From North Shore Sunday
Friday, September 23, 2005
Graphic language
By BRIGID ALVERSON
Spiegelman's 
            Holocaust graphic novel 'Maus' confounded bookstores in the '80s, 
            but these days graphic novels take up whole sections.  (COURTESY 
            PHOTO)
Spiegelman's Holocaust graphic novel 'Maus' confounded bookstores in the '80s, but these days graphic novels take up whole sections. (Courtesy photo)

On Sept. 11, as he was walking uptown with his wife, cartoonist Art Spiegelman heard a noise.

It was the sound of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center, just a few blocks from his home and his daughter's school.

Spiegelman saw the second plane hit, and then, not long after, a startling image: the skeleton of the building glowing red-hot against the September sky, just before it fell.

That image was the seed of “In the Shadow of No Towers,” the narrative of Spiegelman's experiences on Sept. 11 and in the days that followed. The book uses comics as a way to explore the tragedy and its aftereffects, with the twin towers personified as the Katzenjammer Kids in darkly slapstick strips set alongside more realistic narratives and pointed political commentary.

Spiegelman spoke Tuesday night as part of the Sept. 11 observances at the Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem, but he warned the audience, “I've been asked to talk about Sept. 11, but all I like to talk about is comic books.”

The two subjects are not that far apart for Spiegelman. During his long career he has drawn underground comics and New Yorker covers in addition to writing and illustrating the Pulitzer-prize-winning graphic novel “Maus.” After Sept. 11, Spiegelman turned to comics as a way of processing what he saw that day and in the days that followed. The result was a series of large-format color comics, reminiscent of the Sunday funnies of old but with a more modern and biting sensibility. Deemed unacceptable by American editors in the months after Sept. 11, they were first published in the German newspaper Die Zeit and later collected into the book “In the Shadow of No Towers.”

“Comics burn their way into your brain because comics do what your brain does,” Spiegelman said. “A baby when a week or two old can recognize a ‘Have a nice day’ face and recognize it as connected to its mother's smile. We're wired to get these iconic images, these simple images.”

The simple image that haunted Spiegelman after Sept. 11 was of the naked, burning framework of the World Trade Center, “the bones of the towers glowing and evanescing in the sky, 110 stories tall.”

It was an image he saw in real life, not on TV. Spiegelman and his wife Francoise Mouly heard the first plane hit the tower, then saw the second impact. Their daughter Nadja attended Stuyvesant High School, at the foot of the towers, so they rushed southward to get her.

The second iconic image that Spiegelman pointed to in the talk was Nadja's frightened face as she looked over her shoulder and saw him. “She didn't get really scared until she saw me in the building,” he said. She had seen the tower fall, but it had seemed like a hallucination; her father's arrival made her realize it was real.

“We really thought we were going to die,” Spiegelman said, and for him that feeling lingered. Others shook it off more quickly. One of the first phone messages that Mouly got after the disaster was from the New Yorker magazine, telling her to come to the office because they were going to put out a special issue. Spiegelman and Mouly came up with a cover for that issue that depicted the strangeness of their new world: at first glance it appears to be pure black, but on closer inspection, the ghostlike shapes of the towers appear, black on black.

“That captured for me what it felt like being in lower Manhattan,” Spiegelman said. “I had to keep turning around to make sure the towers were still not there. There is a certain phantom limb quality.” He uses a similar image on the cover of “In the Shadow of No Towers,” with a key addition: a colorful strip in the center depicting old-time comic strip characters falling from the sky.

Talking boxes

While these single images are effective, for Spiegelman, the art of comics is as much about the arrangement of the pictures as the pictures themselves. He showed a comic by Jules Feiffer that used no drawings at all - just a dialogue between a couple in bed, rendered as white words on black squares. Yet it is a comic, Spiegelman points out: “Yes, it's writing, but it's picture writing. When somebody is whispering, the words are smaller, and what really makes it a comic is it moves through time.”

In a Little Nemo strip from the turn of the century, artist Winsor McCay stretches the frames of his drawings, making them longer as Nemo's bed gets taller and walks through a dream world, with the full moon behind it making an almost musical counterpoint to the bed's swaying gait.

“It's not enough to be able to draw a figure or a figure in motion or even a funny expression on a face,» he said. &lduo;It's at its highest flowering when somebody actually makes use of the full vocabulary, and the comics I like best are the ones that take advantage of the fact that there are multiple boxes on the page and the boxes talk to one another.”

He's a man who takes his own advice. In “Maus,” Spiegelman showed a family around a table as if they were seen through a multi-paned window, then drew a series of panels about the people in each square. “That's not something you slow down over in reading,” he said, “but it's a way to structure the information in a story.”

In the first plate of “No Towers,” he arranged part of the story vertically, superimposed on images of the burning towers. “If you read down the page you just slide off,” he said. “That disorientation, that feeling of something tumbling, is specifically what I wanted to do.”

