In the Shadow of Past Art

“I’d never wanted to be a political cartoonist. I work too slowly to respond to transient events while they’re happening. (It took me 13 years to grapple with World War II in Maus!) Besides, nothing has shorter shelf-life than angry caricatures of politicians, and I’d often harbored notions of working for posterity - notions that seemed absurd after reminded how ephemeral even skyscrapers and democratic institutions are” (Spiegelman).

Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers is a graphic novel about the terroristic attack of 9/11 told from a personal and intimate point of view. At first, the ten comics pages that compose No Towers were supposed to be periodically published, but in fact, they were considered shrill and harshly polemical so much so that Spiegelman could not find a single American publisher in the wake of 9/11 (Chune). It is arguable in fact that neither mainstream nor more underground comic publishers would have been ready and confident enough to deal with some strips about 9/11 while the terror was still going on and the American audience was still profoundly struck. In 2004, In the Shadow of No Towers was finally published as a whole book both in US by Pantheon Books (New York) and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited (Toronto).

Spiegelman’s graphic memoir “oscillates between a polemical critique of the political administration and the parallel task of reproducing an archive of comics of the early twentieth century” (Basu). In its being profoundly linked to the social and political consequences of 9/11 within the American framework, No Towers combines historical elements with personal experience, creating also a connection with the history already told in Spiegelman’s earlier masterpiece Maus (1980). While the content of No Towers is consciously ironic, self-referential, and grotesque in representing American politics and people hit by 9/11 and its uncontrollable consequences, the medium and its formal aspects are the most important and significant characteristics able to convey the ultimate deep meanings.

In this essay I will therefore claim the importance of the form of No Towers within a ‘wordless’ realm, which is what in fact makes Art Spiegelman’s works uniquely powerful and timeless. Moreover, I will argue how the roots of In The Shadow of No Towers, as Spiegelman himself shows at the end of his work by including an overview of the early history of comics, lie in the twentieth century’s comics in terms of style as reference to art movements and avant-gardes.

In order to fully understand and appreciate the formal aspects of No Towers, we firstly need to take into account what Charles Hatfield calls the tensions of comic art. According to Hatfield’s “An Art of Tensions”, “comics depend on a dialectic between what is easily understood and what is less easily understood […]. In comics, word and image approach each other […]. The written text can function like images, and images like written text” (Hatfield) and the interchangeable use of words and images create tensions between the elements of the comic. Hatfield identifies four kinds of tension intrinsically present in comic art: code vs. code, single image vs. image-in-series, sequence vs. surface, and text as experience vs. text as object (Hatfield). In the case of Spiegelman’s comics, it is extremely important to notice the tension between text as experience and text as object. Indeed, not only does Spiegelman play on the medium and the challenging choice of writing a comic book about historical catastrophes such as the Holocaust in Maus and 9/11 terroristic attack in No Towers, but he also puts strong emphasis on the very nature of the medium itself. The fact that No Towers is an oversized graphic novel that has vertical double pages and requires a lot of space to be read, provides the book itself with a necessity to be considered as an ‘odd’ (as Spiegelman himself states in the back cover), bulky, cumbersome, and irreverent text able to parody, even self-ironically, the way journalism is used to telling stories (and history).

The oversized pages as well as the caricatures of the characters (page 6, fig. 1), similar to the ‘60s and ‘70s’ underground comics (fig. 2), make the whole graphic novel aware of its ‘artificiality’; in other words, the tensions of experience vs. object and image vs. image-in-series work greatly in No Towers. As Hatfield notices, “Art Spiegelman’s wordless presents a series of disconnected panels with recurrent character types and situations but no narrative per se” (Hatfield); visuals have meaning on their own, even though they do not really serve the book to tell the story. French theorist of technology Paul Virilio, in an interview with Louise Wilson, argues that “writing is not possible without images. Yet, images don't have to be descriptive; they can be concepts […] concepts are mental images” (Wilson). Spiegelman’s visuals are precisely what Virilio talks about, that is the need for images to show rather than to tell. Visuals are therefore the real protagonists of No Towers, which Spiegelman himself has defined a “novel graphics” rather than a graphic novel (Spiegelman – interview).

Within the storytelling of No Towers, as well as in Maus (fig. 3), Spiegelman draws himself pondering over the idea of making a comic about 9/11 (page 2, fig. 4). By doing so, he again states honestly the nature of the text he writes, creating tension both of image vs image-in-series and experience vs. object, in such a way to give No Towers an element of authenticity that other media cannot achieve. Even the fact that he tells the story from his personal point view, including the ordinary life of his family, provides the novel with a peculiar sense of truthfulness and crude honesty, which could not have been achieved otherwise. In this context, Bart Beaty in his article “Autobiography as Authenticity”, argues how Spiegelman develops a personal voice within the comic world, discovering the possibilities to afford autobiographical narratives through a non-conventional medium (Beaty), thanks to which the reader can get the essence of historical events. The idea of making a graphic novel instead of writing a mainstream journalistic piece has to do with what these two different media can respectively show. Joe Sacco, journalist and cartoonist, in an interview with Liz Crain, argues the authenticity and essence that a comic book is able to encapsulate, as opposed to the mainstream American journalism that “just tries to get the facts right without giving you the essence. […] You need to understand not just the historical context, but people’s everyday lives to understand how hideous the occupation is. You don’t get much of a hint of that in mainstream media” (Crain). No Towers is essential in its visuals which, instead of merely reporting facts, show how witnessing 9/11 (page 4, fig. 5) was like and the enormous impact it had had on people’s life (page 10, fig. 6).

