Friday, September 9, 2011

Book Review: In the Shadow of No Towers (2004) by Art Spiegelman

In the Shadow of No Towers (2004) by Art Spiegelman

The centerpiece of this deceptively-thick board book is a section with ten large-scale comic pages recounting Art Spiegelman's frustrating experiences in his lower Manhattan neighborhood on and after September 11, 2001. This difficult subject should have been a good topic for him--in Maus he brilliantly took on the Holocaust, after all--but unfortunately none of this misguided effort really pans out anywhere near as well as his original note-perfect work on the subject, the monumentally expressive black-on-black New Yorker cover that graced the sad issue published after 9/11.

Art Spiegelman's New Yorker cover back when he got 9/11 right.  In the actual printed issue, the shades of black are very close and one can just barely discern the towers.

Spiegelman's graphic inventiveness is here all right, in fact all over the place, but his hodgepodge of styles pales next to the old comic masters, a comparison he invites throughout. Visual references are made to a variety of comic strip classics, and there is a smart essay and then a generous sampling of old Sunday pages included at the end for those who might not otherwise be conversant with them.

Spiegelman's own tale, however, is not so much a story as a long, angry, self-absorbed rant, one that the New Yorker wisely refused to publish. I had hoped for much more from the author of the finely-nuanced Maus.

In the Shadow of No Towers, Plate 1.  

At least five distinct styles are present in this one spread, but I don't see much synergy between them. Yes, we were "waiting for the other shoe to drop." Yes, we still are. Yes, it's a tired metaphor.

"Equally terrorized by Al-Qaeda and by his own government...
Detail of Plate 2.  

"Equally terrorized?" Read it for yourself. The professed inability of Art Spiegelman, the son of Holocaust survivors, to make a basic moral distinction between the actions of the terrorist group Al-Qaeda and those of the government of the world's most vigorous democracy truly infuriates me. Those enthralled by the compelling narrative of Maus should realize that it is not in any way typical of Spiegelman's other output. Maus was highly personal but transcendent. This book is highly personal and solipsistic.

Plate 3

For me, the episode where Spiegelman and his wife retrieve their children from the locked-down school was one of the most moving and memorable.  

Plate 4

At the top of the page, Vice President Dick Cheney slashes the throat of the American bald eagle with a boxcutter, the weapon used by the 9/11 hijackers. How's that again? Who is the enemy here? Islamic extremists staged the most devastating terrorist attack on U.S. soil in history, and Spiegelman's villain is the Bush Administration! Go figure. 

Plate 6

The image of a lone Spiegelman tumbling from the towers, left, is typical of the author's self-obsession, as if he, a survivor, is the only victim of the tragic events. The falling sequence is actually concluded in the final panel at the far right with the offbeat reference to Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland.

Plate 10. The final page's twin-tower layout is simple but ingenious. The content of the page is not so simple and probably not so ingenious.

The Comic Supplement, Page 1

The Comic Supplement, Page 2

R. F. Outcault
"Hogan's Alley," The Yellow Kid
Plate II

For a single panel gag, this is exceedingly busy, a characteristic of many early comics and of Spiegelman's  own work in this overwrought volume.

Rudolph Dirks, Frederick Opper, "Bunny" Schultze, et al.
"The Glorious Fourth of July," 
June 29, 1902, Plate IV

From 1902, when the Sunday comics page, like the Fourth of July, was glorious. This is one of the large-scale color comic pages reprinted at the back of In the Shadow of No Towers.


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