October 2004

Liz Miller

nonfiction

In the Shadow of No Towers by Art Spiegelman

Marshall McLuhan's "the media is the message" theory has always implied that details like a book's binding, page texture and size have as much impact on the reader as the actual content of the book. Never has that seemed more true than when I received my copy of In the Shadow of No Towers, I discovered that it doesn't belong on a
bookshelf.

A tall thick slab of a book, Art Spiegelman's compilation of the post-9/11 cartoons he produced for the German broadsheet Die Zeit just doesn't fit anywhere easily -- not the bookcase, not the coffee table, not the back of the mind. Directly inspired by the tricolor Sunday supplementals popular during the late 1800s and early 1900s, No Towers straddles the divide between art book and graphic novel -- the quality of the printing, the long pauses of each page imparting the stillness of a museum; Spiegelman's personal recounting of 9/11 and its aftermath powering the narrative forward.

Spiegelman took the complete creative freedom he was given by Die Zeit to unleash his nightmares on the page, to "sort out the fragments of what [he'd] experienced from the media images that threatened to engulf what [he] actually saw." The broadsheet size makes it impossible to read No Towers in a sitting position, and the thick board stock pages turn slowly, with a slight exhale of air, lying flat to give the reader the full scope of the page. Much like the children who enjoyed those turn-of-the-century supplementals, I pored over each page while flopped on my stomach, taking my time, savoring the details I might have missed.

In a strikingly detailed appendix, Spiegelman lays out the history and influences of his work, reprinting some of the original 1900s comics from which he borrowed both iconography and layout. And the simple referencing of these comics makes his point handily; the Arab archetype, the blatant stereotyping still shows up in the political cartoons of today, not so far removed from those of the century past. Yet they still maintain, after all these years, a certain lighthearted innocence -- which proves to be a jarring contrast to Spiegelman's actual comics. While the format inspires nostalgia, the difference in subject matter is striking. No Towers is no saccharine memorial, no historical record. Instead, the comics provide an intensely personal, unvarnished look inside Spiegelman's frantic, chain-smoking mind. The sharp, versatile art reflects this, shifting abruptly from digital painting to collage to early cartooning -- Spiegelman can't even settle on one particular caricature, fluctuating between the anthropomorphic mouse of Maus to the doofy "Hapless Hooligan" to the balding human slack-jawed over "issues of self-representation."

But no matter what shape he takes, Spiegelman remains angry, frightened and paranoid -- too paranoid for the New York papers that brought about his original success. In 2003, only the alternative press would publish the series in the US, due in part to panels like that from February to May 2002, where the artist cowers at his drawing table between the blood-dripping saber of a terrorist and the pointed gun of President Bush. But, as Spiegelman writes in the introduction, "The climate of discourse in America shifted dramatically as I concluded the series. What was once unsay-able now began to appear outside the marginalized alternative press and late-night cable comedy shows." Why the more liberal attitude towards dissent? Because in these campaign days, we're evaluating the leader who brought us to where we are today. As the election cycle spins and the nation divides, No Towers becomes a necessary reminder of the madness that lead us to today.

No Towers doesn't fit on my bookshelf. But it does fit on my coffee table, where visitors can give it a look. And it does fit into the hands of others who have not read it. So I'll lend it out, discuss and debate the policies and wars and tragedies -- because No Towers feels incomplete, the last page commemorating the second anniversary of the 9/11 attacks an unsatisfying ending. But it takes a comic to illustrate a sad truth: in a reality-based community, little conclusion is possible.

In the Shadow of No Towers by Art Spiegelman
Pantheon
ISBN: 0375423079
42 Pages