Art Speigelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers

Remember how, once upon a time, comic books were the ultimate in low-brow entertainment? Sure they were exciting and addictive and you could read them again and again (and some of the best ones were even intelligent – like the Asterix series, for instance) but no one would seriously consider calling them Art (at least no one as snobbish as me)?

All that changed in the 80’s when Art Spiegelman published Maus. Spiegelman did the unthinkable – he took the darkest, most serious theme he could find (the Holocaust, no less) and turned out a grave, intelligent meditation on it in comic book format (for an excellent essay on Maus, scroll to the bottom of the page here).

Thirteen years later, he’s back – this time with what has to be the most intelligent and heartfelt meditation on the events of 9/11 that I’ve ever read. In the shadow of no towers is not a long book – it’s just ten pages pages – each page a monumental (literally) collage of comic strips / drawings that come together to make a simple emotional point. But for all that it’s an incredibly powerful book – one that will make you laugh out loud as easily as it will move you to tears.

What is it that makes No Towers such a great work? First it’s a deeply personal work. Spiegelman says some very important things here, but his perspective is deeply personal. Half of the book, indeed, is given over to his experiences on that fateful September day – we see him and his wife running desperately to their daughter’s downtown school to bring her back home, we see the towers collapsing the way Spiegelman must have seen them that day. This doesn’t just help you to relate to Spiegelman on a more intimate basis, it also makes the tragedy itself more personal for you.

The second thing that makes this a great book, ironically enough, is the extreme cynicism that Spiegelman brings to the work. His refusal to sentimentalise makes the book seem clearer and more balanced. Early on, Spiegelman admits that he’d never much cared for the twin towers – considered them, in fact an eyesore – but, as he puts it, I don’t like my nose much either, that doesn’t mean I want someone ramming a plane into it!

And that’s the third thing that makes this such a special book – that in a book filled with an overwhelming sense of tragedy, dread and fear (and Spiegelman is the paranoid to end all paranoids), Spiegelman still manages to find the most amazing dark humour. One of my favourite bits in the book is a drawing of Spiegelman with the face of a mouse staring directly at you, naked terror in his face, saying “I’m afraid that I may not live long enough for my cigarettes to kill me”. Indeed, part of Spiegelman’s nightmare about 9/11 is precisely that in the post 9/11 world all his extreme paranoia has come scarily true – his unconscious, he says indignantly, is being taken over by the real world. These lines work brilliantly because, accompanied as they are by dark, brooding drawings, they manage to be both flippantly funny and deadly serious at the same time.

The fourth thing that makes this an enjoyable book for me is the way that Spiegelman heaps his condemnation equally on the Al Quaeda terrorists and what he calls the Bush Cabal. There is some scathing political commentary here – meditations on blue and red states that seem eerily real after the Nov 2004 election (In the Shadow of No Towers came out in Feb 2004), a brilliant comic strip showing the upside down world that Bush and his cronies have created.

Finally, this is a brilliant, brilliant book because of the sheer ingenuity that Spiegelman brings to his craft. The entire comic may be only ten pages long, but every page is a miracle of detail and creativity (Spiegelman spent an average of a month on each page) created with endless inventiveness coupled with a nostalgia for comics as an art form. Spiegelman is undoubtedly a master of his craft – that’s why he can turn something as deeply personal and genuine as No Towers into an enduring work of Art. It’s the effortlessness that counts – you never get the feeling, reading the book, that Spiegelman is going out of his way to be clever; rather the whole book feels like it’s one incredible man’s attempt to cope with a darker, more desperate world.

Bottomline: Beg, borrow or buy, but get your hands on this book and read it. You’ll never be able to look at comics the same way again.