9-11 Comics: Part One of Three
If the bombing of the Twin Towers in New York was good for nothing else, at least it got Art Spiegelman to return to creating comics full-time. So the creator of In the Shadow of No Towers (Pantheon, 2004) explains in the book’s introduction, entitled “The Sky is Falling!” This is an intensely personal glimpse into one man’s neurosis, fuelled by the author’s parents’ having survived Auschwitz, and now this—what was seemingly the end of the world. Spiegelman’s reaction to the event was to recoil into the past, poring through the innocent pages of a world now long passed by, that of early cartoon supplements. The cartoons of yesteryear selected for inclusion in In the Shadow of No Towers are a brief snapshot into the state of cartooning at the turn of the century—they are also, however, much more than this.
For me, In the Shadow of No Towers serves not best to entertain, nor to admonish, but to educate. In the span of two concise pages, Spiegelman explains the origins of the cartoon supplement, in so doing bringing home the central role of New York’s early newspaper publishing industry to the birth of comics. Spiegelman’s nostalgia for turn of the century America is seamlessly intertwined with the post 9-11 traumatic present.
At the beginning of the 1900s, the publishers Joseph Pulitzer (New York World) and William Randolph Hearst (New York Journal) were engrossed in a distribution war. Pulitzer’s aim was to outsell his rival by bringing fine art reproductions to a wide readership. As it turned out, the first colour presses were not up to the task, but were well suited for less detail-oriented printing, such as cartoons.
Beginning with Richard Outcault’s Hogan’s Alley and Yellow Kid, using a series of full-page reproductions of early cartoon broadsheets to accompany his essay, Spiegelman tracks the development of the comic strip. Rudolph Dirks, originator of The Katzenjammer Kids, is attributed as one of the first artists to introduce “…many of the devices—speech balloons, sweatdrops, frantic motion lines—that became the basic lexicon of comics (11).
Other early cartoons featured in In the Shadow of No Towers include:
- Happy Hooligan by Frederick Burr Opper
- Kinder Kids by Lyonel Feninger
- Upside Downs of Littly Lady Lovekins and Old Man Muffaroo by Gustave Verbeck
- Little Nemo in Slumberland by Winsor McCay
- Bringing Up Father by George McManus
- Krazy Kat by George Herriman
Spiegelman’s re-visitation of these early works brought me back to being crouched alone on my knees as a child on the carpeted floor of my grandparents’ living room, poring through Bill Blackbeard and Martin William’s The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics. In the Acknowledgments for In the Shadow of No Towers, Blackbeard and Peter Maresca are accredited with sharing their expertise and early comic collections.
Spiegelman not only honours these pioneers by writing about and reproducing them in his volume, but also through emulating the artists’ styles throughout his recapitulation of witnessing the bombing of the Twin Towers.
Spiegelman’s talent as an illustrator shines in In the Shadow of No Towers. The variety of styles he brings to every page makes each a unique pleasure to view. The layout of the book is equally stimulating; there is a dynamic flow to each page, sometimes with multiple layers contributing to a seemingly 3D effect. One of the most brilliant examples of this occurs on page ten, where two narratives unfold inside parallel rectangular frames—zooming out, we realize that the towers are being depicted, with an airplane flying between them.
Spiegelman states, “Comics pages are architectural structures—the narrative rows of panels are like stories of a building…” (12).” I recall hearing the author speak at McGill University in 1999, at which time he drew a relationship between the word “history,” whose roots are said to be derived from the Greek historia, referring to “finding out,” or “narrative.” The word “story,” obviously related to narrative, can refer to the graphic depiction of events from history or a legend, for example in the form of stained glass windows in a cathedral. The word “storey” is also related to the root historia, since sometimes the floors of a building possessing these finely detailed narrative works were referred to as “storeys.” The parallel between comics and buildings runs even deeper, since thematically In the Shadow of No Towers directly engages just this subject.
I would only discover later that this topic is addressed in Spiegelman’s Breakdowns: From Maus to Now (Belier Press, 1977). The author mentions that the:
…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.'” (Comix 28).
Spiegelman Pays tribute to the Katzenjammer Kids (4, 5) in the Tower Twins, a satire in which Uncle Screwloose (sporting a star spangled banner top hat) pours oil on his nephews’ heads—whereupon they instantly catch on fire. While the now skeletal (but still living, in true cartoon form) heads of the twins discuss their uncle’s behaviour, he madly rushes about trying to kill hornets with a chemical spray. The insects consequently swarm in even greater numbers and attack the twins, who run away in a panic. Spiegelman adroitly captures not just the folly of Hanz and Fritz in the original Rudolf Dirks strips, but also the hysteria of post 9-11 America.
In the strip on page six, Spiegelman describes being verbally abused in Russian by a homeless woman on his walks to and from work. After 9-11, the woman screams at anti-Semitist remarks at him in English, to which Spiegelman finally responds, perhaps out of some misguided compassion, “DAMN IT LADY! IF YOU DON’T STOP BLAMING EVERYTHING ON THE JEWS, PEOPLE ARE GONNA THINK YOU’RE CRAZY!” On page seven, the author despairs the new Republican America. In the last panel found on both pages, Winsor McCay’s signature “…and then I woke up!” ending is reproduced in an exacting artistic likeness.
- On page eight, the styles used in Bringing Up Father and Krazy Kat are faithfully reproduced, and on page ten, Spiegelman assumes the form of Happy Hooligan, with a recapitulation of his failed interview for NBC.
- Most of the strips that Spiegelman selected date from over a hundred years ago. Upon initially viewing the strips, the reason for which they have been chosen may not be entirely obvious. Upon closer examination, however, we see that almost all of the cartoons can be closely linked to the the Twin Tower bombings:
- The Kin-der-Kids have left New York Harbour to travel abroad in a bathtub. The Statue of Liberty looms in the background, waving a white handkerchief. Up until 9-11, if the same cartoon were to be depicted more recently, the Twin Towers would also have graced the New York skyline.
- The Yellow Kid (as Spiegelman explains, a satirical commentary on the “Yellow Journalism” surrounding the sensationalist coverage of the Spanish-American War by the press) depicts a troupe of rag-tag youth arming themselves for battle. During Foxy Grandpa’s recitation of the Declaration of Independence to celebrate the Fourth of July, Hanz and Fritz are depicted exploding bleachers being used by the local citizenry to attend the event.
- Happy Hooligan is requested to parade on a camel disguised as the “Arab Chief,” who has fallen ill with the measles.
- A giant-sized Little Nemo scales the buildings of New York Harbour in the company of a “Jungle Imp,” only to be discovered by a giant Flip, who comes crashing through the downtown core, leaving destroyed buildings in his wake.
- Lastly, in Bringing up Father, the family visits Genoa, where Father experiences nightmares that the Leaning Tower of Pisa threatens to collapse.
Spiegelman attempts to seek refuge in the alluring nostalgia of the funnies, but the subtext is abundantly clear: there is no escape from the reality of 9-11. It is as though the author wishes to suggest that his subconscious has favoured these images over all others from which he could have chosen. However, the opposite is the case—these cartoons were selected by an all-too-conscious archivist to communicate a powerful allegory for the age.
Spiegelman’s essay on the early history of cartooning from In the Shadow of No Towers, The Comic Supplement.