January 6, 2005
Drawing on Sept. 11
A cartoon interpretation of the 2001 terrorist attack helps Art Spiegelman face his demons.
As he outran the toxic cloud of the dying World Trade Center, Art Spiegelman heard the voice of his father, the Holocaust survivor: "The world is treacherous. Keep your bags packed."
"My initial response was 'grab the family and flee,'" the famed cartoonist said of Sept. 11. "It was, 'The world is ending and you've got maybe a half hour to get everyone to like, Paris, before it's too late.'"
Yet as Spiegelman trekked back to his SoHo home that day, he felt pangs of affection for his vulnerable city.
"The first coherent sentence I uttered was, 'Now I finally understand why some Jews didn't leave Berlin right after Kristallnacht,'" he said. "The idea that I could safely sit in a cafe in Paris and go, 'Look at the Herald Tribune, it seems Manhattan has been reduced to rubble,' was intolerable to me."
Instead, the Pulitzer Prize-winner churned out his first graphic novel since "Maus," his account of his parents' wartime experience, which depicted Jews as mice and Nazis as cats. If the two-volume "Maus" broke ground by presenting the Holocaust in comics, "In the Shadow of No Towers" (Pantheon, $19.95) defies expectations by blending cartoons with Spiegelman's Sept. 11 misadventures (the author will present slides of his work next week in Los Angeles). The artist and his wife morph into Maggie and Jiggs as Arab Americans blame Jews on CNN; the Katzenjammer Kids lament that Uncle Sam has squashed the "wrong bug" (Saddam Hussein drawn as an "Iraknid"); Krazy Kat and Little Nemo appear with George Bush and Osama bin Laden. The oversized board book consists of 10 panels by Spiegelman and an additional seven pages he calls the "second tower," historical funnies that influenced his work.
The author has made a name for himself by turning unfunny subjects into funnies.
"He's radically changed the way people look at comics," said Alan Rosen, a professor specializing in Holocaust literature at the University of Pennsylvania. "He's pushed forth a new genre, using this 'lowbrow' medium to deal with traumatic events."
"Spiegelman has, especially for American readers, given legitimacy to sequential graphic narrative as something appropriate for grownups," said Lucy Shelton Caswell, curator of the Cartoon Research Library at Ohio State University.
Observers trace Spiegelman's serious take on comics, in part, to his heritage. "He's a child of survivors whose Holocaust legacy and his personality and his politics and his aesthetic sensibilities all shape how he describes the world," said J.J. Goldberg, editor of The Forward, which ran serialized strips of "Maus" and "Towers." "In many ways, he created the genre of second-generation angst, and I think that radiates in almost every image of his new book."
In an interview two days after Sept. 11, 2004, Spiegelman, 56, said he still fears the world is ending, albeit slower than he thought three years ago. Professing to be chain-smoking Camel Lights, he called to mind a "Towers" strip in which his alter ego laments, "I'm not even sure I'll live long enough for cigarettes to kill me. Cof! Cof!"
His rapid-fire conversation radiated caustic wit, an obsession with current events and a measure of post-Sept. 11 stress -- although that didn't curb his stream of sardonic stories. One apparent favorite was how, at 13, he renounced organized religion after Yom Kippur services at his Rego Park, N.Y., synagogue.
"My father insisted that I go with him to this boring day of prayer where I was just trying to figure out when to stand up and dunk my knees at the appropriate beat even though I didn't know what the hell was going on," he said. "So instead of dunking my knees I ducked out and had a sausage pizza slice, and when I wasn't struck down immediately, I knew that was it for me."
His parents' Holocaust experience apparently made a more lasting impression. Several years after his mother's 1968 suicide and his own short stay in a mental hospital, Spiegelman drew the first pages of what would ultimately become "Maus," published in two volumes in 1986 and 1991. The Pulitzer-winning work depicts his parents' betrayal into Nazi hands by smugglers, the horrors of the camps and Spiegelman's difficult relationship with his prickly father, Vladek, years later.
His cartoon approach to the Holocaust initially raised eyebrows -- and hackles.
"It's one of two times in my life that I've taken a book and with all my strength, thrown it against the wall," Rosen recalled of the first time he picked up "Maus." But when he finally read the book, his outrage turned to admiration.
