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 Writer's Desk  ... introducing NCR's mission of faith and justice based journalism

November 22, 2004
Vol. 2, No. 32



Margot Patterson The world is ending more slowly than thought

By Teresa Malcolm, NCR staff writer

In the introduction to his book, In the Shadow of No Towers (Pantheon Books, 2004), Art Spiegelman notes that within New York, zip codes seemed to determine the intensity of people's reaction to the destruction of the World Trade Center, and their ability to return to normalcy. The lives of residents of Lower Manhattan, like his family, who were physically nearer to the tragedy, were disrupted for long after.

Then he traveled to the Midwest in October 2001 and realized that "all New Yorkers were out of their minds compared to those for whom the attack was an abstraction. The small town I visited in Indiana - draped in flags that reminded me of the garlic one might put up on a door to ward off vampires - was at least as worked up over a frat house's zoning violations as with threats from 'raghead terrorists.' "

As one of those people in a Midwestern zip code, I recovered a sense of normalcy, perhaps not by October 2001, but sooner, undoubtedly, than any New Yorker - not so much out of complacency as psychological self-preservation. It is difficult to live in a state of constant fear and horror, and my distance from the events allowed me to let those feelings go eventually.

Spiegelman held on to those fears, finding himself, as he describes it, "on that faultline where World History and Personal history collide - the intersection my parents, Auschwitz survivors, had warned me about when they taught me to always keep my bags packed." He first witnessed the towers fall near his home, and then by the Bush administration's wars unfold over the following three years. He was, he writes, "equally terrorized by al-Qaeda and by his own government."

In the Shadow of No Towers compiles 10 broadsheet comic strips by the Pulitzer Prize-winning artist that chronicle his experience on Sept. 11 and after - the most gripping and effective are the first four, which bring the reader along with Spiegelman and his wife as they frantically rush to find their daughter at her high school near Ground Zero, and then watch the towers fall as they walk home. It is all told in a collage of styles, including recurring use of an eerie digital image that Spiegelman writes is the best he could do to render the glow of the North Tower just before it disintegrated.

The other recurring theme took a little education from the second half of the book for me to appreciate. Spiegelman writes, "The only cultural artifacts that could get past my defenses to flood my eyes and brain with something other than images of burning towers were old comic strips; vital, unpretentious ephemera from the optimistic dawn of the 20th century. That they were made with so much skill and verve but never intended to last past the day they appeared in the newspaper gave them poignancy; they were just right for an end-of-the-world moment."

So, following a two-page history of the birth of comic strips, the second half of book features reproductions of turn-of-the-century color Sunday comics, most from New York newspapers. Spiegelman chose examples in which he found echoes in current events: the Yellow Kid and other denizens of "Hogan's Alley" in a jingoistic fever for the Spanish-American War; a pair of Frenchmen saying, "I detest the Fourth of July," after the Katzenjammer Kids dynamite a celebration; the American hero of "Bringing Up Father" propping up the Leaning Tower of Pisa after it crashes down on him in a dream.

The collection seems almost meditative, especially the strange "Little Nemo in Slumberland," a strip from 1907 that depicts the titular character dreaming of walking, giant-sized but unnoticed, among New York skyscrapers. In one panel, Little Nemo and his companion climb down a building - but seem almost to be drifting down - as Nemo says, "These people ought to know who we are and tell that we are here!" In the final panel, another giant-sized friend rushes toward them, knocking down buildings in the spot where, Spiegelman notes, the twin towers would fall 94 years later.

Once I read this selection, I had to return to re-read Spiegelman's comic strips, for only then did I recognize the century-old figures that he had incorporated into his own work. Once I knew who they were, they added a new layer of sadness - innocents abused by the traumatic events around them.

They also brought an aura of timelessness, and time, even more than zip codes, is a distancer. Spiegelman - who chronicled his parents' story in the Holocaust in the two-volume Maus - will not let history slip away, even if he now concedes that the world "seems to be ending more slowly than I once thought." In the Shadow of No Towers is an unconventional but vivid and thought-provoking take on where we have been these past three years.

Teresa Malcolm is an NCR staff writer. Her e-mail address is tmalcolm@natcath.org

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