imported from Germany, and this distance made the editing process too complex. Of course, bothering to mention that the U.S. in 1906 was willing to import original comics from abroad might upset Spiegelman’s depiction of the U.S. as racist and xenophobic. Moreover, the comic strip is not particularly “poetic” or experimental; it is hardly Little Nemo and is at best one step beyond The Katzenhammer Kids.
In discussing Krazy Kat, Spiegelman sees the pursuit of Osama bin Laden in Offissa Pupp’s pursuit of Ignatz — a comedic denigration that borders on offensive. Spiegelman concludes his introduction of the reprints by observing, about the Krazy Kat strip reprinted, that “it proposed that since every Eden has its snake, one must somehow learn to live in harmony with that snake! I’m still working on it.” It is barely worth mentioning that this is a massive over-reading of the strip in question. It is shockingly necessary to mention that the snake, implicitly, is George W. Bush and his ilk — not Osama Bin Laden or Sadaam Hussein. After all, Spiegelman seems far more concerned with the former group than the latter.
If the scant nature of the large book is the first subject raised in conversation about In the Shadow of No Towers, the second (assuming one does not know one’s interlocutor intimately and thus is apprehensive about making a rapid political jibe) is generally about the appropriation of newspaper comics.
Spiegelman uses early newspaper comics in his narrative primarily through juxtaposition. What is gained by showing the Katzenjammer Kids running around with burning towers on their heads, or being spanked by an Arab parental figure, over captions discussing experiencing 9/11? Or as a background to an entire page of panels on page four? Or juxtaposed with the swirling image of a falling tower, as on page five? Or rendered walking skeletons by an oil-toting Uncle Sam who, in line with the original comic but at odds with any reality, speaks with the phony German accent of the original strip?
The final Nemo-esque panel of page six shows a baby Spiegelman, as an anthropomorphic mouse with a mother in a gas mask. But how does this relate to the page, except to say that the world has become a kind of dream post-9/11? Page seven concludes with a similar panel, the dialogue of which equivocates “liberates” with “punishes” or even “kills.” That panel in fact is upside-down at the end of a strip featuring upside-down mobs running off to war after a Bush caricature — apparently mimicking The Upside-Downs of Little Lady Lovekins and Old Man Muffaroo, a short-lived and rarely seen strip Spiegelman reprints. But beyond saying that the world feels upside-down during the debate over Iraq — a feeling shared by many of all opinions — what is gained by connecting this with the comic strip in question?
What is gained, on page eight, by Spiegelman depicting himself as the titular buffoon of Bringing Up Father? That Spiegelman, unusually self-critical in that strip, is a buffoon? And what is gained, in the final panel, of having the mouse Spiegelman meet Krazy Kat and his Kop? And what is gained, on page ten, by Spiegelman depicting himself as the titular buffoon of Happy Hooligan? Is this a self-criticism of Spiegelman as a sort of parody of himself, unable to hold his tongue when interviewed for TV? Elsewhere on the page, a bomb explodes, turning Spiegelman into the same Happy Hooligan star. Is he reverting to apathy as New York City, then approaching 9/11’s two-year anniversary, returns to normal — signaling that those willing to tolerate Bush are buffoons? Perhaps, but the same character seems associated elsewhere on the page not with apathy towards Bush but Spiegelman’s inability to censor himself. The message, to the extent that we can realize it, does not seem consistent. And even if it were, we would not need early comics strips to make it.
Spiegelman’s connection between early newspaper comics and 9/11 is tenuous at best: the idea that these early comics were ephemera — which Spiegelman explains made them “just right for an end-of-the-world moment — hardly distinguishes them even in comics. Perhaps Spiegelman needs no justification for the connection; the mere fact that he as reading them in the wake of 9/11 might be enough, especially considering how personal is Spiegelman’s work.
Yet it’s noteworthy to what great extent Spiegelman goes to connect the two. He points out that the New York newspaper publishing houses were “two blocks away from Ground Zero.” When a character comically knocks over miniaturized New York buildings in an episode of Little Nemo in Slumberland, Spiegelman points out that they are “tall buildings near where the twin towers would fall 94 years later.” Spiegelman describes the reprinted episode of Bringing Up Father as taking place “in a dreamland where cartoon characters can keep towers from tumbling” — in fact, the titular buffoon, on vacation, props up the Leaning Tower of Pisa in a rather amateurish attempt by the strip’s artist at humor. Praising Krazy Kat in what has (unfortunately) become routine fashion in elite circles, Spiegelman writes that “it presented an open-ended metaphor that could contain all stories simultaneously; and after September 11, Ignatz started looking a lot like Osama Bin Laden to me!” One marvels to guess whether this statement demonstrates worse understanding of Krazy Kat or 9/11.