"Although Spiegelman used what was considered a frivolous medium, he pursued the topic seriously," Rosen said. "His take allowed us fresh eyes with which to view the subject of the [Shoah]."
Spiegelman brings that fresh take to Sept. 11 in "Towers," albeit with a Holocaust hangover. As he writes in his introduction, the events "left me reeling on that fault line where world history and personal history collide -- the intersection my parents, Auschwitz survivors, had warned me about."
The morning of Sept. 11, Spiegelman and his wife, New Yorker art director Francoise Mouly, were out walking when the first airplane struck the World Trade Center. In a panic, they ran to retrieve their then-14-year-old daughter, Nadja, at Stuyvesant High School three blocks from Ground Zero. They emerged back on the street in time to see an image that, Spiegelman said, is still tattooed in his brain: "It was the glowing skeleton of the north tower hovering just before it disintegrated," he said, his voice radiating awe. " I can't tell you if those incandescent bones were before my eyes for 30 seconds or 30 minutes, but time stopped and I thought, this is it, The End of Days."
Afterward, he suffered nightmares and insomnia; on automatic pilot, he created the now-famous New Yorker cover that depicted the Towers as black-on-black silhouettes, evoking what Spiegelman calls his "phantom limb syndrome."
"I had to keep turning around to make sure the towers still were not there," he said.
To exorcise his demons, he began drawing urgent diary entries about Sept. 11 and his growing terror at the government's "hijacking of America based on the hijacking of the planes."
He depicted himself as a pinwheel-eyed basket case and as an "impotent girlie-man" equally traumatized by Bush and Bin Laden.
"My 'leaders' are reading the Book of Revelations.... I'm reading the paranoid science fiction of Philip K. Dick," he says in one panel.
But when Spiegelman sought publishers for these "Towers" strips, most United States publications declined -- ostensibly because the work was perceived as incendiary, he said. Eventually, the work ran in European papers and in one American Jewish periodical, The Forward, in 2002 and 2003.
"I felt like they offered me the right of return," Spiegelman said of The Forward. "I told the editors, 'These strips aren't Jewish per se,' and they said, 'That's OK, you're Jewish.'"
Spiegelman is chagrined, however, with those who believe he sees Sept. 11 primarily through the lens of Auschwitz. "This work is not a continuation of 'Maus,'" he said. Even so, "Towers" draws certain parallels between his experience and Vladek's, without diminishing the evil of the Shoah. In a number of panels, he depicts himself as his rodent character from "Maus": "I remember my father trying to describe what the smoke in Auschwitz smelled like," the character says. "The closest he got was telling me it was ... indescribable. That's exactly what the air in Lower Manhattan smelled like after Sept. 11."
In other panels, a homeless woman screams anti-Semitic epithets at Spiegelman and an Arab American on CNN blames Jews for the attack, which annoyed the artist in real life. In fact, Spiegelman was so "PO'ed" by the canard that he ripped up a New Yorker cover he'd drawn urging tolerance toward American Muslims. "I went, f--- 'im! Let him get his own cartoonist," he said.
If the events fueled his second-generation anxiety, he took solace in the kind of late 19th- and early 20th-century comic strips that decorate his Lower Manhattan studio. One panel from Sept. 11, 1901, describes the assassination of President McKinley; other strips reflect the carnage of World War I.
"The world was ending, as it does every day, but somehow life was being lived with lots of expressive feelings," Spiegelman said. "These strips have a resonant majesty that allowed me to feel a kind of optimism even in the face of cowboy boots raining down over [the nation]."
Does the artist still feel the need to keep his proverbial bags packed? Not so much, he said. Rather, he's like the "Towers" characters who have returned to lounging complacently in front of the TV, albeit with their hair standing on end.
"Of course, most Americans have discovered hair gel," he said. "Mine is still standing on end."
Art Spiegelman will give a slide lecture on Oct. 7 at 7 p.m. at the Central Library, 630 W. Fifth Street (at the corner of Flower Street), Los Angeles. Standby-only available (arrive one hour before the event). For more information, visit www.lapl.org/events or call (213) 228-7025.