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State of the art
Art Spiegelman’s September 11, Marjane Satrapi’s Iran, and Joe Sacco’s Sarajevo

When Art Spiegelman published Maus in 1986, he set a new standard for how far comic books could go. In this "graphic novel," he wrote about the Holocaust, telling the story of his father’s experience at Auschwitz. His formal inventiveness (turning the Jews into mice, the Nazis into cats) and his ear for Jewish-American dialogue allowed him to engage a subject seemingly unapproachable, and it won him a Pulitzer Prize. Now, after years spent creating mostly cover illustrations for the New Yorker, he’s returned to the comic-book form ("comix," as he likes to say) to tackle another horror: the attack on the World Trade Center.

The scale and approach of In the Shadow of No Towers (Pantheon, to be published September 7) are altogether different from those of Maus. Spiegelman witnessed the World Trade Center disaster firsthand, unlike the Holocaust. He and his family live in SoHo, not far from Ground Zero, and a recurring story line of In the Shadow of No Towers regards Spiegelman’s attempts with his wife, Françoise Mouly, to get their teenaged daughter, Nadja, out of a nearby school. We never see them complete the task. Instead, time stops, as Spiegelman returns again and again to the moment of the north tower’s collapse, and his fear, rage, and anxiety come pouring out on the page.

Maus, published in black-and-white, laid out on six-by-nine-inch pages, proceeds as an orderly, sequential narrative — novelistic. In the Shadow of No Towers goes back to the era before the comic book, to the comics’ birth in publications like Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. These were not the episodic four- or five-panel "strips" of the later dailies, but full-page broadsheet illustrations, often collagelike. Spiegelman — who says in his introduction these old comics were the only art form in which he could find solace in the days after September 11 — returns to this form. In the Shadow of No Towers measures 10-by-14 1/2 inches, but each page is designed to be read folded out, so a full "page" is actually 14 1/2- by-20. The collage-style design of each page includes multiple, nonsequential "strips" as well as single-panel illustrations. You can start anywhere on a page, and read its content in any order.

There are 10 of these "episodes," but there’s much more. Spiegelman’s inspiration comes from the comforting "unpretentious ephemera" of those old broadsheets. But, he also points out, "comics pages are architectural structures — the narrative rows of panels are like stories of a building...." Early-comics genius Winsor McCay, he says, "drew monumental structures designed to last." In the Shadow of No Towers is published on glossy stock pressed onto thick cardboard pages. Its cover is a gloss-and-matte-finish version of Spiegelman’s black-on-black image for the post–September 11 New Yorker. Aside from the McCay-like designs, this is, as the old North Point Press used to tout in its use of acid-free paper, a "permanent book."

Spiegelman’s introductory essay can stand on its own as a personal reflection on September 11. And after his first-person graphic episodes, an essay on the history of the newspaper-comic supplement introduces some of the sources of his inspiration: McCay’s Nemo in Slumberland; Richard Outcault’s Hogan’s Alley, which introduced the Yellow Kid; Rudolph Dirks’s Katzenjammer Kids; and George Herriman’s Krazy Kat. Several of these, too, are reproduced full-size.

That should give you an idea of the scale of In the Shadow of No Towers. Into it, Spiegelman has put everything he knows about American comics and American history. Passed out at his drawing table, wearing a Maus mask, he has nightmares of Osama and George W. standing on either side of him, his desktop populated with the characters of cartoon history — the life of his subconscious. The Katzenjammer Kids show up wearing burning twin-tower hats. Cartoon tropes about the sky falling and waiting for that second shoe to drop recur in page after page. The narrative voice shifts from first person to third and back again.

The twin towers themselves, of course, are the dominant motif. There are towerlike parallel stacked panels, and the recurring image of "the looming north tower’s glowing bones just before it vaporized." In one paranoid fantasy ("I insist the sky is falling; they roll their eyes and tell me it’s only my Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder"), the comic frame actually turns sideways, its edge becoming one of the towers. And then there is the smoke — the toxic cloud of dust covering lower Manhattan conflating with the smoke of the Holocaust ovens in Maus and the smoke from Spiegelman’s endless chain of cigarettes.

Paying tribute to his early-comics heroes, Spiegelman epitomizes the same subversive streak that brought the Yellow Kid to life more than 100 years ago. But in his satiric comedy ("Gotten Himmel!" cries a mama Katzenjammer fleeing the collapsing towers) he also establishes himself as a link in Jewish-American comedy from Lenny Bruce and Philip Roth to Jon Stewart. He has given unity of design and purpose to free-floating anxiety and rage. Scale and monumentality are brought together with that sense of life as transient, perilous, fragile, a world in which his Holocaust-survivor parents "taught me to always keep my bags packed."

There is crucial variation in the black-on-black cover design of In the Shadow of No Towers — a four-color horizontal rectangle against those black vertical forms, filled with falling cartoon characters against a tiny cityscape. Yes, they suggest those falling victims of 9/11, but they’re also a window of light in the abyss.

Marjane Satrapi will discuss Persepolis 2 in a Center for New Words event in the third-floor conference center at Simmons College, 300 the Fenway, on September 9 at 7 p.m.; call (617) 876-5310. She will be at Brookline Booksmith, 279 Harvard Street in Coolidge Corner, on September 10 at 7 p.m.; call (617) 566-6660. Art Spiegelman discusses In the Shadow of No Towers in a Harvard Book Store reading on September 20 at the Brattle Theatre, 40 Brattle Street in Harvard Square, at 6:30 p.m. Call (617) 661-1515.

Issue Date: September 3 - 9, 2004
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