Perhaps far more important than the question of “why paint tragedy?” is the question of how to paint it. The importance of remembering and commemorating calamity dictates monumental art, but this realization yields no technical vocabulary on how best to accomplish this in a considerate, respectful manner without veering to the trite or the patronizing and offensive.
Previously in this column, in an essay on MAUS, Richard McBee cited Elie Wiesel’s questioning of the inherent stuff from which monuments derive. He argued that certain holocausts are simply too horrific for aesthetic investigation. James E. Young has presented a similar critique of memorials, though he distinguishes between the literal sort and a more post-modern ilk that crumbles in an act that depicts the catastrophe, rather than creating a mimetic structure that merely impersonates it.
Art Spiegelman is no stranger to these provocative discussions. In “MAUS: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History,” Spiegelman drew a comic of the Holocaust with rodents for protagonists, and in “MAUS II: Here My Troubles Began” he did it again. His new graphic novel, “In the Shadow Of No Towers” is a pictorial study of the events of September 11, 2001, told with falling shoes and boots, and characters who wake up in the middle of the night yelling, “The sky is falling!” The mice from MAUS are back, and the main character is Mr. Spiegelman himself, always with a cigarette in his mouth.
The pages of The Shadow are big, thick slabs of cardboard, suggesting a children’s book configuration, but even a cursory read reveals a very complicated meditation on storytelling, trauma and disorientation that demands a sophisticated readership.
Not only does The Shadow insist on politically perceptive readers, it also assumes that readers are literate in classical, comic book forms. In a series of seven plates at the end, Spiegelman reproduces old comic books pages from George Herriman’s provocative 1913 comic Krazy Kat to Gustave Verbeek’s 1904 cartoons in the Sunday New York Herald called Little Lady Lovekins and Old Man Muffaroo. Spiegelman offers little in the way of comprehensive guide for comic book amateurs; his two page manifesto which seeks to explain the history of comic books while standing on one foot will help jog the memory of experts, but will prove fairly useless to the beginner.
The move of insisting on familiarity with the vocabulary of comic books in general and certain characters from MAUS in particular is one associated with much of post-modern and creative non-fiction literature. In Moby Dick, Melville delivered a text that simultaneously explored a fictive narrative and a scientific meditation on whales and whaling that embedded entire chapters of encyclopedic trivia about marine biology.
Joyce’s Ulysses rallied a similar strategy, and it necessitated absolute familiarity with all of Joyce’s books: the character Stephen returns from a funeral in Ulysses that he has set out for in Dubliners. This Melvillian and Joycean mode of reading proliferated in the literary scene in the middle and late part of the century, and it is very much at play in Spiegelman’s novel.
In his introduction to The Shadow – which interestingly enough was serialized in the Forward and the German newspaper Die Zeit – Spiegelman records his predisposition to allegations that the sky is falling and general conspiracy theories, but then he writes, “Only when I heard paranoid Arab Americans blaming it all on the Jews did I reel myself back in, deciding it wasn’t essential to know precisely how much my “leaders” knew about the hijackings in advance. It was sufficient that they immediately instrumentalized the attack for their own agenda.”
Spiegelman told Alana Newhouse at the Forward that, “I grew up being told by my [Holocaust] survivor parents that the world is an incredibly dangerous place, and that I should always be prepared to flee.” In his mind, September 11 came as less of a surprise than “the hijacking of September 11 the Bush cabal that reduced it all to a war recruitment poster.” Spiegelman says, “I never wanted to be a political cartoonist. I work too slowly to respond to transient events while they are happening.. Besides, nothing has a shorter shelf-life than angry caricatures of politicians.”
Incidentally, Honore Daumier’s and Thomas Nast’s political caricatures have lasted quite long on their shelf in the comic book pantheon, and I think David Levine’s will join them, as will Spiegelman’s, and here is why.
Spiegelman’s book is very political. It throws difficult images in the viewer’s face, and bombards the reader from page to page, without providing much time for catching one’s breath. It is deep and heavy, and it tells you wide-eyed that the sky is falling. It asks the questions: who gets to tell a story, how much leeway does s/he have to tell it, and what does it mean to “own” a story? This meditation on trauma and narrative finds its voice in visual form.
Page four features a cartoon wherein a Bush figure and a Rumsfeld figure ride a flying eagle that sports a red, white and blue striped Uncle Sam hat. Rumsfeld has cut the eagle’s neck with his box cutter, while Bush offers, “Let’s Roll!” in a manner that suggests a derivation of “giddy-up!” The eagle asks, “Why do they hate us? Why?” This image floats atop a picture in the left margin of a shimmering, stippled tower – resembling a Seurat or Pissarro painting in temperament – that crumbles into a sea of red, blue, purple and ochre dots. A parenthetical statement offers, “(Amazing how time flies while it stands still.)”
As if that is not enough information, Spiegelman manages to cram in the Two Towers personified as crying infants with towers for hats, and a rescue mission to save his daughter Nadja. At the bottom of the page, Spiegelman tells his wife, “Y’know how I’ve called myself a rootless cosmopolitan, equally homeless anywhere on the planet? I was wrong… I finally understand why some Jews didn’t leave Berlin right after Kristallnacht!” He then passes a painter working on a picture of the burning towers: “They passed some guy on Canal Street painting the towers. Glancing south, they could only see the billowing toxic smoke. The model had moved.”
I quote at length to show both the author’s tremendous style and mood, and also to underscore a new narratorial voice from MAUS. Here is Spiegelman thinking of 9/11 in Holocaust terms, finding himself so attached to a place (he lives in the Village mere blocks from Ground Zero) and a culture – while so resistant to wearing I Love NY tee shirts – that he can relate to German Jews who couldn’t run, but also could not hide. He is disoriented, and every attempt to draw himself out of it recalls a baseball player who simply cannot drag himself out of a slump.
And ultimately, that is why Spiegelman gets to tell the story. He has no answers, and he can barely keep the questions at bay. He takes the confusion and the paralysis and casts it as mice and shoes and ostriches. They are entirely tasteful and deep meditations that convey an almost un-conveyable sense of raw emotion. In that world, like that of Steinbeck, the boundary between mice and men slowly dissipates.
Menachem Wecker edits the Arts and Culture Section of the Yeshiva University Commentator. As an artist, he has trained at the Massachusetts College of Art. Menachem may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org