Put this one on your try-to-avoid list: I spent a good chunk of this September 11 leafing through Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers (Pantheon, 42 pages, $19.95), a collection of oversized comic strips about the fall of the two towers of the New York Trade Center, with additional commentary and a few extras thrown in.
Spiegelman, author and drafter of the acclaimed World War II tale Maus, lives in Soho, on the northern outskirts of Ground Zero. He and his wife were walking that day, three years ago Saturday, and heard the first plane crash. They turned around to see the first plumes of smoke. Their daughter Nadja had to be evacuated from a school practically at the foot of the towers, and her school took some time to reopen, as it was commandeered to serve as part of the rescue and clean up effort.
That this event would loom large in the artist’s imagination is not surprising. In the intro, Spiegelman writes that he wanted to capture a snapshot of something that “didn’t get photographed or videotaped into public memory but still remains burned onto the inside of my eyelids several years later” — that is, “the image of the looming north tower’s glowing bones just before it vaporized.”
And capture it he does. In eight of the ten strips, there is the spirit of the building: a haze of orange, red, and white bars set against a sky that goes from blue to gray and then seems to swallow everything whole. It’s the one thing about this collection which really inspires — the building itself seemingly refusing to fall without one hell of a struggle — so of course the author goes out of his way to ruin it for us. The strip concludes: “The towers have come to loom far larger than life but they seem to grow smaller everyday…”
BROWSERS WHO TAKE the time to read the introduction can’t claim they weren’t warned. Spiegelman complains that the hijackings of September 11 were “hijacked by the Bush cabal that reduced it all to a war recruitment poster.” He frets that most U.S. publications wouldn’t touch these strips that his “coalition of the willing” of several enlightened European publications had no problem with. He likens democracy in this country to the fallen buildings.
Spiegelman notes disdainfully that one town he visited in Indiana in late 2001 was “draped in flags that reminded me of the garlic one might put on a door to ward off vampires,” and his disdain for the stars and stripes is consistent. He almost removes his daughter from her temporary new school because she is asked to come dressed in red, white, and blue: “I hadn’t raised my daughter to become a goddamn flag.” In the strips, the cursed flag serves as a sign of complacency, nationalism, and stupidity.
The picture that this picture book presents is one of impending doom. The introduction is titled “THE SKY IS FALLING!” and one gets the sense that no irony is intended. It invokes the experience of his parents in Auschwitz; throughout the strips, Spiegelman worries that New Yorkers are going to die en masse because of the toxic dust clouds kicked up on September 11. He frets and frets that the current Halliburton-Enron military industrial complex is going to bring the sky down on us all, though he does allow that the world is ending “more slowly than I once thought.”
MAYBE IT WAS the somewhat somber nature of the day but that last admission got me to thinking, and I finally decided that he had just made the case for re-electing the President far better than several dozen right-wing flacks could ever manage. A lot of criticisms can be leveled at Bush but so far he has this going for him: September 11 was a one-time event. There have been no major terrorist attacks on American soil since.
I won’t pretend to know how responsible our commander-in-chief is for that blessed fact, but it’s striking. As bombs go off in Russia and various points in Europe, and as we muddle through Iraq and what’s left of Afghanistan, we haven’t seen a repeat on the home front. Granted, there are grievous problems that need to be addressed — pilots aren’t yet armed, border enforcement is a mess, Homeland Security’s color-coded warnings are a bad joke — but through providence or planning or some great good luck that’s befallen us, it hasn’t happened again. Turkey-lurkey might remind Art Spiegelman that the sky hasn’t fallen yet.