I enjoyed writing about Maus so much that I wrote another paper on another one of Spiegelman's books: In the Shadow of No Towers.
Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers:
Mediating Trauma through Metaphor and Comix
by Julian Lawrence
Art Spiegelman is arguably the world's most famous living cartoonist (Chute, 2007), and is widely recognized for helping elevate the status of the comic book to a legitimate literary medium in North America when his autobiographical novel, Maus, was awarded a special Pulitzer Prize in 1992. Exhausted by the labour-intensive effort of Maus, Spiegelman chose to spend the remainder of the 20th century “trying to avoid making comix” (Spiegelman, 2004, np), preferring instead to work as a cover artist for the New Yorker magazine under the art direction of his wife, Francoise Mouly. This all changed when, as a resident of Lower Manhattan in New York City, Spiegelman personally experienced up-close the tragic events of September 11, 2001 and was left profoundly traumatized. Convinced he was going to die that day, he recalls vowing that morning “to return to making comix full-time, despite the fact that comix can be so damn labor-intensive that one has to assume that one will live forever to make them” (Spiegelman, 2004, np) – no doubt a reassuring thought when one is staring death in the face.
In the Shadow of No Towers is Spiegelman's follow-up to Maus. Both books share similar motifs including (but not limited to): narratives of temporality & seriality; the repercussions of trauma; and the use of visual metaphors - yet each book is designed using strikingly different methods and styles (Chute, 2007; Orban, 2007; Whitlock, 2006). In my previous paper, I looked beyond the superficial metaphor in Maus (that the artwork references Hitler's view that "Jews are vermin") to discover the basic, deeper, more resonant metaphor that "identity is a mask". In the Shadow of No Towers is more direct in its use of metaphors, and Spiegelman even goes so far as to tell the reader what the theme of this book is when he reveals the “19th century source for the 21st century’s dominant metaphor.” (Spiegelman 2004, p.1)
Spiegelman immediately began working on page 1 of In the Shadow of No Towers on September 11, 2001 and completed the 10th and final page on August 31, 2003. During this time, In the Shadow of No Towers was serialized as a work-in-progress and published in several European magazines, yet Americans never really saw it in print until an anthology of all 10 pages (plus a 7 plate “Comic Supplement”) was released in 2004. The book is prefaced with an essay describing the impetus for creating it [“disaster is my muse!” (Spiegelman, 2004, np)] specifically, to document what he actually saw in order to distinguish his experience from the tsunami of media images that threatened to overtake his memory. The first four pages of the book chronicle Spiegelman’s personal impressions and experiences on the morning of September 11th and the remaining six pages feature his critical commentary on America’s subsequent paradigm shift into what he calls “the new normal”.
The “Comic Supplement” at the end of the book features reprints of old newspaper comics from the medium’s first decade in America, or as Spiegelman calls it, “Year Zero". These reprints feature long-forgotten cartoon characters such as the Kin-Der-Kids, the Yellow Kid, Little Lady Lovekins & Old Man Muffaroo, Foxy Grandpa and Little Nemo. In a two-page essay introducing the old reproductions Spiegelman explains:
The only cultural artifacts that could get past my defenses to flood my eyes and bring 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 (Spiegelman, 2004, np).
The Globe & Mail newspaper interviewed Spiegelman in 2004 and asked him why he chose to use classic cartoon characters, to which he answered:
When I was working, I would be drawing the towers and find myself doodling Hans and Fritz, the Katzenjammer Kids, the tower twins. For a while the only explanation I had was that when the bones of the towers went down, right next to ground zero was where the Sunday comics were born, on newspaper row, and the bones of the old characters came up. Part of it realistically had to do with the fact that I was being given a kind of newspaper acreage that hadn't been around since the beginning of Sunday comics -- nobody gets a broadsheet to fill regularly for comics, and so for that reason, also, I found myself channeling the earliest comics. Also the old comics that I always loved were the love I turned to after Sept. 11 for succor. (Caldwell, 2004)
In the Shadow No Towers is published as an oversized 10” x 14.5” graphic novel printed on heavy cardboard that is reminiscent of a children’s picture book. The comics in the book are oriented sideways in portrait style to take up the full width and length of both pages. Spiegelman consciously chose this format as homage to broadsheet newspapers published by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer 100 years earlier, at the turn of the 20th century.
