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The Holes In His Head

In the Shadow of No Towers By Art Spiegelman (Pantheon, 42 pp., $19.95) Click here to buy this book

The destruction of the World Trade Center is the most exhaustively imaged disaster in human history. Never before had photography and calamity mated so fervently, breeding an excess of angles from which to view our vulnerability and fear. The odd synchronicity by which many of the planet's finest war photographers happened to be in Manhattan that day has been widely noted. Men and women of immense competence and sangfroid produced, from the very first hour, images that one could not have staged with all of Jerry Bruckheimer's wealth and catastrophic imagination. Among thousands, James Nachtwey's photograph of the south tower caught in mid-collapse comes to mind. The unmarred midsection of the north tower fills the right side of the frame. In the background, the falling south tower is spied in a gap between buildings, recognizable only as a rising column of gray smoke and ash and falling metal shards. But the foreground of Nachtwey's image is dominated by the cornice of St. Peter's Church, then one block from the World Trade Center. The large stone crucifix that surmounts the church dominates the frame, its dark silhouette branded onto the rising cloud of gray behind it. It does not take an enormous leap of the imagination to think of this cross as having been held purposely aloft at the decisive moment by a hidden hand wishing, one supposes, to exorcise the rising cloud of evil or to consecrate the mass grave forming underneath. The impress left on our imaginations by such pregnant images, while deep, buckles under the stampede of guileless video that followed literally ad nauseam. Can one possibly count the number of times the planes were shown approaching the same unbelievable destination? Can one calculate the hours spent observing the rising clouds of burning fuel, or staring at the trapped occupants clinging for their lives, or looking away as those same people fell to their deaths? How many times did each of us watch the towers fall, and from how many angles, and to what end beyond chasing our disbelief with shot after unpalatable shot? There is no shortage of debate about the morality of disseminating images of tragedy. Some see the presence of a lens as cold: wouldn't the grip that holds it serve a more human purpose by putting camera aside and lending an actual hand? Others consider the propagation of images spawned by suffering to be an exploitation that only multiplies distress, for where's the good in watching, say, Russian parents walk the courtyard of what had recently been a school while they survey row upon row of body bags that contain their children? Still others, though, are unwavering in their belief that a moral imperative underlies such documentation, deeming knowledge our most powerful counteragent against further crimes. And yet, much as living in a war zone where bombs detonate night and day creates an atmosphere of fear and, should it last long enough, the dehumanizing condition of being inured to that atmosphere, a climate heavy with images of catastrophe can produce the opposite effect of the one desired. Rather than force us to look more closely at what has happened and the human cost the images are meant to showcase, oversaturation can make the unforgettable seem unremarkable. Too many images can turn the horrifyingly strange into something so familiar as to make it all but invisible for its visibility. One can be blinded by literalism. After 9/11, before a week had passed, on newsstands already jammed with variations on the same bloody images, a clarifyingly abstract response to the destruction appeared. Rendered by Art Spiegelman, the New Yorker cover was simplicity itself: the black silhouettes of the twin towers, standing tall against an off-black background. Tersely eloquent when the country was still dumb with sorrow and loud with rage, the black-on-black image offered a quiet refuge from literalism. While pundits postured, striving to be appropriately significant or suitably poetic, Spiegelman's cover said nothing yet spoke volumes. It was elegiac and stoic. It sidestepped sentimentality and grandiosity. In an antic moment it was helpfully still. And, based on the contents of Spiegelman's new book, his New Yorker cover's poise was all the more remarkable given its maker's mental state at the time of its creation. Like many of his neighbors, Spiegelman, a longtime resident of lower Manhattan, was caught in extremis on September 11. His family's apartment was across from the towers; his daughter's high school was at their feet. Chaos and fear and flight dominated the day of the attacks, but Spiegelman and his family suffered no physical losses. What Spiegelman lost was his equanimity. At the time he generated the New Yorker cover's calm, Spiegelman reports in his introduction, he was "going off the deep end in my studio," getting lost "constructing conspiracy theories about my government's complicity in what had happened that would have done a Frenchman proud." He realized the extent to which his self-possession had