COMICS: John reviews “In the Shadow of No Towers” by Art Spiegelman

If you’ve been reading my other 9/11-related comics reviews up to this point, you know that in 9/11: Emergency Relief comics creators told mostly true accounts of their experiences on 9/11/01, and that most of the creators were at least one borough away when the towers fell. Art Spiegelman, author of the highly successful and critically acclaimed graphic biography Maus (which was the only successful graphic biography prior to the release of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home), had a story tell that was bigger than that of any creators in Emergency Relief, both in depth and in trim size. In the Shadow of No Towers is more than just an account of the author’s experiences watching the towers fall from six blocks away, it is Spiegelman’s love letter to the New York he will always remember, as well as a scathing indictment of post-9/11 jingoism and Washington propaganda. In order to fully capture the scope of the tragedy, In the Shadow of No Towers is printed on oversize trim, heavy cardboard stock and is intended to be turned sideways when read, so that each image of the towers takes up two very large pages. The cover is adapted from a magazine cover that he did (either for The New Yorker or New York Magazine, I can’t remember which) and is a powerful image of the Twin Towers in deep black against a lighter black background.

Of all the accounts of the events of 9/11/01 that I have read in the past week, Art Spiegelman’s is the most gripping and emotional. Perhaps this is because of his proximity to the event: The Spiegelman family lives within a few blocks of World Trade Plaza, and young daughter Nadja Spiegelman attended school within blocks of the Towers themselves at the United Nations School. When the second tower fell moments after they claimed Nadja and headed to safety, they were convinced that her school had been destroyed with it! What really drove home the tragedy (for me and for the author) was Nadja’s reaction upon being picked up by her parents: She said that she hadn’t been scared until her father started crying.

The most powerful image of the tragedy in Art Spiegelman’s mind (and, consequently, the most powerful repeated image in In the Shadow of No Towers) was the way the second tower looked just before it fell: A skeleton of girders, glowing red with heat and disintegrating rapidly. This becomes one of the most frequently used images in the book, and is no less powerful each time it is used. The sight seems unnatural, and even seeing an illustrated reproduction of it makes you feel as though you’ve seen something no one ever should, which is exactly the point.

Eventually the focus of In the Shadow of No Towers shifts from the events of 9/11/01 to the continuously unfolding aftermath, and here is where many people may be offended by what Spiegelman has to say. An unapologetic peace activist, he is disgusted with Washington’s (and the rest of America’s) knee-jerk, let’s-kill-’em-all reaction to the tragedy. Worse still are the pushes for consumerism disguised as patriotism, lining the pockets of the rich by exploiting the fears of the rest that “if we don’t buy gas-guzzling SUVs, the terrorists win!” He explicitly criticizes the Government’s decision to attack Iraq through a rather humorous parody of a classic newspaper comic strip. In it, Uncle Sam’s nephews (the twin towers) are attacked by hornets. Uncle Sam ends up chasing down a spider (with Saddam Hussein’s head) and dowsing it with hornet pesticide to no avail, while behind him the hornets return and attack his nephews again. Uncle Sam then hides inside a nearby cabin, taunting the hornets by exclaiming that they can’t get to him, and his nephews (who are now analogous to the liberal East Coast) don’t really matter anyway. And to think, this was written in 2003/04, when we were still in the early stages of the war!

Some of the most meaningful moments in In the Shadow of No Towers are when Spiegelman has to acknowledge that his former pessimism was too far-sighted for this post-9/11 world. After mentioning that nothing had been done to detoxify the air around Ground Zero (they wouldn’t even clean the air ducts at the U.N. School!) he muses that, “at this point, I don’t think I’m going to live long enough for cigarettes to kill me.” There are a few of these bizarrely powerful moments throughout the book, and they are some of the most effective at bringing the reader into the paranoid mind of Art Spiegelman.

In the Shadow of No Towers is worth perusing at your local bookstore for its unique presentation alone, but it is also much more than just its format. The account is not as terribly tragic as Maus, but it is not meant to be. This book is a reflection of the events of 9/11/01 and its aftermath as Art Spiegelman experienced them, and to that end it is completely successful. If you were pro-Iraq War from 9/12 on (or at least from the moment we said we were taking action against Iraq) you may want to stop reading halfway through the book. If, on the other hand, you didn’t see any connection between 9/11 and Iraq, Spiegelman’s rants may echo your own. Also, if you enjoy looking at classic newspapers from decades gone by, the supplement at the end of In the Shadow of No Towers includes several classic pages (comics and headlines) of New York newspapers from Septembers long past. The only problem with In the Shadow of No Towers is that it might not fit on every bookshelf, but it would not be nearly as powerful if it did.

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One Response

  1. What a powerful review, John. I especially love the last line, “The only problem with In The Shadow of No Towers is that it might not fit on every bookshelf, but it would not be nearly as powerful if it did.”

    I love Art Spiegelman, and your description of both the book itself and what Spiegelman both hoped to and did accomplish is deft and moving. If there was a chance in hell my Barnes and Noble would have this, I would rush out to get it right now. Unfortunately, as we’ve discussed, my B&N has nothing! Oh well. I guess I’ll have to order it on-line.

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