Spiegelman also chose to divide the book into two sections, with his 10-page account of September 11th representing Tower One and the accompanying “Comic Supplement” representing Tower Two (Chute, 2007). The two parts are linked by their oversized format as well as by the inclusion of classic newspaper comic strip characters into the narrative. To underscore this relationship, the cover of the book features full colour renderings of classic comic strip characters such as Mutt & Jeff, Jiggs, the Yellow Kid and others suspended mid-fall inside a small rectangular panel in the middle of the cover. Behind this panel, Spiegelman uses a monopigment of black: one flat and the other gloss. The glossy black is used to silhouette the shape of the Twin Towers against a stark flat black background. Writer Yves Davo draws comparisons between the cover of In the Shadow of No Towers and the work of preeminent 20th century painter Pierre Soulages, whose work mediates the relationship between the canvas and the viewer by focusing on the space in between: the light that actually reflects off the black (Davo, 2011). The juxtaposition of the colourful panel against the shrouded Twin Towers makes a powerful statement about Spiegelman’s view towards comics and their ability to bring vibrancy and light, even in his darkest hour. Comforting reassurances can be garnered when we see that one of the characters, the Yellow Kid, has, in pratfall fashion, landed on his keister unharmed, as if Spiegelman is saying despite their ephemerality, these old cartoons endure.
In the Shadow of No Towers is designed in a format reminiscent of the “Sunday Funnies” comic section of a broadsheet newspaper, with each page featuring four or five distinct “comic strips” drawn in different styles, and with each comic strip depicting a different take on the impact and implications of September 11th. One of these comic strips appears as a serialized story already in progress, and begins on Page 1 with a narrative text box “Synopsis: in our last episode as you might remember, the world ended…” (p. 1). This comic strip is Spiegelman’s autobiographical narrative of his 9/11 experiences that he describes as “a slow motion diary of the end of the world” (Chute, 2007, p. 230) and is easily recognizable as such because almost every page includes at least one panel which depicts the same repeated image – one that Spiegelman was eyewitness to and haunted by for years - the glowing bones of the north tower just before it vaporized.
Using the medium of comics as the vehicle for telling multiple stories allowed Spiegelman to sort out his experiences and document his “fragmentary thoughts” (Spiegelman, 2004, np) without the burden of committing to a long-form narrative, leading him to comment “it’s inevitable that (No Towers) is a contemplation of comics as a metaphor for September 11” (Chute, 2007, p. 237). One example is Spiegelman’s use of the Katzenjammer Kids as the terrorized (and terrorizing) Tower Twin characters who metaphorically represent the doomed World Trade Centre (Chute, 2007).
With their multiplicity of tools, such as speech balloons, panel layouts, metaphoric characters, text boxes, style, genres, colour, timing, and more, comix present themselves as a formidable voice for recounting trauma and history. Comics Scholar R.C. Harvey wrote that speech balloons give the comics their life (Harvey, 1996). I disagree with this, as it is the pictures that give the cartoon characters life. To designate the speech balloon as the giver of life only condemns to obscurity centuries of silent pantomime comics such as Henry, Little Lulu, Lynd Ward’s book God’s Man and Sean Tan’s graphic novel The Arrival, amongst many other examples. Although the speech balloon can enhance a character/author’s voice in comix, there can still be life without words. Harvey is correct when he later writes that laying-out the story into illustrated sequential boxes or panels creates a “narrative breakdown which is to comics what time is to life” (Harvey 1996, p. 108) echoing Spiegelman’s 1977 theory in his book Breakdowns that “comics are time, time turned into space!”