Disorientation is what Spiegelman felt after the attacks on the towers. “I didn't get back to the notion that I was going to live forever and everything was going to be OK,” he said. “It seemed like the hijacking itself was hijacked very quickly.” Spiegelman expressed his feelings in a drawing of Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney saying “Let's roll” as they slit the throat of an eagle, an image that he said wasn't intended to be political.

“I just was drawing reality,” he said. “It was a continuation of drawing the terrors, what my daughter's face looked like, the hijacking hijacked for this jingoistic adventure.”

When he first drew those images, in 2002, there was a “terrified silence” around the war, he said. “It was very hard to find dissident voices,” he said. “This work was done neither to influence nor to do anything other than to say what I was saying among my friends but wasn't getting echoed anywhere. I had people thanking me for saying it. It made them feel a little less crazy.”

In Europe, the strips were particularly well received, he said. “All I was accomplishing was being a goodwill ambassador, telling people everyone in America wasn't crazy, like an underweight Michael Moore,” he said.

Something else was going on as well. During this period, Spiegelman started going back to the old comic strips he had always loved, such as Little Nemo and the Katzenjammer Kids, and he began to see parallels. “The past became very present for me,” he said, “not as nostalgia but something that happens when time freezes.”

During his talk he showed slides of older comics that seemed eerily prophetic. In one, the Katzenjammer Kids persuade two other boys to put firecrackers under the bleachers as Foxy Grandpa reads the Declaration of Independence. In another, Little Nemo and a friend climb the buildings of Wall Street while a clown knocks over buildings in the area where the World Trade Center would later be built.

“I just was drawing reality,” he said. “It was a continuation of drawing the terrors, what my daughter's face looked like, the hijacking hijacked for this jingoistic adventure.”

At the turn of the 19th century, in lower Manhattan, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst waged a newspaper war that had two profound results: the invention of the first comic strip, the Yellow Kid, and the Spanish-American War. The title page of “No Towers” places Spiegelman's image of the glowing skeleton of the north tower in the center of a 1901 page from Pulitzer's paper, "“The World.” “President's wound reopened,” one headline reads, referring to the recent shooting of President William McKinley. Another headline reports that anarchist Emma Goldman has been charged with conspiracy in the assassination attempt.

“These things from the past took on different meanings in the present,” Spiegelman said.

Not reading Nancy

In addition to discussing his own work, Spiegelman treated the audience to a description of the evolution of comics, from newspaper comic strips to comic books and, most recently, to graphic novels that are sold in bookstores.

For serious comics readers, Spiegelman's talk was a tour of some of the high points of the medium's history, with slides of classic and obscure comics from Krazy Kat to the graphic novels of Iranian artist Marjane Satrapi. He garnered laughs for his comments on the first Superman cover (“Two young Jewish guys from Cleveland came up with the notion of a circumcised ubermensch form outer space who could fly”) and an episode of the lesser-known Stardust the Super Wizard (“like Magritte for beginners ... the world's first anal retentive superhero”).

He riffed on the classic strip “Nancy”: “At one time after World War II Nancy was the most read comic strip in world because it's a lot more work not to read Nancy than to read it.” And he showed how things can change with the turn of a page: In “Bringing Back Father,” a satire on the social-climber comic strip “Bringing Up Father,” the artists rendered the first page in the traditional style of the strip, with Maggie banging Jiggs on the head with a rolling pin, then switched to a starkly realistic style in which Jiggs complains of the pain and injuries Maggie has inflicted on him, then hires some muscular goons to beat her up the next time she goes after him.

In the question-and-answer session that followed his talk, Spiegelman took aim at political cartoonists who go for laughs rather than insight. “The newspaper's goal is to not lose readers, and anything that moves toward controversy is going to upset somebody,” he said. “The fact is that political cartoons have become gag cartoons. It's a very far cry from the days of Thomas Nast, who was not involved in telling you a joke so much as capsulizing a situation and a point about that situation that you would remember.”

“Those types of cartoons are so powerful you don't see them anymore,” he said. “When those types of cartoonists retire from newspapers, they are not replaced. There are probably fewer political cartoonists in America than blacksmiths.”

But he also sounded an upbeat note, pointing out that comics have shifted from the fringe to the mainstream. When “Maus” came out, he said, his neighborhood bookstore kept it on the “New Releases” table for about 10 years. “When I introduced myself and thanked the manager, she said ‘I cant figure out where to put the damn thing,’” he said.

Those days are gone. “No Towers” made the New York Times bestseller list, the literary magazine McSweeney's publishes comics, and the graphic novel sections of bookstores are filled with beautiful books.

“Insofar as books still count, comics have become part of that mix,” Spiegelman said. “Now that comics are being taught in universities and being discussed seriously, you don't have to be embarrassed to have a comic on the subway.”