“I remember my father trying to describe what the smoke at Auschwitz smelled like ... The closest he got was telling me it was ‘indescribable’ ... That’s exactly what the air in Lower Manhattan smelled like after Sept. 11.”
Art Spiegelman was heading north, away from the Twin Towers on the morning of September 11 2001. He didn’t see the first plane crash into the North Tower but he knew that disaster had struck. The noise and the expressions on the faces of those walking south told him that he needed to panic, that he needed to rush from where he’d come, back to his daughter’s school. A school in the shadow of the World Trade Centre.
Spiegelman, who took thirteen years to complete the graphic novel Maus — a story of the Holocaust, his father’s experiences and his own reaction to it — doesn’t think of himself as a “political” artist. His slow pace of work, attention to detail and the level of self-reflection embodied in his words and pictures rules out running political commentaries. After Maus he stopped producing extended graphic pieces and concentrated on work as an essayist and cover designer for the New Yorker.
9/11 changed all this: “after all, disaster is my muse!” says Spiegelman. This isn’t as flippant a remark as it sounds. The ten broadsheet pages of In the Shadow of No Towers capture the individual responses of a self-confessedly “fragile” personality. This is in essence an autobiographical work.
But these responses are not merely self-regarding pieces, there is no over indulgence, no grab for individual sympathy. When Spiegelman depicts the chaotic scene at his daughter’s school that morning he writes: “It was hard for puny human brains to assimilate genuinely new information ... and it remains just as hard now, these many months later”. But the context of the page — the pictures, the blank expressions, the commentary and complementary graphics — build a more general landscape of panic, despair and paranoia.
Spiegelman’s fundamental response to 9/11, one essentially shared by those on the left who resisted the slump into kitsch anti-imperialism and simple-minded America bashing, is of being “terrorised” on all sides. A small graphic in the second instalment of In the Shadow of No Towers titled “Equally Terrorised by Al-Qaeda and by His Own Government...” shows Spiegelman in the form of the “maus” familiar from his best known work, sandwiched between caricatures of an Al-Qaeda terrorist and George Bush — one holding a bloody sword, the other a pistol and the Stars and Stripes. This graphic horrified Spiegelman’s editors in the mainstream US press, but many on the British left will be equally “horrified” by not only the equation of these two evils but by the caricatured depiction.
Bleak responses to Bush’s “War on Terror” occur throughout the work. But Spiegelman’s commentary on the cultural aspects of the post-9/11 “recovery” are bleaker still: “I can still vividly remember the horrors of Ground Zero on September 11... 2002. I was an eyewitness to the bombardment of kitsch on sale that day... and I almost became a participant. On 9/11/01 time stopped. By 9/11/02 clocks began to tick again... but everyone knew it was the ticking of a giant time bomb.”
Other writers, some in similar proximity to the epicentre that morning, have commented on how quickly sections of New York society “normalised” themselves; from the speed at which Ground Zero became a tourist attraction to the “Osama bin Laden Toilet Paper” and “Voodoo dolls” on sale. Very quickly, the disaster became a new market opportunity. Very quickly, the horrors of that day were displaced.
In “Weapons of Mass Displacement”, Spiegelman sketches the way in which the government and mass media exploited the displacement “craze”: “Remember how we demolished Iraq instead of Al-Qaeda ... the New York Times displaces its guilt for printing the Pentagon’s lethal fictions about Iraqi nukes as fact ... then beats itself up in a 7,000 word apology for some minor journalist’s pattern of inconsequential lies! ... Shit! This gang in power gets me so damn mad I could scream!”
Each of the ten pages of In the Shadow of No Towers, some of which took up to five weeks to complete, paints a complex of personal, social and political despair. From the terror of 9/11 itself, the beginning of the assaults on Afghanistan and Iraq, Bush’s re-election and the party-style commemorations we see Spiegelman sink further and further. He ends “The Towers have come to loom far larger than life ... but they seem to get smaller every day ... Happy Anniversary”.
That epoch-defining, horror-filled event has come to dominate Spiegelman’s and by extension America’s psyche. Eight years on, the whole world is still “dealing” with the actions of those nineteen killers and the clerical-fascists who inspired them. We are left “dealing” with the political fall-out over the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. For the rational left, as for Spiegelman, the “Towers” loom as large as ever. For others, they have become an inconsequential banality in the same way as the Holocaust itself.
In the Shadow of No Towers will not fill your heart with hope. That is not its function. It will help you to remember how you felt that morning, analyse how you reacted and what political choices you made in the years that followed. It will make for an uncomfortable read for many on the British left.