“Nothing like commemorating an event to help you forget it.”

In the Shadow of No Towers

That which is most effective about Art Spiegelman’s gorgeously mounted, emotionally saturated, and very very very short “In the Shadow of No Towers” is linked directly to the artist’s own tardiness, his lack of prolificacy. The ten pages of comics (each one a double-sheet vertical presentation printed on thick cardboard-like paper) cover slightly less than two years of Spiegelman’s working life, with each installment representing months of time passed. The book can be read very quickly if you want, and after an initial, thorough reading, I’d actually recommend racing through. The initial shock of the infamous disaster fades into rebuilding as one war melts into another, and before you know it, the memory has escorted us back to now. Spiegelman is even kind enough to mention the then-future of the 2004 Republican National Convention, and the book’s final lines are “Happy Anniversary” and in about an hour of this posting, it will be 9/11/04, Eastern Standard Time, and there we are.

There’s no getting around it, “In the Shadow of No Towers” is a jumbled book, a mix of flashback to the author’s personal experience at the very feet of the Towers on that day, vignettes from his increasingly paranoid life afterwards, musings on the political situation of the past few years, and the filtering of the author’s memories through the richly colored lens of early 20th century newspaper cartoons. All of these elements bump into each other, mix into each other, and sometimes just interrupt each other. But the story’s brevity is an asset in even this area, as the scattered nature of the storytelling provides a concentrated blast of errant psyche, a haunted load of buckshot that would have become far more spread and its impact diluted at a more substantial length. But as we tear through the weeks as we work our eyes up and down the page, we are never far from the focusing event, just as with the author’s thoughts.

Spiegelman’s layouts are also an accurate projection of his mindset; a musing on the nature of his memory (accompanied by the recurring image of the second tower’s glimmering skeleton) sits on the far left of one layout, with an editorial cartoon of Our Current Administration simultaneously riding and killing a Bald Eagle filling the top. The center of the layout presents much of the action as a series of detailed first-person perspective ‘photographs’ with tangential information (flashbacks and flash-forwards) sprinkled throughout in varying cartoon styles, Classic Art and Art Homage, if you will. It’s quite absorbing, with the constant shifts in style and viewpoint embodying the intensity of various memories. The book’s politics are also presented in this format, to somewhat lesser effect. Given the nature of the rest of the book it at least makes sense in the context of the work for the politics to be presented bluntly, often without explanation, and tinged with venom throughout. There’s little doubt that the presentation of Bush as a monstrous oil-crazed jingoistic exploiter is an accurate presentation of Spiegelman’s personal viewpoint as per the subject, and the material works when mixed in with other facets of reminisce. But several of the later pages of the work (and there are only ten of them, mind you) become immersed in rants of various types, which simply aren’t as compelling on their own.

And yet, even there the book’s compression helps it out, as we’re on the build-up to the Iraq War on one page, then the fall of Saddam on the next, then the conspicuous lack of WMDs on the next. And it’s logical that the farther from the event Spiegelman gets, the more focused on current issues he becomes, though he’s always partially fixated on those metal bones, and the image recurs.

And a recurring theme throughout the reviews of this tome is bound to be: is this thing worth $19.95? Sure compression is nice and all and the big size is lovely but who’s going to shell out this sort of cash? Is it really worth it? Well, I’ll immediately say that the design of the book serves it well; this isn’t an arbitrary decision to ‘make it big’ or provide fancy bells and whistles for the sake of deluding everyone into a false perception of being in the presence of (pardon the pun) Art. I was thankful for the careful setup of the pages so as to bypass any spinal problems with the double-page spreads. The pages are abundant enough in panels to justify the large size; there would be a genuine loss of effect (even comprehension) in printing it smaller. The format of the book has genuine utility here.

And there’s some bonuses. Aside from the book’s proper introduction and some newspaper-themed interior covers, Spiegelman presents seven classic newspaper strips, all of which work into the main story in some way. Of particular note is a particularly gorgeous installment of “Little Nemo in Slumberland” which all but screams to be seen in the largest size and in the highest quality possible, such is the level of Winsor McCay’s command of the craft. Not to mention a selection from the great Lyonel Feininger’s short-lived “The Kin-der-Kids”. It’s good to have these strips presented in such a lavish format, even if some of them possess a level of visual acumen above that of the Feature Presentation. All the more pertinent, though, given their status as inspiration.

So yes, I think it was worth the money. I didn’t feel like it was a waste. I even felt that its brevity was a virtue. And I feel that if nothing else, it’s a fine comics presentation of the state of its author’s mind throughout the last few years. As a freestanding ‘statement’ on a national disaster, maybe it’s too hyper, too singular a piece. But as a simulation of an individual’s torrid mind? Very swell indeed.