Sunday, January 07, 2007

In the Shadow of No Talent (Noah)

This review of Art Spiegelman's "In the Shadow of No Towers" appeared in The Comics Journal #264 in November 2004. It generated some controversy on the TCJ message board, so I thought I'd put it online in case others were interested in reading it. (Hope Luke's not put out -- he was among those who hated it at the time, if I remember correctly!)

In the Shadow of No Talent

For me, as for millions of Americans, September 11, 2001 was no big deal. Nobody I knew was hurt, and the security restrictions caused me, at most minor inconvenience. There was a great deal of earnest discussion with acquaintances, much of it designed to demonstrate our supposed closeness to the attacks — this relative of a friend saw people jumping from the Trade Center, that friend of a relative worked in the Pentagon, and so on and so forth. All in all, the general mood seemed to be a not unpleasant compound of earnest sympathy and barely sublimated ghoulishness, as if the whole nation had slowed down on the highway to witness a particularly violent car crash.

Now, three years later, with the Presidential election looming, we’re all getting the chance to wallow in those emotions yet again. Pundits and politicians are falling over each other to remind us what it was like, really, on that day when America’s constantly regenerating hymen burst for, like, the twentieth time. Yes, there have been many more deadly disasters than the 9/11 attacks: for instance, the Iranian earthquakes last December (remember the Iranian earthquake last December?) But September 11 is nonetheless the most tragic tragedy of our times because it was more traumatic than any other…or maybe because it was more symbolic than any other…or maybe because it was on TV more than any other….or maybe because it was intentionally directed at wealthy white people…or maybe just because it was, dammit; what are you, some kind of Islamic extremist/commie?

The latest cultural artifact to go rummaging for meaning and runaway sales amidst the charred bones of the World Trade Center is cartoonist Art Spiegelman’s “In the Shadow of No Towers.” Spiegelman knows first-hand about the profitability of tragedy — his most famous book, Maus, was based on his father’s experiences in the Holocaust, and was an unexpected and enormous commercial success. That was twenty years ago, however. In the intervening time, Spiegelman has edited some anthologies, written a mediocre children’s book, drawn some New Yorker covers, and generally rested on his reputation as the man who made art comics a (potentially) mass market genre. “In the Shadow of No Towers,” then, is the man’s triumphant return both to the full length comic-book form and to the sustained interpretation of world-historical calamity. Released on September 7, it is well-poised to piggy-back on the inevitable hype surrounding the anniversary and the election. The publishers clearly hope that, like Maus, this will be not just a comic, but a media event — the high art doppelganger of Fahrenheit 9/11.

“In the Shadow of No Towers” has at least one built-in advantage over Michael Moore’s film — where Moore is merely a Midwestern interloper, Spiegelman lives blocks away from Ground Zero; he saw the second tower fall. If anyone could muster some sincere emotion about the events of September 11, therefore, you’d think it would be him. Certainly, “In the Shadow of No Towers” goes out of its way to suggest that its author has insights denied to the rest of us. Spiegelman seems to view himself as an Old Testament prophet, ignored and belittled as he bellows about the apocalypse. “Don’t they know the world is ending?” he asks in one comic; in another he laments that, “I insist the sky is falling, they roll their eyes and tell me it’s only my Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” In his introduction he marvels that when he went to a small town in Indiana, the people there were “at least as worked up over a frat house’s zoning violations as with threats from raghead terrorists.’” (Good thing Spiegelman hasn’t gone to the Sudan — I bet he would have found the indifference there to New York’s plight even more provoking.)

Yet, for all the wailing and gnashing of teeth, Spiegelman’s take on 9/11 is oddly uninvolving. Not that he hasn’t tried for catharsis. On the contrary, “In the Shadow of No Towers” is so eager in its pursuit of the aesthetic coup de grace that it becomes monotonous, like listening to a symphony composed entirely of crescendos. The format is itself a grand gesture: the comic is a series of ten broadsheet-sized pages reproduced on high quality cardboard, each packed with different drawing styles, strips running in different directions, panels dropped on top of other panels, stylistic changes, references to other comics, and heavy-handed allegory. The second page, for example, includes a series featuring Spiegelman chained to an American bald eagle, a picture of Spiegelman at his drawing board menaced by Osama Bin-Laden and an incredibly lame caricature of George Bush, a sequence about Spiegelman growing a beard and then shaving it off, a sequence about Spiegelman and his wife panicking in the first moments after the planes hit, and a final soliloquoy about the architectural limitations of the World Trade Center. Spiegelman (who claims that “issues of self-representation have left me slack-jawed”) represents himself variously as a cartoonish man, as a more realistic man, as one of the Katzenjammer kids from Rudolph Dirks’ vintage strip, and as a rodent. The last is apparently an effort to forcibly remind the reader of Spiegelman’s glory days — there’s no reason for it within the context of this project, but it’s how he drew himself throughout Maus