No Towers Spiegelman’s main point is that “the end is in fact a return to the old” (Chute). Not only does he clearly show the end as a return to the old through the narrative itself (thematic past) by including scenes of historical events and making self-references to the Holocaust in Maus (page 3, fig. 7) but he also links his work to the history of comics (formal past) and art through the visuals. Indeed, it is not by chance that Spiegelman includes reprints of old newspaper and comic strips within the book. Among the others, Spiegelman inserts strips from Frederick Burr Opper's Happy Hooligan (1900-1932) (fig. 8), Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland (1905-1911; 1924-1926) (fig. 9), Rudolph Dirks's Katzenjam mer Kids (1897-1918) (fig. 10), and Gustave Verbeck's Upside Downs of Little Lady Lovekins and Old Man Muffaroo (1903-1905) (fig. 11)). No Towers hence becomes a memorial for past comics rather than just a text representing the historical moment of 9/11.

For Spiegelman willing to visually engage with the reader, the comic book offers a spectrum of possibilities reminding of old times, old comics, and old artistic movements. Spiegelman, as Patrick Bray states, “finds comfort in rereading, and then incorporating into his graphic novel, pastiches of images from the birth of the comics at the beginning of the twentieth century” as a way to both exorcise the dramatic and traumatic present of 9/11 and reconsider the future as a mere collapsing time (Bray).

While the writings “The sky is falling” (fig. 12) and “Waiting for the [terrorist’s] other shoe to drop” (page 10, fig. 13) speak loud and clearly want to provoke fear and desperation caused by a present destroyed and a future that will not come, on the other hand the visuals more subtly make the book relatable to early twentieth century art movements and styles. Besides for the direct inclusion of old comic strips, No Towers shows influence from avant-garde and art movements of the twentieth century. This kind of artistic citation unavoidably increases the artistic value of the comic book as a text that sets itself within a high-level of fine art. On page 10 (fig. 13) the iconic writing ‘BOOM’ reminds of Pop Art works as well as of super-hero comics of the same period. ‘The Comic Supplement’ pages (fig. 14) are an ironic reference to the early twentieth century American weekly Sunday newspapers which used to include, precisely, the so-called “comic supplements”, i.e. satirical comic strips. The way the twin towers are depicted may remind of Futuristic paintings, such as Umberto Boccioni’s La Città Che Sale (fig. 15). A photojournalistic style (page 4, fig. 5) is greatly present too, though it seems to be in contrast with a Surrealistic attitude that tends to create a sense of confusion, which is, after all, what Spiegelman aims for.

While every page, and even every panel almost have their own stylistic reason to exist, the consistent features that characterize No Towers is its being continuously reminding of some past events, art movements, or comic strips. The idea behind a reference to the past deals with the will to look or even go back. The necessity of some sort of return to the past is, according to Spiegelman’s graphic masterpiece, the only way to rebuild a future which has been wrongly based on “ephemeral skyscrapers and democratic institutions” (Spiegelman). By continuously linking the present to the past, Spiegelman does not give the reader a way to escape from what seems to be a vicious cycle. American institutions (and towers) are destroyed by unexpected external forces that, in turn, are not to be blamed more than American history itself.

Perhaps Spiegelman merely wants to look back at the past to emulate the best things only, such as art. On the other hand, however, he himself ‘cheats’ when using technological devices for the very design of No Towers. Is that a hypocritical attitude or just an attempt to search for a healthy balance between past and future? What is sure is that In the Shadow of No Towers is an experimental, visually engaging, and deep graphic novel able to combine historical tragedies with historical beauties of art into the very modern medium of comic, which, itself, has its own history to be considered. In short, No Towers is a comic book built on the shadow of past art.

Works Cited

Beaty, Bart. “Autobiography as Authenticity”. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2008. Print.

Basu, Lopamudra. “The Graphic Memoir in a State of Exception”. University Press of Mississippi. 2013. Print.

Bray, Patrick M. “Aesthetics in the Shadow of No Towers: Reading Virilio in the Twenty-First Century”. 114, (2008): 4-17. Yale University Press. Print.

Chune, Hillary. “Temporality and Seriality in Spiegelman’s ‘In the Shadow of No Towers’”. 17, 2 (2007): 228-244. Ohio State University Press. Print.

Chune, Hillary. “‘The Shadow of a Past Time’: History and Graphic Representation in Maus”. 52, 2 (2006): 199-230. Hofstra University. Print.

Crain, Liz. “An Interview with Joe Sacco”. The Progressive Inc, July 2010. Web. 11/24/16.

Hatfield, Charles. “An Art of Tensions”. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2005. Print.

Spiegelman, Art. New York: Pantheon Books, 2004. Print.

Spiegelman, Art. , New York: Border Stage, 2004. Print.

Wilson, Louise. “Cyberwar, God And Television: Interview with Paul Virilio”. 1994. Print.

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