deserted him when he traveled to a Midwestern university early that October: only then "did I realize that all New Yorkers were out of their minds compared to those for whom the attack was an abstraction": The small town I visited in Indiana--draped in flags that reminded me of the garlic one might put on a door to ward off vampires--was at least as worked up over a frat house's zoning violations as with threats from "raghead terrorists. " It was as if I'd wandered into an inverted version of Saul Steinberg's famous map of America seen from Ninth Avenue, where the known world ends at the Hudson; in Indiana everything east of the Alleghenies was very, very far away. In the Shadow of No Towers is not a book about September 11. Rather, it is an essay in comics that attempts, through its form, to exhibit Spiegelman's fractured state of mind during the weeks and months he spent unmoored in the catastrophe's wake. Striving to capture the enormous jumble into which his consciousness was thrown, Spiegelman hurls it all back down onto the book's chaotic, oversized pages--spreads one does not so much read as range over, maps to its author's inner turmoil. Spiegelman wants us to get lost with him--a mimetic imperative that provides, he says, "an acknowledgement that my brain had been shattered on September 11th. I was just going to pick up the shiny little glass fragments and see how I could fit them together to make some new object." The first glimmer of that new object's manic nature may be glimpsed on the book's cover. Spiegelman's black-on-black image of the stalwart towers is there, but it is altered. Superimposed across them at the height where the planes hit is a panoramic window onto antic activity. The far left of the colorful frame contains a partial view of a tiny blue world. On its rearward curve, a single city sits in the path of a long shadow, cast by the planet's only other presence: a goat. The goat, balanced on its front hooves, sports a turban and a black beard. Its hind legs kick at the sky and are rung with a constellation of stars. These pricks of light suggest the sting felt by the range of rear-ends that the turbaned goat has, evidently, just launched into space. Among the famous asses he has just kicked are those of the Yellow Kid, Katzenjammer brothers Hans and Fritz, Old Man Muffaroo, Happy Hooligan, Jiggs--American comic characters from the funnies' history. The cover puts us on notice that our regularly scheduled tragedy is about to be pre-empted by a cartoon version. This will not surprise Spiegelman's past readers. Maus, which told the story of Spiegelman's parents' survival of Auschwitz, caused a sensation with its style: Nazi cats! Jewish mice! Although its maker was credited with bringing depth to a medium supposedly inhospitable to seriousness, critics often missed what made Spiegelman's style succeed: one quickly ceased to notice it. The cat and mouse abstractions brought into focus what literal representations had made blurry with detail. Unable to absorb certain images, unable to comprehend a pile of corpses stacked like firewood, the mind either turned away or while looking ceased to see. Spiegelman's abstract approach quieted the mind, forced the eye, and cajoled the imagination to make a leap into the unimaginable. Yet for In the Shadow of No Towers, Spiegelman replaces his decorous, coherent style with a wild mewing of styles. Some are borrowed from earlier cartoonists, others generated by Spiegelman for the occasion, but all jostle for our attention. Such busyness defies easy summary, but each plate of In the Shadow of No Towers is organized around a theme upon which Spiegelman then riffs. Headlined "Waiting for that other shoe to drop!", one page conjures the constant state of fear in which Spiegelman found himself after the attacks. Five separate strips are bordered by nightmarish depictions of the towers glowing red in the moments before they vaporized (a sight he witnessed "that didn't get photographed ... but still remains burned onto the inside of my eyelids several years later"). One, called "Etymological Vaudeville," features a boozer who returns home late and wakes his neighbors with an errantly flung boot. Another, rendered in three different styles, includes a crude, digitized version of the burning towers; a caricatural rendering of Dan Rather; and a cartoony version of a bearded Spiegelman sitting in front of a television, its side perforated by a crashing plane, its screen tattooed with the American flag. Below all these, on a large illustration suggestive of a commemorative plate, terrified city dwellers flee an enormous men's dress shoe that is plummeting from the sky, a cartoon fuse on its heel nearly burned down. The image of the falling shoe is itself overlaid by a mock advertisement for "New! Improved! JIHAD Brand Footwear ... Extra-large sizes only." A joke, well-turned, can rob terror of its sting; but if it is off-key, it risks rendering tragedy ridiculous. Throughout In the Shadow of No Towers, the tenor of Spiegelman's humor oscillates wildly, fed by his outrage over a host of infamies public and private. A strip called "Remember those dead and cuddly . .. TOWER