Thursday, 4:13pm
28 June 2012

Art’s oversized memorial

In the Shadow of No Towers

By Art Spiegelman<br>Penguin, &pound;20

Throughout ten broadsheet-sized pages and various found addenda, Art Spiegelman’s comic-strip memoir In the Shadow of No Towers revisits his slow recovery from the US events of September 2001, sharing with the reader his pessimism, rage and profound disorientation. Spiegelman’s daughter was briefly feared lost during the attack and No Towers is a mix of personal history and formal deconstruction, though the autobiographical aspect is often more engaging than the methods by which these ruminations are delivered.

Each page is a postmodern collage of periods and techniques, with PhotoShop imagery pasted alongside found artifacts, assorted pastiche and Spiegelman’s coarse cartooning. These disparate visual styles echo Spiegelman’s early work and almost, but never quite, cohere. (The book’s most arresting single image – ‘Jihad Brand Footware’ – has been widely reproduced elsewhere, most notably in the recent McSweeney’s comic collection.)

The subjects of Spiegelman’s musings include: the Bush regime’s detour into oil supply security; the iconography of Schwarzenegger movies; and the simple-minded nationalism that followed the attacks. ‘Why did those provincial American flags have to sprout out of the embers of Ground Zero?’ he asks, ‘Why not a globe?’

Two motifs recur throughout these oversized cardstock pages. Firstly, the Trade Centre towers themselves – depicted in glowing, skeletal form and in various stages of disintegration, each time occupying less space than before. Secondly, this appalling icon is contrasted with another recurrent device in the form of antiquated newspaper strips, suggesting a more whimsical age. Rudolph Dirks’ prototypical troublemakers The Katzenjammer Kids appear as the towers personified, their heads ablaze as the twins flee from a deranged Uncle Screwloose, refashioned as Uncle Sam. (There is a symbolic irony here. In Dirks’ original strip the twins shared a sociopathic outlook, summarised by the phrase ‘Society iss nix’ – a maxim that could be ascribed to both the hijackers and the day-traders they targeted.)

While the book’s daunting size allows readers to appreciate the various found addenda in their original proportions (among them a vaguely prescient page of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland), those same ambitious production values also highlight the unsatisfying nature of the project. The original content amounts to much less than that of the average comic, and, even though the work is padded out with a collection of tangentially relevant found material, one is left with a distinct sense of something underdeveloped and overblown.

Given the subject matter of this latest work – and given his status as the default godfather of modern comics – Spiegelman is almost beyond the reach of criticism. Certainly, the British press have eagerly devoted unprecedented space to No Towers, perhaps shamed by their more usual neglect of the comic book medium. However, Spiegelman’s importance is chiefly sociological, rather than aesthetic, and in the eighteen years since Maus, the cartoonist has been outstripped by other, more formidable, talents.