9/09/2011

In the Shadow of No Towers

In the Shadow of No Towers was always going to be a somewhat disappointing comic book. For many Americans, 9-11 was an event that defied comprehension. And for those reasons, Art Spiegelman was percieved by some as the go-to guy to write about it, due to his reputation as the creator of Maus. He's even a native New Yorker who was around during the attacks. So when "No Towers" proved to be a far less notable achievement than Maus, it only added fuel to critics who already believed that Spiegelman was a one-trick pony who had no compelling narratives to tell, beyond recounting his father's suffering during the Holocaust. In contrast, Spiegelman's own experiences during 2001 were never going to be as overpowering.

The format probably didn't help either. "No Towers" is a series of ten Sunday-style comic strips, designed to fit a broadsheet. They were initially published from 2002-2003 in the German newspaper Die Zeit, then collected into a hardcover in 2004. The presentation in itself is an object worthy of attention. The cover design is beautifully minimal. Each page is printed on thick, glossy, cardboard stock. Spiegelman's strips only comprise half the book. The rest is devoted to supplementary material, including reprints of the cartoons Spiegelman mined for reference and inspiration. At the time, I thought everything about the book felt padded in order to justify the printing of such a slim series.


And looking at the content of the strips themselves, there's not a lot going on. The first three deal directly with the events of 9-11 from Spiegelman's perspective. The remaining material chronicles his descent into paranoia and depression. To anyone looking for greater insight into the events that day, Spiegelman has none. He develops a Cassandra Complex early on, but doesn't present any research to back up his opinions. His complaints becoming increasingly shrill over time. He often resorts to visual and verbal cliches (“waiting for the other shoe to drop”, “sticking your head in the sand”, children wearing gas masks) to get his point across. This gets tiresome after awhile. Spiegelman becomes enamored with the imagery of the glowing steel skeleton of the World Trade Center as it collapses. It forms the backdrop for all his strips. But whatever poetry he finds in it doesn't translate onto the printed page. Why is that? Is it due to Spiegelman's own limitations as an artist? The whole thing ends up looking like a giant, glowing, neon sign.

But the truly distinctive part of "No Towers" is Spiegelman's use of cartoon imagery. I've already mentioned his implementation of the broadsheet format, which he divides into roughly three separate tiers, each reinforcing one another. In addition to autobiographical bits, Spiegelman often repurposes classic comic strips. For example: the Katzenjammer Kids are drawn as the burning twin towers of the WTC. They run around helplessly until "Uncle Screwloose" intercedes by poring a drum of oil on them. Or Spiegelman visualizes himself as Little Nemo falling out of bed, after dreaming of John Ashcroft shoving him out the window. It's far from subtle, and often not very funny. Certainly not funny enough to counter the gloomy atmosphere pervading the book. Spiegelman makes the remarkable claim "The only cultural artifacts that could get past my defenses to flood my eyes and brain with something other than images of burning towers were old comic strips; vital, unpretentious ephemera from the optimistic dawn of the 20th century... they were just right for an end-of-the-world moment." Putting aside my own doubts (or personal ignorance) about the spiritual power of these strips, I don't feel that Spiegelman effectively makes the case for them. I suppose an argument can be made for their broad humor about the foibles of Americans, and its relevance to understanding the behavior of Americans during 9-11. But Spiegelman's use of them is too heavy handed, and he doesn't demonstrate that he possesses the necessary chops to capture the stylings of these strips.


In the end, "No Towers" lacks the universal appeal of Maus. Rather than trying to express something about the human condition, Spiegelman is content to let loose his own anger and pessimism about the post 9-11 political landscape. The comic is strongly tied to a very specific context. And for those who do not share the assumptions that Spiegelman makes, they will have a harder time getting through this book.

Having said that, I have become more appreciative of the urgency of the comic's message after all these years. Re-reading it for this review helped me recall that as a foreign resident at the time, I was developing a milder form of paranoia, and feelings of helplessness, from listening to all the post 9-11 rhetoric. I kept my head down, became sensitive to anything vaguely xenophobic hurled in my general direction, hoped that Ashcroft would never notice me, and secretly cringed at all the speeches calculated to make everyone conform to some collective filled with sorrow and unreflective resolve. The superhero comics of the day only served to deepen my disconnect:

Even the supervillains must join in the collective breast beating.
From Amazing Spider-Man #36, written by J. Michael Straczynski.
Art by John Romita Jr. and Scott Hanna

So yeah, I've become far less disgruntled over the slightness of "No Towers", more forgiving of its obvious self-indulgence, and far more sympathetic to the sentiments that buttress it, including the impertinence needed to express them to the largely hostile audience of the period.