There is a trivialization that goes on in the juxtaposition of early comic strips to 9/11 — and saying is not to seriously denigrate those comics in any way. Spiegelman is not in control of himself or his narration — as we have seen in discussing the book’s politics and how the narrative shifts — and he is not in control of the tensions being produced by interpreting 9/11 through early comics. If there is redemption to the technique, it is simply that Spiegelman was reading those comics after 9/11, somehow finding solace in them. Perhaps those comics’ role in the narrative should be understood not primarily as generators of symbolic meaning but as idiosyncratic references, on par with James Joyce’s references to specific streets where he lived in Ulysses. But then, In the Shadow of No Towers is no Ulysses.
In the first paragraph of his introduction, Spiegelman relates how he experienced, on 9/11, “that faultline where World History and Personal History collide — the intersection my parents, Auschwitz survivors, had warned me about when they taught me to always keep my bags packed.” Indeed, In the Shadow of No Towers can be seen as an appendix to Maus. The mouse-self Spiegelman used in Maus makes its first appearance in a single panel on page two, where it is simply used to illustrate the narration of “self-representation.” But it reappears on page three, where it is used in a strip that begins with Spiegelman relating the smell in New York City on 9/11 to that of Auschwitz. On the next page, when Spiegelman realizes he’s a “rooted cosmopolitan,” he adds “I finally understand why some Jews didn’t leave Berlin right after Kristallnacht!”
Seen in this light, In the Shadow of No Towers is more than a personal narrative: it is that of Maus’s Spiegelman imagining that he is coming to terms with his elusive father — imagining because the smell of 9/11 was obviously not that of Auschwitz, because a terrorist attack by foreigners against a nation and its wealth, power, and values is not at all like Kristallnacht, an act of a racial policy of oppression and intolerance against its own population.
There are, of course, many good and worthwhile things to say about In the Shadow of No Towers — beyond its fantastic title and the employment of negative space on its cover (earlier used as a New Yorker cover), both of which evoke the startling way in which absence haunts. The juxtaposition of styles and even narratives on a single page is at least experimental and perhaps apt to the jumbled psychological response to 9/11. The height of the page lets the towers, or vertical objects, or shadows of the same, well, tower. Page two begins with a nice sequence with panels rotating to their side until they become the twin towers, one of which is burning — suggesting that Spiegelman, seen on the earlier panels, or even the form of comics themselves (or as Spiegelman can find the strength to draw), is wounded. Page three has Spiegelman smoking and talking about New York air quality, the fumes covering over not only himself but his word balloons. The insertion of a Topps Mars Attacks card into the narrative on page three works better than the comics references, demonstrating the surreal feeling of that day, when many felt as if they were suddenly displaced into some sort of melodramatic movie. Even the incorporation of early newspaper comics, while not always successful or controlled, can be considered praiseworthy for attracting attention to this portion of the medium’s history — especially given the inclusion of the reprint section, however brief.
And beyond these formal elements, the content is hardly artistically null. The narrative of Spiegelman’s experience on 9/11 is worthwhile (though confined to parts of the first four pages, with the sixth as optional addendum): perhaps no moment is more touching than when, on page four, Nadja, Spiegelman’s daughter, only becomes scared when she sees her parents unannounced at her school. And the anecdote on page nine about getting mugged as a refreshing sign that the city is returning to normal stands out. Some strips, such as The Katzenjammer Kids one on page five and the “displacement” one on page nine, are flawed but at least amusing or worthwhile ephemera produced in the wake of 9/11 and the Iraq polemic.
It is perhaps in this light at In the Shadow of No Towers may be best appreciated. The angry response to its slight nature will fade as it is no longer picked up en masse by unsuspecting readers at $20 a pop. Its future is that of an art object, as well as a footnote to both Spiegelman and to American history of the era. It is not a serious political commentary, except perhaps as insight into a paranoid, liberal New Yorkers. It is a personal work, yet one that distances us from the narration through its abstract use of newspaper comics. But it is not directly personal in the vein of Persepolis, an independent black-and-white graphic novel about life in Iran that was hitting the bestseller list around the same time. It is a formal experiment, yet one given to immature politics and one out of the creator’s own control.
In the Shadow of No Towers is interesting formally and interesting personally, yet noticeably lacking in both.