Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Art Spiegelman is traumatized. His autobiographical account of the 9/11 attacks, 'In The Shadow Of No Towers,' is the work of a man still coming to grips with what happened. His first graphic novel since the Pulitzer-prize winning "Maus" in the 1980s, it's an uneven book with flashes of greatness. In 10 giant-format cartoon strips, Spiegelman retraces the events of 9/11, from his vantage point as a neurotic Manhattan cartoonist. "I tend to be easily unhinged," he writes in the introduction, as he recollects those panicky days -- he and his wife were horribly worried about the fate of their daughter, a student at a school near the towers. In the strips, Spiegelman morphs styles and vantage points, using old cartoon characters as stand-ins for himself, drawing and painting with a gorgeous versatility. But in the end it's kind of a formless rant and rage -- perhaps the only sane reaction to 9/11 there could be, I guess.

It's a work of profound fear and panic, and unrelenting rage at the Bush administration's actions since 9/11. (We see Bush portrayed as a dangerous cowboy, Cheney as a cackling gargoyle slashing an eagle's throat with a box-cutter.) The politics (at one point Spiegelman writes he feels "equally terrorized by al-Qaeda and by his own government") don't mix well with the more human, personal coverage of the disaster. I'm far more interested in the fear and horror of that day in September, and the shattered trauma Spiegelman feels. It seems like Spiegelman would've done better to focus more on the raw impact of 9/11 and less Bush-bashing, and I say this someone who's as far as you can get from a Bush fan.

One big caveat for me: The book is a gorgeous piece of work, oversized with pages as thick as cardboard, beautiful reproduction and color, and Spiegelman's work is technically fantastic. But man, this thing is absurdly overpriced, at $20.00 for what is basically 10 pages of comix and a few essays and extras (including several pages of vintage comic strips such as "Little Nemo" that, while magnificent, feel like off-topic padding here). I managed to borrow a library copy for which I'm grateful, because I would feel sorely ripped off paying $20 for this very thin package. At half the price, it'd be worth it. As it is, "Towers" feels more like sketches pointing toward a longer, more insightful work.

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