This handling of time relates to one of Spiegelman's major working themes: the intertwining of temporalities and history (Chute, 2007). In Maus, Spiegelman shifts from present to past and back again while consistently maintaining a distinct delineation between the two time periods, whereas in In the Shadow of No Towers, Spiegelman blurs the lines by invoking historic cartoon characters from old newspaper comics and by utilizing old-fashioned drawing and text approaches to populate present-day scenes in his narrative.
There is a difference between newspaper comic-strips and comic books. Although both were created within the 16-acre radius in Manhattan known as Ground Zero, the comic book evolved a full 40 years (Dorrell, Curtis & Rampal, 1995) after the comic strip’s appearance in American newspapers in the early 1890’s (Walker, 2004). Unlike comic books, the daily newspaper comic-strip and its accompanying Sunday color supplement (known as “the Funnies”) endured mainstream success throughout most of the 20th century, and have only lost momentum over the last two decades, after the news industry began to abandon print all together in favour of migrating content into digital-only platforms. On the other hand, comic books enjoyed a brief Golden Age from 1938 to 1954, peaking at a 90% readership rate, but were severely impacted by the falsified data of child psychologist and anti-comic book crusader, Dr. Fredric Wertham, who wrongly blamed comics for contributing to juvenile delinquency (Dorrell et al, 1995; Tilley, 2012), despite studies indicating the comic book’s potentials in education (Sones, 1944; Zorbaugh, 1944; Frank, 1949; Makey, 1952). By 1954 book-burnings, congressional hearings, and severe censorship by the newly-established Comics Code Authority forced publishers out of business, artists out of work, and comics out of schools.
Spiegelman explains in the introduction to his book, Breakdowns, that as a child growing up in the 1950s, “everything I know I learned from comic books”. Later in the book he recalls a time in 1960, he was around the age of 11 or 12 years old, when his father unwittingly came home from work with a stack of old pre-Code comics. His father had no idea that those books, featuring lurid tales of crime and horror, were the very ones that spelled the end of the comics as an art form in North America only 6 years earlier. Spiegelman says those books made him fall “head over heels into a dangerous adult world of violent, sexually charged images!” Before this revelation, he had only been exposed to the “relatively insipid, good always wins and very nice” comics that were available during the post-Comics Code Authority era (aka the Silver Age). This is a key moment in Spiegelman’s artistic development and he spent the ensuing years using the medium of the comic book to avoid telling “relatively insipid” stories and instead pushed the boundaries of comix as a mode of self-expression. A valiant effort that has proven to be a true struggle in North America due to the medium’s continued vilification as an art form.
Compared with comic books, the newspaper comic strip elicited little controversy, except the occasional disgruntled churchgoer writing the editor to complain about the vulgar and illiterate color comics published on Sundays, sullying the Lord's Day. Like the comic books four decades after them, the colour Sunday Funnies created a huge sensation and newspapers saw their circulations more than quadruple in some instances when colour comics were introduced as weekly inserts (Walker, 2004). Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst were the “twin titans of modern journalism who gave birth to the newspaper comic strip as a byproduct of their fierce circulation war” (Spiegelman, 2004, np). The ephemerality of these late 19th century comic strips are what drew Spiegelman to them following the events of 9/11. He saw the parallels between their fragility and the momentary nature of buildings, democracy, his work, and human life. In his “Comics Supplement” essay that prefaces the 7 plates of newspaper cartoon reprints Spiegelman writes “(b)ut it was Krazy Kat that hit me hardest… It presented an open-ended metaphor that could contain all stories simultaneously; and after September 11, Ignatz (the cartoon mouse from Krazy Kat) started looking a lot like Osama Bin Laden to me!” (Spiegelman, 2004, np)
The Next Floor: Metaphor
The medium of the comic book and graphic novel is fundamentally structured on metaphor, beginning with the layout. The comic book structure of telling a story by sequencing panels one after the other on a page could be interpreted metaphorically as PANEL IS TIME, but that is not entirely true because each panel portrays a frozen moment in time and not time actually passing. Since the panel freezes time, it is the space (or gutter) in between the panels that defines the timing. Therefore GUTTER IS TIME is the appropriate visual metaphor for one of the basic structural concepts in comics. In mapping we see “gutter” as the source and “time” as the target. Time is an abstract that requires a concrete image for conceptualizing. In comix, the gutter is understood as the space between the panels on the page. Artist Scott McCloud writes in his book Understanding Comics that transition of time in the gutter between one panel to the next can be broken down into six categories (Fig. 1):
Figure 1. Artist Scott McCloud’s illustration of the 6 transitions of time in comics.
