IN THE SHADOW OF NO TOWERS. By Art Spiegelman. Pantheon. 42 pages. $19.95.
In the Shadow of No Towers, Art Spiegelman's new graphic novel, stands out in the true-crime section at the Barnes & Noble on Monroe Street. It's an imposing book: jet black, 15 inches tall, and made of thick cardboard more suitable to a toddler's book. Inside are brightly colored comic strips depicting the awful glow of the burning World Trade Center and the bleary-eyed fright of the months following.
The book is intended to be in current affairs, but it's been shunted into the next section, made to share shelves with earnest tales of tragedy and treatises on conspiracy theory.
Clearly, those who pronounced irony dead back in the fall of 2001 were wrong.
Immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, Spiegelman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and author, produced an arresting black-on-black portrait of the fallen towers for the New Yorker magazine. And that was about all Americans saw of Spiegelman's 9/11 work.
In the United States, editors deemed Spiegelman's work too controversial, too raw for a wounded public. And so his comic strips were published almost exclusively in Europe.
"I felt like an internal exile between the no-smoking rules and the political and cowardly media climate," Spiegelman said in a recent telephone interview. "I really felt like I was an internal exile."
Now, three years, thousands of eulogies, and one election cycle later, Spiegelman wants to remind us what Sept. 11, 2001, was really like.
Spiegelman is best known for Maus, a two-volume work depicting both his father's experience as a Holocaust survivor and Spiegelman's own relationship with his dad. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, garnering new respect for comics and paving the way for critically acclaimed graphic novels such as Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis.
"Bad times that seem to be terrible for the world, for some reason, are great for comics," Spiegelman said. "I wish I'd spent 20 years like fighting for world peace rather than fighting for the embrace of the literate comic book."
In his new book, Spiegelman describes Sept. 11, 2001: He and his wife, New Yorker art editor Francoise Mouly, are walking to their voting precinct (for a New York primary election) when the planes crash into the towers. A frantic race to their daughter's high school, near the World Trade Center, ensues. As time passes, the focus shifts to the psychological and political impact of 9/11.
The last 14 pages of No Towers feature reproductions of the nation's first newspaper comic strips, originally printed as the 19th century faded into the 20th. Spiegelman writes that the strips, including "Hogan's Alley," "Krazy Kat," and "The Katzenjammer Kids," provided him solace a century after they were tossed into the trash with the rest of the news.
Some of the old characters have cameos in Spiegelman's work at the front of the book.
"Part of it was the poetry of the fact that it's ephemeral … that this was never made to last," Spiegelman said of the strips that inspired him. "Obviously, when you get to see a fixture in your neighborhood that's 110 stories high fall almost on your head, you start to realize that there's a lot of stuff that's ephemeral that you never put in that category before."
When the strips in No Towers were originally printed, they occupied full broadsheet pages. Spiegelman said he thinks that's why old comic characters started "hijacking my strips about various hijackings."
When it came to publishing the book, though, one of the challenges was finding a format that was large enough to accommodate them.
"That's why it became this kind of children's board book," Spiegelman said. "I loved it; it was a solution offered to me by a friend who was the production head at the New Yorker, saying 'Oh, the only way you're ever going to be able to do that is with a board book,' and it was like yes! Yes! Something that looks indestructible, but I've never seen one that outlasted a kid's childhood without being torn to pieces. And insofar as it looks like a tower - both solid looking and very vulnerable."
Since Sept. 11, 2001, Spiegelman's work has plunged into the political. No Towers is highly critical of the Bush administration and the war in Iraq. He covered the Republican convention for the New Yorker, but he still doesn't consider himself a political cartoonist. "I was dragooned into dealing with political reality because it was impinging so specifically and overwhelmingly on the possibility of my children having a daily life," he said.
He doesn't think his book exploits 9/11. "It's reminding them of the actual tragedy ... I mean my anger is borne of an experience," Spiegelman said. "What I'm pointing out is that a lot of people in New York all feel the same way. And it's not about my own personal predisposition toward one candidate or another as though we were living in normal times. This is not about being a Democrat rather than a Republican - liking the Knicks rather than some other team. This is about having experienced a near-death experience that I would rather not repeat in the near future."