Dropping Shoes and Upside Down Worlds : Art Spiegelman – “In the Shadow of No Towers”

“The unmentionable odour of death offends the September night”W. H. Auden

Over a decade and a half later, September 11, 2001 remains appalling  in scale. But terrorist attacks are always on the front page. Terror and cruelty and violence and murder are constants- call them all Evil, make it an It. “It” has never taken a break in the history of the world; it merely shifts energies around, a chronic disease in the system of humanity that manifests itself in feverish fear, blisters of ignorance, episodes of war.


ABOVE: The cover plays off Spiegelman’s now iconic Sep. 24 cover for the New Yorker- it looked a mournful black but you could see the outline of the towers if you tilted it to the light.

In 2004, Art Spiegelman (who made some of the great art comix before tackling the issue of the Holocaust, one of the great concentrated outbreaks of Evil) took a series of “funny pages” about 9/11 that had been deemed too partisan by the New York Times, the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, and gathered them into the oversized, short-but-dense “In the Shadow of No Towers.” (The pieces had been published by a German newspaper, of all places.)

Spiegelman lived with his family on the outskirts of Ground Zero and witnessed the event first hand. His daughter Nadja had just gone to school that morning on Canal Street. As he ran toward the school his view of the burning towers was obstructed by a billboard advertising “some dopey new Schwarzenegger movie about terrorism.” (“Collateral Damage,” it was. And who said irony would be dead after 9/11?)   In action movie parlance, shit was personal! Therefore watching as the Bush administration co-opted the attack to suit its political agenda made him as paranoid about about his own government as he was about Al-Qaeda. If the tone is adamantly anti-Bush (and Cheney and Ashcroft and the cabal whose actions fertilized the grounds from which ISIS sprouts)  who could blame him?


ABOVE: It’s supposed to be over-sized! If you wanna read the words, you should buy the book!

Spiegelman seeks comfort in the Sunday Pages of an optimistic early 20th century- and is at least somewhat aware of his shrill paranoia as he catches pareidoliac ties between the war-mongering exaggerations of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer during the Spanish-American War – and current day Fox News; between the Katzenjammer Kids’ change of names during the First World War (from Hans and Fritz to Mike and Alek)  – and French fries changing their nationality to “Freedom” Fries in similarly absurd fashion;  between a 1905 strip in which Happy Hooligan dresses up as Abdullah Hooligan to bring down a tower (of acrobats)- and the fall of the twin towers; between Winsor McCay’s fantastical distortions of New York architecture in “Little Nemo in Slumberland”- and the alteration of the city where Spiegelman finally realizes his roots lie; between brick-throwing Ignatz in George Herriman’s “Krazy Kat”- and Osama Bin Laden. Did the Fox News pundits realize THEY were being crazy and finding absurd connections between unrelated events?

“In the Shadow of No Towers” remains a revealing snapshot of how people get shocked by – or get numbed to- acts of terrorism. It’s also funny, upsetting, and self-deprecatingly aware. People accuse Spiegelman of having one genuine masterpiece in him. It  could be true. “In the Shadow of No Towers” doesn’t ultimately amount to much but a short little personal essay on “what 9/11 meant to me.” But the way the experience is masterfully filtered through  a graphical homage to Sunday newspaper artistry of old puts this ahead of thousands of other 9/11 reaction pieces.



Along the way, Spiegelman reveals the origin of the idiom “waiting for the other shoe to drop.” Think of early 1900s tenements, and of being awakened by the sounds from a hard-partying Johnny Goodtime clumsily undressing after a night of carousing, and dropping one shoe to the floor as he gets into bed . You can’t go back to sleep… you know there’s another loud noise due any moment. Boots are always dropping. Evil has many feet.

P.P.S.: Spiegelman praises the ingenious artistry of Gustave Verbeek (or Verbeck, to be proper.) Verbeck was the son of a Dutch missionary in Japan, and migrated to the U.S. in the 1900s where an immigration office misspelling left him as Verbeek. Like most immigrants, Verbeek was keenly aware of the fluidity of human experience and identity, which surely plays a part in “The Upside Downs of Little Lady Lovekins and Old Man Muffaroo”- the ultimate graphic proof that things can look very different depending on your perspective. His brilliant little strips (64 of them were created between 1903 and 1905!) are designed to be read left to right for the first half, and then turned upside down 180 degrees for a conclusion that was already contained within the panels. As an amateur doodler, I assure you this is quite the blood-sweat-and-tears-labor-of-love out there.



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