Posted by Don MacPherson on September 11th, 2007
In the Shadow of No Towers hardcover collected edition
Writer/Artist: Art Spiegelman
Publisher: Pantheon Graphic Novels (Random House)
Price: $19.95 US
I picked up this graphic novel a couple of years ago. If one has an interest in the medium of comics, Art Spiegelman is a must for one’s bookshelf, and Sept. 11, 2001, was the defining, tragic moment my generation was (unknowingly) waiting for, the kind of historical and cultural milestone that hadn’t been seen since the assassination of John F. Kennedy. But while I had purchased In the Shadow of No Towers, I hadn’t yet cracked it open to read it. With the sixth anniversary of the attacks looming, now seemed as good a time as any to examine Spiegelman’s storytelling and to revisit a horrible moment in time.
Spiegelman approaches the subject matter in a number of ways. He shares his own memories of that day, his small part of a terrifying experience in lower Manhattan. He shares his fear, paranoia and bemusement about what it meant, what it could mean and how it affected his neighbors and his government. Spiegelman relies on political commentary, self-deprecation and social criticism to vent as best he can about the event itself and the far more horrific aftermath. Spiegelman has so much he wants to say, wants to spew about these issues, and one gets the impression that he’s frustrated that no single venue, no single volume, no single artist and no single medium can possibly even come close to scratching the surface of all of the problems that the term “Nine-Eleven” brings to mind. Spiegelman’s storytelling here is amusing at times, personal at others and always engaging. The format is an unusual one, and it presents its challenges to readers accustomed to more traditional comics storytelling. But it’s well worth the effort.
An award-winning cartoonist and his family live a contented life in lower Manhattan… until Sept. 11, 2001. He doesn’t see the first plane hit one of the Twin Towers, but he and his wife hear it. They immediately take action, rushing to find their daughter at her school, located near the towers. Another plane hits, towers crumble and the cartoonist and his family rush to leave the chaotic area. Eventually, they return home, wondering if any sense of normalcy will ever return. As he watches and reads the news, he realizes what he considers to be normal is gone forever as his government — misguided at best and corrupt at worst — and American society fail him at every turn.
Spiegelman’s best known for Maus, but he demonstrates that his cartooning style is incredibly versatile. He not only incorporates different storytelling styles (capturing looks reminiscent of such artists as R. Crumb and Scott McCloud), but he also pays tribute to newspaper comic characters from the early 1900s. Spiegelman’s comic “self” takes on the appearance of a variety of public-domain comic strip characters from the earliest days of the American medium. These shifts in character appearance work surprisingly well, and the silliness of the strip characters’ appearance reinforces the ludicrous political and social developments that have evoked the artist’s ire in the first place.
This volume is actually a collection of full-page newspaper strips Spiegelman worked on from the fall of 2001 to 2003. They were published in European newspapers but were rarely seen by American readers until the release of this collection in 2004. What’s ironic is that Spiegelman explores a uniquely American experience and uses early American comics to express himself as well. The latter part of the book includes several samples of the full-page comics from U.S. newspapers from the early 1900s to source the strip characters that appear in Spiegelman’s storytelling. He also includes an essay about those characters, be they icons of the form or somewhat obscure, forgotten figures. I found this effort to supplement the historical content to be somewhat interesting, but I was far more interested in Spiegelman’s more surreal and biting expressions. Still, by including a historical retrospective of the American comic strip reinforces the historical significance of the subject matter of the main feature.
Also worthy of note regarding this oversized volume is the format. The pages are thick, like pressed cardboard, and each “page,” originally produced with a broadsheet-newspaper format in mind, is spread out over two pages in this book. That means the reader has to turn the book sideways to read it. The stiffness of the pages and the unusual manner of the layout certainly make the reader feel this book is special. Its heftiness and rigid pages also make it seem like some kind of permanent artifact in one’s personal collection.
Spiegelman’s storytelling and editorializing comes off as both sharp and focused and oddly frenetic and scattered all at the same time. He merges different concepts, criticisms and visual styles all in the same sequences, and it works incredibly well. The attention-deficit approach to the visual ranting drives home the enormity of the issues to which the 9-11 attacks have given rise, not to mention the artist’s frustration. His frustration is something to which any rational personal can relate, but one also has to give Spiegelman significant credit for sharing so much of himself here. He not only rants about government corruption and the public’s willful blindness to major issues, but he exposes his own foibles and failings, such as his paranoia about what we don’t know about the attacks and possible and improbable conspiracies. 8/10