Art Spiegelman has a lot to live up to. He founded Raw magazine in the early 1980s, an anthology of independent comics assembled well before the masses cottoned on to the concept. Through it, he brought sunlight to some of the medium’s best practitioners, Dan Clowes and Charles Burns among them. He’s also a cartoonist, a formal innovator with a restless streak. His stint at The Topps Company spawned the Wacky Packages sticker series (and the Garbage Pail Kids on its heels).
Then there’s Maus. The story of his intrepid father’s survival of the Holocaust outgrew its origins in Raw to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel. It officially inflamed the GN revolution currently weaning new readers off their anti-comics prejudice, and put Spiegelman — and alt comics — on a pedestal.
Spiegelman was a focus of the New York Times Magazine‘s recent cover story on the rise of “comics lit,” holding court on his rooftop in New York’s SoHo district with a lit cigarette aspirating on his lip. As the full-page photo suggested, he’s at the centre of his industry: cartoonist, editor, ambassador. With his wife, New Yorker art editor Françoise Mouly, he forms comicdom’s alpha power couple. His previous release was the latest in a children’s series they co-edit called Little Lit. That volume was sweet and trivial. His new book is anything but.
In the Shadow of No Towers is about Sept. 11, for which Spiegelman — in his lower Manhattan neighbourhood — had a “ringside seat.” Comparisons to Maus are inevitable, and Spiegelman himself alludes to his classic throughout the book, drawing himself in his mousehead and likening the smell of the air following the attack to his father’s description of the air at Auschwitz. But to Spiegelman, being one of comix’ elder statesmen is a solemn responsibility. Who else to unclasp the weighty issues of the day, and who to show how his medium has fumbled with them for decades?
Thus, In the Shadowis as much a comics history lesson as a modern entry. It’s split in half by an essay that recounts the medium’s genesis in the early broadsheets of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. What follows is a “comics supplement.” It reprints newspaper classics from the early 20th century, including Winsor McCay’sLittle Nemo,and Lyonel Feininger’sKind-Der Kids, at their original size, every watercolour nuance preciously preserved.
Taking liberty with context, his samples echo the themes of his Sept. 11 work, the book’s first half. In the Little Nemostrip, from 1906, a wildly enlarged homunculus rushes to New York’s harbour from its downtown core, toppling skyscrapers in a cloud of smoke near where the Twin Towers would later fall. In another, a sample of Rudolph Dirks’Katzenjammer Kids, the titular imps place sticks of dynamite under the bleachers at a reading of the Declaration of Independence. When the smoke clears, one of the attendants, a Frenchman, proclaims, “I hate the Declaration of Independence.” As Spiegelman says of his selections, “Many of these could have been written yesterday.”
The first half, however, is another story — Spiegelman’s. It collects comics he began shortly after 9/11 and published in various alternative rags around the world, those that would oblige his harangue against the Bush administration, whom he portrays as an armed cabal of ogres and lizards. In these strips, Spiegelman assimilates styles and techniques to paint a vivid picture of an artist in shock. He draws the second tower’s “glowing bones” — the last thing he saw before it “cascade[d] into itself, awesome… sublime” — as a pointillist grid on his computer screen. Much of the art is digitally treated, and its polish sometimes clashes with the hand-drawn bits, where Spiegelman delicately imitates the quill-bound draughtsmen of the supplement. And not just their technique: he borrows their characters, too. The Katzenjammer Kids race across one strip with WTC towers flaming on their heads like Roman candles, and Spiegelman himself becomes Little Nemo falling out of bed after the nightmare of 9/11.
True to its subject, the book is monolithic. It’s tall and wide, printed on paper as thick as plywood. With its grim black cover, a glossy silhouette of the towers on the front and the book’s cast of characters tumbling in freefall on the back, it dominates the other books on a shelf precisely as, in Spiegelman’s words, the “arrogant boxes” of the WTC dominated the NYC skyline. It asserts its solidity, as though only that can keep the ephemeral art between its covers from blowing into oblivion, whether in the rush of history or the dust of another human disaster.