TWINS" features Katzenjammer Kids Hans and Fritz in the roles of the twin towers (the flaming buildings top their heads as hats) screaming "Help" and running for aid. Doused in oil by a white-bearded, Old Glory- hatted, Yiddish-accented "Uncle Screwloose" ("Here you go kiddies--de elixir of der gotts!"), the children are incinerated to their skeletons while Uncle S. proceeds to exterminate a Saddam Hussein-headed spider (labeled "Iraknid") of whom one of the Katzenjammers/towers/skeletons says: "Nix, Unk! Wrong bug!" Jokes that miss are one thing. Suffering caught in the tug of a political zipper is more difficult to ignore. A bald eagle ("Why do they hate us? Why???") is straddled by Bush ("Let's Roll!") and Cheney, who is slitting the bird's throat with, of all things, a box-cutter. Or consider the instance when Spiegelman actually depicts himself as one of the victims plummeting from the World Trade Center. (The text: "He keeps falling through the holes in his head, though he no longer knows which holes were made by Arab terrorists way back in 2001, and which ones were always there ...") When he approaches the ground, Spiegelman subs himself out of frame, his place taken by the hobo Happy Hooligan, now a homeless, trash-bound New Yorker with a fly revolving around his head ("But in the economic dislocation that has followed since that day, he has witnessed lots of people landing in the streets of Manhattan"). This is earnest enough, and certainly accurate as far as it describes the monetary collapse that befell New York after September 11, but I wonder if marrying an image of unthinkable violence and nightmarish horror to a slapsticky send-up of bottoming out is, to put it mildly, fair use. What's missing is clear: any true impact. The desire to find solace in the ordered universe of art in the wake of the disordered facts of our lives, the need to cling to it as a buoy that will keep us above the waterline of our fears, is an old commonplace. Virgil tells us how Aeneas, who had fled Troy during its destruction by the Greeks, was later marooned by a storm on an unknown shore. Through wilderness and woods, he comes upon a glorious city. Beautiful though it is, he worries that he and his hidden ship will be taken for infidels and destroyed like so much else they've already lost. Still brave, Aeneas enters the temple at the city center in the hope that he might make himself known to its elders. While he waits uneasily, he notices that upon the walls of the temple are many murals. The scenes that they depict seem familiar to Aeneas, and so he examines them. He does not believe his eyes: they are panoramas of Troy. Of the great war, the battles with the Greeks, the terrible invasion, the torching of the city--images of Trojan bravery even in defeat, everywhere visible within this foreign shrine: Here Aeneas Halted, and tears came. "What spot on earth ... Is not full of the story of our sorrow? Look, here is Priam. Even so far away Great valor has due honor; they weep here For how the world goes, and our life that passes Touches their hearts. Throw off your fear. This fame Insures some kind of refuge." He broke off To feast his eyes and mind on a mere image, Sighing often, cheeks grown wet with tears ... He stood enthralled, devouring all in one long gaze. Does In the Shadow of No Towers enthrall? Collaged keepsake, nifty scrapbook, cartoon family album, antic journal, its pages are beautifully composed, but they barely touch hearts. Its frenetic marrying of styles, while it keeps a reader's attention, also produces an estrangement from the distress that it describes: it sets the reader adrift. And this all seems to be by design, for Spiegelman seems less concerned with reaching us than with demonstrating just how unreachable these circumstances left him. It would be a critical error to fault Spiegelman's book for failing to exhibit qualities to which it neither aspired nor strived to attain; but given the very limited goal he set for himself, one can still say that by attaining it Spiegelman has surely fallen short. "If I hadn't done these pages," he said recently, "it would be hard to remember just what a blanket of somnolescent silence we were living in." This, too, is an abstraction. For by "silence," Spiegelman means the degree to which he feels the mainstream media capitulated to the administration party line of hysterically colored alerts and deceitfully justified war. While I sympathize with Spiegelman's frustration, I do not believe that thinking people have forgotten any of it. The real frustration, and an unrealistic one, is that not everyone shares such feelings. While In the Shadow of No Towers certainly airs Spiegelman's own feelings--of fear, of rage, of dislocation and depression-- their depiction is unlikely to make anyone not already disposed to such worry feel its weight. Or, put another way, I do not believe that the means Spiegelman has assembled to ensure that we "remember" are, in this case, enduring means. Whereas Maus managed to find the perfect use for abstraction through a measured, clarifying dose, In the Shadow of No Towers is buried in a cloud of it. And one can be blinded by abstraction.

By Wyatt Mason