It follows then that the boxes which contain the composition of words and pictures are to be read as the visual metaphor "PANEL IS MOMENT-IN-TIME" and within the panels of In the Shadow of No Towers, Spiegelman crafts visual metaphors of himself on the page in much the same way actors create metaphors for the characters they perform on the stage (Lea, Belliveau, Wager & Beck, 2011). Once again, this self-created avatar functions as another mask of identity for the ever-conflicted Spiegelman.
In one instance, Spiegelman mediates his trauma metaphorically on page 9 in a sequence entitled Weapons of Mass Displacement (Fig. 2). In between each panel are instances of moment-to-moment transitions in time but the panels feature a constantly metamorphosing Spiegelman. His panel-to-panel shape-shifting from Art to lampshade, to cat, to giant hand, to shoe, to mouse is a creative visual metaphor for his post 9/11 mixed-up identity, traumatized being and confused state-of-mind. The self-portrait metaphor that lives in the space/time continuum laid out on the page is also subject to the metaphoric signs, signifiers and semiotic codes (Jones & Woglom, 2013; Sousanis, 2013; Thomas, 2012; McCloud, 1993) that visually describe abstract concepts such as emotions or the 5 senses. For instance, sweat popping off a character’s head signifies fear; physical injury or pain suffered by the character is illustrated as stars (as when we say “I saw stars” if describing the immediate aftermath of a blow to the head); and an aroma is depicted as wavy lines emanating from an object (such as a freshly baked pie). Add metaphoric flies to the wavy lines and the aroma turns into a bad smell.
Figure 2. Spiegelman’s traumatized, chaotic and confused state of mind is portrayed metaphorically as a continuous shift in surrealistic character designs.
Spiegelman stated that part one of In the Shadow of No Towers represents Tower One of the World Trade Center and part two represents Tower Two. On the surface, this metaphor does not seem overly significant, until it is taken into context with Spiegelman's earlier work, a one-page comic strip created in 1977 and reprinted in Breakdowns where he declares
My dictionary defines COMIC STRIP as “a narrative series of cartoons. A NARRATIVE is defined as “a story.” Most definitions of STORY leave me cold. Except the one that says: “A complete horizontal division of a building… (from Medieval Latin HISTORIA… A row of windows with pictures on them.)
The metaphor COMICS ARE BUILDINGS is one that Spiegelman revisits and puts into practice nearly 30 years later when he writes “comics pages are architectural structures – the narrative rows of panels are like stories of a building –“ (Spiegelman, 2004, np). The title In The Shadow of No Towers refers, then, not only to the oxymoronic feeling of the Towers’ ephemeral presence through their absence [captured through Spiegelman’s use of “Soulagienne” black on black pigmentation (Davo, 2011)] but also the ephemerality of comics. This last point is emphasized on the cover with the inclusion of that small strip of color depicting classic comic characters frozen in mid-fall and surrounded by metaphoric stars indicating their pain at having been kicked up into the air by a bearded and apparently jihadist goat.
The motif of people falling is one that Spiegelman has returned to consistently throughout his career. In his pioneering autobiographical comic work 1972's Prisoner on the Hell Planet, Spiegelman draws himself climbing up out of the dark depths of a subway station wearing a metaphoric representation of a prisoner’s uniform (he uses a similar design years later in Maus) and the text box explains that he has just been released from the State Mental Hospital. His ascent from the subway can be interpreted as his attempt to climb back up after suffering a fall, in this case a mental breakdown.
