Dark art of a disaster

3rd September 2004 at 01:00
In the Shadow of No Towers

By Art Spiegelman

Viking pound;20

It's a full-colour book of comics. It's in an oversize board format. It's only 40 pages long. Its cover is black on black. It's politically controversial, an untouchable subject for the mainstream US media. And it's a whopping pound;20. Anyone in the book trade would be forgiven for describing it as unpublishable. So are VikingPenguin out of their minds for publishing it?

Art Spiegelman, of Maus and New Yorker fame, was an eyewitness to the World Trade Centre disaster. He evacuated his own daughter from her school at the foot of the towers moments before the school was engulfed in the cloud of toxic smoke. The attack left him "reeling on that faultline where world history and personal history collide - the intersection my parents, Auschwitz survivors, had warned me about when they taught me to always keep my bags packed".

In the Shadow of No Towers is Spiegelman's two-year meditation on the trauma in a tragi-comic blend of political cartoon, autobiography and classic comic-book iconography. It's his most important and heartfelt work since the Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus (also published by Penguin); as he says in the introduction, "disaster is my muse".

The first half of the book is a 10-part series of broadsheet-sized fragmented comics. This was originally conceived as a full-page weekly newspaper piece in the tradition of the early 20th-century US Sunday papers, but the post-911 atmosphere of fear and frantic patriotism meant no US newspaper would touch it, despite Spiegelman's international reputation (although some of it has appeared in several European publications, including the London Review of Books and the Independent).

Spiegelman recasts classic US newspaper comic strip characters that emerged as a result of a circulation war between the publishing giants Hearst and Pulitzer, whose offices were just around the corner from the World Trade Centre; yet another turn in the maze of Spiegelman's ironies.

Many New Yorkers took solace in poetry after 911; Spiegelman consoled himself with early 20th-century newspaper comics, examples of which are reprinted in the book's second half. To a mind addled by the trauma, sanctuary is not guaranteed, even in these vintage layouts; there are strangely prescient reminders of the disaster and the cynical exploitation of it by the Bush White House.

The outsized book goes a small way towards alleviating the inadequacy of television to portray the scale of the attack, never mind the smells and sounds. What these comics do especially well is deal with the many abstractions surrounding Spiegelman's 911: normality, frustration, displacement, the suffocation of commemoration and the dissolution of his own home life.

In the Shadow of No Towers marks a striking contrast to a book I reviewed two years ago in Friday magazine (September 6, 2002), a first-anniversary collection of schoolchildren's artwork reacting to the 911 disaster (The Day our World Changed: children's art of 911, published by Abrams). I felt that the book formed part of a toxic cloud of sentimentality that obscures the awesome truths and horrors of 911. This second toxic cloud is clearly as worrying to Spiegelman as the one that chased him down his Lower Manhattan street on the day itself.

Far more poignant is the reaction Speigelman saw in his daughter's school while the towers were on fire; how the audacity of the event was proving too big for "puny human brains" to absorb - two teenagers giving one another a high-five on hearing that the Pentagon had been hit.

Spiegelman's struggle to make sense of his country's tumultuous recent history demonstrates, like The Diary of Anne Frank, how world history as filtered through a single person's consciousness can be more powerful than the broad strokes of a textbook.

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