“In the Shadow of No Towers” looks, at the first glance, like a living room prop for a House Beautiful cover. Lavishly produced on heavy board stock, it is the size and heft of a butcher block, and has a elegant black-on-black cover. Any notion of this work’s kinship with a coffee table book is, however, destroyed on opening its pages. Art Spiegelman’s subject is September 11, 2001, and this book is as much a howl of outrage as an act of mourning; coffee tables have buckled under far less.
“In the Shadow of No Towers” combines the artist’s personal experience of 9/11 (a resident of Lower Manhattan, Spiegelman witnessed the attack first-hand) along with a stinging commentary on America’s reaction to the event-all through a comic strip. Spiegelman has famously made the latter medium his very own; his 1992 graphic novel Maus, which chronicled the Holocaust, won him a Pulitzer, and, in the process, indisputably confirmed the comic strip as art form.The recurring motif in “In the Shadow…” is the picture of towers glowing orange before their collapse; an image that also serves to unify the somewhat chaotic elements that comprise this book. Cartoon characters from past Sunday supplements show up next to Speigelman’s Maus persona, while elsewhere, the artist chronicles his experiences of the day through a scatter of photograph-like images. The jumble of visuals seems to exemplify his fragmented frame of mind, his self-admitted inability to cope with the trauma he witnessed.
Spiegelman, however, quickly moves beyond his personal experience to an analysis of America’s reaction to the event. He is enraged by the Bush administration, which he believes used 9/11 to further its own dangerous agenda. “You rob from the poor and give to your pals like a parody of Robin Hood while distracting me with your damn oil war,” accuses the author; a subsequent panel shows Dick Cheney slitting the throat of the American eagle, while another shows the residents of Lower Manhattan being bombarded with cowboy boots. Underlying Spiegelman’s anger, however, is a plea to remember what America stands for, and to reflect upon what is being lost during the country’s quest for revenge. The surge of nationalism enveloping America seems to destroy what the author holds dearest about his home country–its cosmopolitanism; a paradox perfectly summed up by the signboard proclaiming “USA out of NYC” which the cartoon Spiegelman totes. “In the Shadow….” puts the riot back in patriotism.
Spiegelman began the comic strips comprising this book soon after 9/11, when support for the war was widespread. He quickly discovered that mainstream publications (including The New York Times and The New Yorker) were unwilling to print his work. The series thus initially appeared in Europe, and was published in America two year later, in 2004. One is left to ponder the censorship lesser-known artists and writers must have faced if a Pulitzer-winner with impeccable moral credibility faced such obstacles in publishing his work. For those who’ve always admired the freedom to voice dissent that America traditionally champions, it’s a distressing tale…
Comic strips are also known as the “funnies”, and Spiegelman’s work, in spite of its anger and bitterness, is often touched with wry humor. There’s a scene where the author is asked to name his favorite American food on a television show. “Shrimp pad thai,” he replies defiantly. Two panels later, he is booted out of the show for saying the greatest thing about America is “that as long as you’re not an Arab you’re allowed to think America’s not always so great!” With his wistful, hard-hitting critique of America, Spiegelman reminds us anew of the attraction this country has long held for rest of the world.
(This review appears in the current issue of Montreal Serai magazine.)