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In a 'Shadow' of 9/11 outrage

In the Shadow of No Towers; Art Spiegelman; Pantheon: 38 pp., $19.95

September 07, 2004|Kevin Baker | Special to The Times

By an amazing coincidence, I was haunted by the exact same "dominant metaphor" that obsessed Art Spiegelman following the horrible events of Sept. 11, 2001 -- one of "waiting for that other shoe to drop." Only a few million or so of our fellow New Yorkers, I'm sure, shared that feeling.

Spiegelman, however, possessed the artistic ability, the particular, outraged sensibility and the courage to translate this metaphor into the work of art that is "In the Shadow of No Towers" -- a wrenching, poignant, angry reaction to the attack on the World Trade Center. He boldly suggests that ultimately the other shoe did drop; that our national Republican government and its local satraps hijacked the rage and fear engendered by the terrorists in order to, in Spiegelman's words, "move into full dystopian Big Brother mode and hurtle America into a colonialist adventure in Iraq -- while doing little to make America genuinely safer beyond confiscating nail clippers at airports."

"Courage" is not an exaggeration. Spiegelman was already a renowned graphic novelist and artist, known primarily for his daring, two-volume "Maus," an account of his parents' Holocaust experiences in which Jews were depicted as mice, Nazis as cats and Poles as swine; and for his periodically "controversial" covers for the New Yorker, back in those innocent, bigoted '90s, when a depiction of a Hasidic Jew kissing a black woman could still raise hackles.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday September 11, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Spiegelman review -- A review in Tuesday's Calendar section of Art Spiegelman's "In the Shadow of No Towers" said that Spiegelman's work after Sept. 11, 2001, appeared in the Jewish Daily Forward. That periodical ceased publication in 1990. Spiegelman's work appeared in the weekly publication called the Forward.

The scoundrel time that followed Sept. 11 brought on another level of self-censorship altogether. As Spiegelman matter-of-factly recounts in his introduction to "No Towers," even mainstream publications that had previously solicited work from him -- the New Yorker, the New York Times, even the New York Review of Books, much to our hometown shame -- now "fled" when he approached him with this series of double-spread, comic-style works recounting his reactions to the attacks and beyond. In a supreme irony for the son of two Holocaust survivors, the only takers were a German weekly, Die Zeit, and the dwindling, once-socialist Jewish Daily Forward.

And now Pantheon has produced a splendid, all-color, poster board book version of the 10, frenetic 20-by-14 1/2-inch spreads that Spiegelman drew at different periods between Sept. 11, 2001, and the end of August 2003; fronted with the regal, black-on-black eulogy for the Twin Towers that he created for the New Yorker's first cover after Sept. 11 -- and before his even darker visions made him persona non grata.

The nervousness in editorial rooms is easy to understand. Spiegelman spares no one, including himself. He freely pillories "that creature in the White House," "Dimwitted Democratic Donkeys," "Cheney's crooked Halliburton pals," the New York Times and "our !@**!! mayor" (not Rudy Giuliani, but the curious little man who currently occupies our city hall). He is, he claims at one point, "equally terrorized by Al-Qaeda and by his own government."

Yet "In the Shadow of No Towers" is more than another political polemic. Interspersed throughout is the very moving, very human story of how one man living in lower Manhattan experienced Sept. 11 and how it left him convinced he was no longer a " 'rootless cosmopolitan,' equally homeless anywhere on the planet," but a " 'rooted' cosmopolitan," filled with "affection for his familiar, vulnerable streets." Spiegelman and his wife witness the attack on the towers close-up, then rush to retrieve their daughter from Stuyvesant High School, so close to the World Trade Center that many of her schoolmates saw bodies tumbling from the windows.

In the weeks and months after the attack, Spiegelman lampoons his growing paranoia, his inability to any "longer distinguish my own neurotic depression from well-founded despair." He is reduced to raging at everyone from the government down to an anti-Semitic homeless woman in his neighborhood. He thumbs numbly through the first, classic Sunday-supplement comics from a century ago as he searches for a medium to express his angst while his mind remains immobilized by the last, glowing, skeletal image of the north tower just before it collapsed.

In the end, he finds his muse in that image, and in his beloved old comic heroes -- the Yellow Kid, the Katzenjammer Kids, Maggie and Jiggs, Krazy Kat, Little Nemo -- and the combination works brilliantly. Spiegelman's sheets are as antic, dense, surreal and pointedly funny as the old funnies, teeming with characters who parade by on all sides of his panels, assaulted by UFOs, falling cowboy boots, "Jihad Brand Footware" and that glowing tower.

The connection may seem overly personal at first, but the comics were born along Manhattan's old Newspaper Row, just two blocks from where the towers stood, and Spiegelman includes gorgeous copies of some of them in his own comic supplement, along with a written explanation as to why they spoke to him.

An even better explanation is an endpaper in the form of the front-page of the New York World from Sept. 11, 1901. It details President William McKinley's slow, agonizing death from an assassin's bullet and the consequent jailing of Emma Goldman, "the anarchist queen," who in fact had nothing to do with it. Then, too, out of some clear, blue skylarking, came sudden terror and death, followed by the worst sort of political opportunism.


Kevin Baker is the author of the historical novels "Dreamland" and "Paradise Alley."

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