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By Carlo Wolff

In the Shadow of No Towers
By Art Spiegelman
Pantheon, 42 pages, $19.95

The power and heft of Art Spiegelman’s first graphic novel in 12 years transcend and upend the literary. An artifact, a slab, a monument, In the Shadow of No Towers is no mere book. Unpaginated, ungainly and heavy, it seems to demand its own space, and a coffee table wouldn’t seem right for a statement so thick and unsettling. This is a cry that would outshout chaos, an attempt to contextualize an event that seems to defy history. In melding humor and anger, Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers wields merciless magic.

Unlike a work that’s all text, you can “get through” this quickly. Absorbing it takes more time. It’s Spiegelman’s attempt to keep the memory of the World Trade Center from frying his brain. Patiently created, with great emotional trepidation, this signals Spiegelman’s fresh commitment to a world he’s just beginning to trust again. Now that there’s a presidential election, he suggests, free speech is at least temporarily back in vogue.

Approach this as you would the Trade Center if it still stood. Like a building, In the Shadow has a front door: The glossy black outlines of the two towers terrorists destroyed on Sept. 11, 2001, dominate this somber, fitful creation, as they did the darker, more subtly textured and more disturbing cover (Spiegelman calls it an “afterimage”) he produced for The New Yorker the week of the attacks on lower Manhattan and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

Once you get inside this dark cartoon structure, 14 inches tall, 10 inches wide and an inch thick, the world disorients, reflecting the effect of the attacks. After two pages in which Spiegelman explains his art and his history since his two Maus books won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, In the Shadow goes lateral. This smooth, bulky thing, its backside populated by high-contrast silhouettes of ancient cartoon figures such as Olive Oyl, Dopey, Ignatz, L’il Abner and Mr. O’Malley, turns on its side, expanding from text to densely populated, stylistically diverse broadsheet-sized panels, some of which took Spiegelman five weeks to produce.

All that tempers these busy, diverse panels, which aim to evoke the immediacy and evanescence of old New York funny papers, is time—as yet too raw to add up to history—and comics. The latter surface in the form of cartoon references. Time fills the frames in Spiegelman’s explicit connections between 9/11 and “the Giuliani years, when the homeless all magically ‘disappeared’ ” and this week’s GOP gathering (“And September ’04? Cowboy boots drop on Ground Zero as New York is transformed into a stage set for the Republican Presidential Convention, and Tragedy is transformed into Travesty . . .”).

In the Shadow depicts a world turned every which way and loose. There may be some “ands” here; as for “buts,” definitely not. It’s 9/11 all over again, sky falling and all. Plate 1 stylizes Dan Rather, humanizes the stunned Spiegelman, ennobles the city’s terrified populace and casts the two towers in an eerie, radiated orange, as if they’re still burning. Plate 2 suggests irony isn’t dead, in a panel billboarding an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie against a soot-filled sky. In that same plate, at right center top, Spiegelman and wife Françoise Mouly seem all antennae, hearing the crash of the first plane as a red “Roarrrrrrrr!!” The planes in the picture and in our recollection of that day’s world collapse simultaneously, freezing the Spiegelmans (she’s The New Yorker’s art director) in the frame. As in an Egyptian frieze, background and foreground merge, the humans in the plate paralyzed by the dread of the moment.

Spiegelman realizes his daughter Nadja is at school at the foot of the towers and he must rescue her. He and Mouly rush through town to reach Nadja; in temporarily overcoming his nicotine habit, Spiegelman turns into the mouse from the Maus books, a Jew who mentally twins the smell of that day’s Manhattan soot with the smoke of Auschwitz gas chambers. These ghastly aromas lead Spiegelman/Maus to figure that if cigarettes won’t kill him, the nation’s poor air quality will. All of which gives his paranoia credence.

In the Shadow is about overcoming paranoia, about coming to terms with a world in which news happens so quickly it’s instantly commercialized. The world Spiegelman deplores, loves and so vividly depicts is one in which rhetoric trumps passion, terrorist attacks become ads for war recruitment, and Spiegelman finds himself living in the “state of alienation,” a country he says cries out for a third party, but not the “Ostrich Party” of the R. Crumb-like Panel 5 centerpiece.

In the Shadow of No Towers treats Washington, D.C., as a separate nation, and is being published mere days ahead of the third anniversary of 9/11. It’s a New York scold of the current administration. It’s also a profound act of engagement: Spiegelman quit creating comics for much of the ’90s, and at the turn of the century was even disenchanted with The New Yorker, which he viewed as too complacent. In the Shadow puts him back in the polemics game.

In the Shadow of No Towers is Spiegelman’s attempt to stand firm against a world that continues to collapse around him. Small but eloquent comfort, it’s original, provocative and populist Art.

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