Figure 3. Comic book covers by Art Spiegelman. From left to right: Raw #1 (1980),
Read Yourself Raw (1987) and Breakdowns (2008).
Another example of the people falling motif is the 1980 cover of Raw number one (Fig. 3), in which Spiegelman depicts a man sitting comfortably in his chair reading, while outside his window another man is falling between toppling buildings, an eerily prescient depiction of the events Spiegelman was to witness himself 21 years later. He returns to this idea again in 1987 for the cover of Read Yourself Raw (Fig. 3) this time depicting a man, a woman and the central figure from Edvard Munch’s The Scream in mid-fall amongst toppling skyscrapers and looking beyond the fourth wall to speak directly to the reader. For the 2008 reprint of his book Breakdowns Spiegelman designed a new cover featuring a solitary figure frozen in mid-fall (Fig. 3). The figure is effectively slipping on a copy of the book’s original 1977 cover design. However, this character’s fall is different from the earlier ones mentioned, as it is more slapstick in nature and is referencing a common trope in comics, where a character will fly off-panel at the conclusion of a joke in order to indicate to the reader, metaphorically, that the character is “knocked or bowled-over” by an understanding. The image of the man slipping is repeated inside Breakdowns as a metaphor for the 11-year-old Spiegelman’s introduction to lurid comics and the potentials in the sexually charged world of adults. In No Towers, Spiegelman again uses the image of slipping/falling for one of his more comedic strips (Fig. 4).
Figure 4. Excerpt from page 9 of In the Shadow of No Towers.
Perhaps the most significant metaphor in No Towers is the one that Spiegelman directly references on page 1: “Revealed: 19th century source for 21st century’s dominant metaphor”. Beneath this caption is a mostly pantomimed portrayal of an early 20th century vaudeville gag (Figure 5). The metaphor “waiting for the other shoe to drop” can be traced back to the late 19th century when the thin walls and close living quarters of New York City’s tenement apartments created annoying disturbances amongst neighbors. The story goes like this: a drunk returns home late one night to his top floor tenement room. He kicks off one shoe, which lands with a “thud” on the floor. The inebriate reacts in shock, then quietly removes his other shoe and promptly falls asleep. Soon though, curses fill the air and wake the sleeping drunk. His downstairs neighbors are unable to get to sleep because they are waiting for that other shoe to drop!
Over the course of the 20th century, this real-life common occurrence morphed from a classic vaudevillian gag to a 21st century metaphor where the disturbance of one shoe falling is mapped to a calamity (in this instance the events of the morning of September 11th) and the time spent afterwards anticipating an equal (or even more disturbing) second shoe to drop is mapped to the traumatized state-of-mind that disaster induces (Spiegelman references invasions, bombings, and terror alerts amongst others). As such, TRAUMA IS TEMPORALITY invokes the liminal space of the gutters located between Spiegelman’s frenzied panels in the medium of comix, just as time links tragedy through history. The panels freeze events into metaphoric representations and the gutters are the time in-between these moments where panels and gutters represent narrative breakdowns of time into space. Despite Spiegelman’s somewhat facetious assertion to the contrary in Breakdowns, he is using the medium of comics as art therapy and every panel in In the Shadow of No Towers is a metaphoric representation of the trauma he suffered and his attempts to mediate and come to terms with what he experienced.
Figure 5. Excerpt from page 1 of In the Shadow of No Towers.
The artist is transmitting his trauma through the medium of comix as a means of healing his fractured identity and to come to an understanding of who he is (as a traumatized being) by documenting his story (temporality/time). Spiegelman’s healing process/practice/praxis involves handling materials in the world such as paper, pencils, ink, paint, computers etc. as a means to come to an understanding. Heidegger names this understanding “circumspection” (Barrett & Bolt, 2010) and it is this “tacit knowledge” (Springgay, Irwin, Leggo & Gouzouasis, 2008) that helps to develop an awareness of Being in the artist as he/she practices their art. Spiegelman’s awareness of his Being and Time (Heidegger, 1996) is that he is traumatized and this is a condition inherent to most people in history past, present and future. In other words the process helps Spiegelman to process. As such, TRAUMA IS TEMPORALTY.