Convoluted, crowded designs can be used to convey turmoil, confusion, and despair, as they are, for example, in Hieronymous Bosch’s paintings. Spiegelman seems to be trying for a similar effect, without much success. In large part, his problem is simply that he doesn’t have the skills necessary to pull off his mighty effects. Virtually every aspect of the book is an aesthetic nonentity. Spiegelman’s thick pen lines, which were occasionally charming in Maus, deaden the grab-bag of styles he attempts here. His color palette swings back and forth from garish to drab almost at random. The layouts are cluttered, and rely, almost desperately, on over-obvious gimmickry to promote a sense of unity — on the final page, for example, the panels are organized into two columns; a lone airplane and some unconvincing flames in the background let us know that these are supposed to represent the towers of the World Trade Center. Worst of all, his borrowings from other cartoonists seem perversely bone-headed. In one sequence, for example, he references the Upside Downs of Little Lady Lovekins and Old Man Muffaroo, a strip by Gustave Verbeck which Spiegelman discusses in an afterward. Verbeck designed his comics so that, when you turned them over, each panel became a completely different picture. Spiegelman’s imitation, on the other hand, simply places two different images atop one another in each panel, the upper drawing oriented up, the bottom down. It’s a half-hearted effort, as if Spiegelman wants to get the credit for Verbeck’s deftness and ingenuity without putting in any of the work.

But even if Spiegelman were endowed with the combined visual imagination of Verbeck, Bosch, and Da Vinci , “In the Shadow of No Towers” would still be a failure. To write a good book — even a good comic-book — it’s important to have something to say. Spiegelman doesn’t. In Maus, Spiegelman managed to finesse this problem of content by cannibalizing his father’s experiences and storytelling flair. Here, though, Art’s on his own, and his struggles to fill up ten measly pages are frankly embarrassing. The central narrative, to the extent that there is one, involves Spiegelman’s reactions on the day itself. His daughter attended a school right next to the Trade Center, and Spiegelman and his wife rush to her. The three are reunited. End of episode.

This might form the subject of an amusing, low-key ‘zine by some happy-go-lucky slacker, but it hardly has the epic interpretive sweep we’ve come to expect from the great Art Spiegelman, an artist who claims portentously that “disaster is my muse.” Even Spiegelman seems to realize that, in this instance, the familial approach wasn’t quite working; according to the introduction, he scotched several more pages focusing on the tribulations of his daugter and son. Instead, Spiegelman resorts to padding. Huge panels are devoted to illustrating clichés (“waiting for the other shoe to drop” and “sticking your head in the sand.”) One entire broadsheet is devoted to his triumph in a battle of wits with a deranged homeless woman. Another half a page is devoted to his triumph in a battle of wits with a television interviewer. And then there are lots and lots of pictures of Spiegelman himself, bitching about the President, New York’s post 9/11air quality, and the fact that he draws so slowly that some Iraqis and G.I.’s will be killed before they can see his finished work — surely one of the most solipsisitic reasons for opposing the war on record. Spiegelman is also very upset by New York’s ban on smoking in bars.

Even with all these distractions, however, Spiegelman couldn’t quite grind out a book’s worth of material. Almost the second half of “In the Shadow of No Towers” is devoted to reprints of early full-page strips from the dawn of the medium. Spiegelman justifies this addition by explaining that, in the aftermath of the attacks, old comic-strips soothed his spirit. Poetry and music were too sublime and, he implies, hoity-toity to help him. Comics, on the other hand, were “vital, unpretentious ephemera from the optimistic dawn of the 20th century.”

It’s nice to see the old comics, and Spiegelman’s historical essay discussing them is by far the most informative and entertaining prose in the book. Nonetheless, his effort to incorporate this work into his own project is misleading. Spiegelman asks us to believe that since comics weren’t intended to last, they’re a good metaphor for the transient nature of everything, including big, honking office buildings. But who’s to say that these old artists thought their work would disappear? Winsor McCay and George Herriman were certainly less pretentious than Art Spiegelman, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they believed their names would be utterly forgotten.

Even sillier is Spiegelman’s decision to pick old comics that, in his eyes, presciently comment on the events of 9/11. For instance, the Winsor McCay strip he reprints shows one character, grown to giant size, rampaging through New York, knocking buildings over like toy blocks. In one of Frederick Burr Opper’s Happy Hooligan comics, an irate camel knocks its clueless rider into, as Spiegelman exclaims, “a tower of acrobats!” A “Bringing Up Father” strip deals with the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Spiegelman says that each strip seems “like a political cartoon that could have been drawn within the past year or so…” But, in fact, none of them do. Most of these strips have no political content whatsoever. Those that do are set firmly in their own time periods, as is a Hogan’s Alley strip commenting on a then-controversial boundary dispute between Britain and Venezuela. In fact, it is the strips irrelevance that has earned them their place in the book. Spiegelman says (unoriginally enough) that the World Trade Center towers were “icons of a more innocent age,” and that seems to be how he views these comics as well. Now, with our greater wisdom, we can go back and see how such simple images foreshadowed a world of dread and terror. But back then, they were simple folk, who knew not what they did.