The up/down, side-to-side, upside-down and sometimes chaotic layout of the panels on the pages creates ruptures in the timing and represents Spiegelman’s fractured and fragmented identity as caused by experience and memory of trauma. This trauma appears to transcend history and affect successive generations of the Spiegelman family as the artist finds himself, just as his father did before him in Maus, “on that fault line where World History and Personal History collide…” (Spiegelman, 2004, np).
TRAUMA IS TEMPORALITY can also be mapped to the metaphoric phrase “The New Normal” which first appeared in relation to the events of 9/11 one month later in a Christian Science Monitor article that pointed to a noticeable increase in patriotism across America underscored by an unknown fear (Grier, 2001). The “New” in “The New Normal” is a source mapped to time/temporality and “Normal” targets trauma. Spiegelman confirms this metaphor visually in the three-panel comic strip on page 1 entitled The New Normal (Fig. 6).
Figure 6. Excerpt from page 1 of In the Shadow of No Towers.
Panel one depicts a cat, a mother, father and daughter dozing on the couch in front of the television - the calendar behind the couch identifies the day as September 10. In the second panel the calendar reads September 11. The gutter has created a 24-hour time period in the reader’s understanding. This second panel is almost identical to the first, except everyone is wide-awake and reacting up in horror to some traumatic televised event (the TV screen is hidden from the reader; however given the calendar date it is reasonable to conclude they are watching one of the many shocking graphic images that were broadcast on 9/11). The third panel is similar to the first except now everyone is traumatized (metaphorically signified by everyone’s hair standing-on-end) and the calendar has been replaced with an American flag. This implied patriotism is the “new” consciousness/temporality and “normal” now is to be traumatized and anticipating the next calamity.
The Walls Come Tumbling Down
In the Shadow of No Towers is a metaphoric narrative of trauma in which Spiegelman, having survived the events of 9/11, mediates his memory of trauma in an equally traumatized world through comix, collage, chaotic layouts and frequent style changes. The unsettling layouts and jarring style shifts are all metaphors for the fragmented identity that resulted from his reaction to, what he believed to be, an end of the world event.
Spiegelman determines that the metaphor “waiting for that other shoe to drop” is a fitting adage for the 21st century, which so far has included terrorist attacks, invasions, war, disease, famine, terror alerts, increased security, restrictions on liberties, torture, decapitations, austerity, economic collapse - the list of atrocities committed, disasters imposed and traumas created goes on. This apprehensive waiting for that other shoe to drop metaphorically describes America’s post 9/11 Being and is mapped as TRAUMA IS TEMPORALITY, for history (or his story) is a never-ending hermeneutic circle of war, invasion, disease and disasters. Soon after the attacks of 9/11, the media jumped on the expression “the New Normal”, using it as a metaphor to label the paradigm shift occurring across America: a surge in patriotism and enduring fear that even now, 14 years later, remains at the centre of public discourse, because the same terrorist threats are apparently still looming.
If the 21st century’s dominant metaphor is “waiting for that other shoe to drop” then it was brought to figurative and explanative focus in December, 2008, when Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zaidi threw his shoe at US President George W. Bush during a press conference in Baghdad (Fig. 7). Captured on video, President Bush ducks down as the shoe narrowly misses its target. Yet Bush didn’t freeze in fear or remain cowering – he stood back up smirking and stared in the direction from whence the footwear came. Was he waiting for that other shoe to drop? “This is the farewell kiss you dog… This is from the widows, the orphans and those killed in Iraq. You are responsible for the deaths of thousands of Iraqis,” (Setfree, 2008) al-Zaidi yells as he removes his other shoe and hurls it at the President, missing him a second time before he is finally wrestled to the ground, imprisoned, tortured and, we can assume, traumatized.
Figure 7. Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zaidi throws his shoe
at Pres. George W. Bush.
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