This is nonsense. The early twentieth century was no more innocent than the early twenty-first; in fact, the period from 1890 to 1920 was in many respects a low point in the United States’ moral history. Race relations — characterized by Jim Crow, lynchings, and a resurgent Klu Klux Klan —were, arguably, worse than they were under slavery. Unsurprisingly given the climate of the time, the comics Spiegelman has selected are full of disgraceful caricatures — what Spiegelman refers to fondly as “the gleeful racism of the day.” Even if you were white, though, it wasn’t a great time to be alive in America. Woodrow Wilson, elected in 1914, used the threat and eventually the actuality of war to restrict civil liberties on a scale that would give John Ashcroft wet dreams — as just one example, Robert Goldstein served ten years in prison for making a movie about the Revolutionary War because he had portrayed our World War I allies, the British, in a bad light.

You’d never know it from Spiegelman’s book, but some of the most eloquent protests against the injustice of the time were made by cartoonists. Artists like Robert Minor, Boardman Robinson, and Art Young are largely forgotten today, perhaps in part because they were socialists. Yet, their work is as meaningful now as it ever was — and no half-baked reinterpretation is required. One of Minor’s drawings, for example, shows an enormously muscled man with no head. He towers silently over an army medical officer, who rubs his hands in glee and enthuses, “At last a perfect soldier!” The contrast with Spiegelman’s work couldn’t be more stark. Minor’s picture is bare, almost frozen — the background is hardly sketched, so that all the viewer’s attention is focused on the recruit’s masterfully shaded torso, awaiting the order for violence. Equally arresting is a picture by Art Young of the Idiot Giant War, in which a blind, obese monster with a pronounced overbite muches casually on a bowl of human beings as if they were popcorn.

That cartoon can be found in Art Young’s Inferno, a brilliant description of some of the latest developments in Hell, circa 1934. The book is witty, wise, and chock full of illustrations which suggest Dr. Seuss in a really, really foul mood. Needless to say, it’s also long out of print. You’d think the comics intelligentsia might want to remember inspirational cartoonists like these, many of whom actually faced federal prosecution because of their work. But perhaps Spiegelman’s afraid that he’d look bad — after all, no one’s threatened to put him in jail, though I guess the New Yorker didn’t want to print some of these pages — awww.. No, it’s safer overall to pretend that our real troubles began on September 11, and cavort in safe, lucrative nostalgia. After all, weren’t things ever so much better when Clinton was in office and we were slowly starving the Iraqis rather than just shooting them outright? Weren’t we all happier when we were paying Osama to kill Russians? Wasn’t the world better off when the U.S. was run by competent imperialists like Woodrow Wilson and Ronald Reagan, rather than by the bumbling imperialists we have now? Feh. Or, as Art Young put it seventy years ago, “There are two major political parties in the section called the United States of Hell. Accurately defined, they are rival groups of office seekers and are voted for with the same kind of concern with which Hellions follow the races. As for logic, the difference between them is the difference between Tweedledumb and Tweedledumber, and both are loathsome and corrupt.”


SEAN said...

That's about right... it was a lame book, made lamer by the notes about how long each comic took him. I bought it for the large size Lyonel Feininger comics & some of the other oldies, but we sold it in a book purge. It seemed like a half-assed attempt into cashing in on 9-11, maybe as an attempt to become meaningful again or something. Who knows!?

Jon Chandler said...

In the shadow of two Maus books

Human Mollusk said...

I agree with your review. It expresses a lot of what went through my mind when I read the book.
Is the TJC thread still there? I would be curious to know why Luke disliked the article.

Noah Berlatsky said...

The TCJ thread is long gone. And I can't remember if Luke didn't like this one, or if it was another one I wrote which he objected to....

Luke P. said...

I'll have to re-read it to revive my animosity.
I don't like Art Speigleman at all, really, so it had nothing to do with liking his work. I think I objected to, initially, the tone Noah took in talking about 9-11 in general ( something about it being 'no big-deal' to most Americans). It seemed like an attempt to shock withan Outr'e view. I'll re-read it soon though and get back to you.

Anonymous said...

Well put.

I hadn't realized that Britain shares a border with Venezuela.

Noah Berlatsky said...

Britain was kind of everywhere. That's what imperialisms all about....