In the days and months following Sept. 11, Art Spiegelman began thinking the unthinkable.
A 56-year-old graphic novelist who had won the Pulitzer Prize for his groundbreaking Holocaust work "Maus," Spiegelman lived in SoHo, just blocks from the World Trade Center, and had seen both buildings collapse. He and his wife had frantically run around town making sure their children were safe at their respective schools. And like millions of Americans, he had obsessively followed the news about the disaster and the ensuing invasion of Afghanistan.
Yet what Spiegelman took from these events seemed out of sync with most of the American public. He felt just as terrorized by the policies of the Bush administration as he did by Al Qaeda. And he suggested that, apart from the human toll, the destruction of the twin towers -- thought by many to be two of the city's ugliest buildings -- was a form of "radical architectural criticism."
Spiegelman wanted to put these and other thoughts down on paper, to translate them into his unique visual language. But despite his reputation and contacts, no one wanted to publish his musings.
"What I was finding was the things I needed to be drawing about were not suitable for prime time in America," he says. "I then realized the tone and specifics of what I was saying were comfortably received in Europe, where I was thought of as a thinner, slightly more confused and complicated version of Michael Moore."
Spiegelman is referring to the comic panels that make up his new book, "In the Shadow of No Towers." Originally published as a series of 10 monthly pages in the German newspaper Die Zeit, beginning in August 2002, the work is a colorful, controversial and highly subjective look at an event that changed the world. Using bold colors and an oversized format -- "No Towers" is slightly smaller than a broadsheet newspaper page -- Spiegelman's book is also disjointed in tone.
It's not only a personal response to Sept. 11 but an homage to the classic comic strips of the early 20th century. The book riffs on everything from "The Katzenjammer Kids" to "Krazy Kat," using these hoary comics in a modern context. When Spiegelman wants to portray an argument with his wife over his obsessive news consumption after the attacks, for example, he draws it as a fight between Maggie and Jiggs of the old "Bringing Up Father" comic. And the last half of the book is a series of full-page reproductions of such early comics pages as "Little Nemo in Slumberland" (1907) and "The Kin-der-Kids" (1906).
"In the Shadow of No Towers" is nothing if not idiosyncratic.
"The phrase I find useful is multi-phrenic," rather than schizophrenic, says Spiegelman in describing the book. "The fact that it's time to take a shattered brain, a shattered city and shattered government and make a new mosaic out of the pieces that survived the blast is something I haven't seen other people trying to flirt with. There are works that are more linear and more documentary, but trying to document a subjective response is a difficult thing to do. And that's what I think this is, a document of a subjective response."
Spiegelman says this while seated at a table in his fifth floor SoHo studio, drinking coffee and smoking one of the 40 or so Camel Lights he will consume during the day. Of average size and with thinning hair, Spiegelman is an amiable, self-effacing guy. He looks constantly frazzled even when at repose and is a fast talker who speaks in dense, philosophical prose that doesn't come off as pretentious as it might sound. He's simply someone whose mind works at hyper-speed, making leaps from the cultural to the political with astonishing, and mind-boggling, ease.
So it comes as no surprise that Spiegelman's studio space is filled from top to bottom with a jumble of cultural artifacts both high and low: books and CDs, nostalgic tchotchkes like an Alfred E. Neuman doll and framed original panels from "Dick Tracy," "Terry and the Pirates" and other historic comic strips. In the center of the room is a large computer that Spiegelman uses for much of his work -- he does most of his initial sketches on it and uses a page layout program to help him format his stories.
The son of Holocaust survivors, Spiegelman was born in Sweden, grew up in Queens and, like millions of Americans, became hooked on comics at an early age. Heavily influenced by the anarchic nature of "Krazy Kat," what he refers to as the "post-modernism" of Mad magazine and the hippy-dippy vibe of R. Crumb's "Zap Comix," Spiegelman began his career working as an artist for the Topps bubble gum company, where he created Wacky Packs and the Garbage Pail Kids.
In 1986 he achieved critical acclaim and international fame with the publication of "Maus," the compelling tale of his father's Holocaust experience, which was drawn in a breakthrough style featuring cats subbing as Nazis, with mice as their Jewish prey. Since then, he's worked regularly for the New Yorker (at the time of this interview, he was covering the Republican convention for the magazine), exhibited at numerous museums and, with wife Francois Mouly, created Raw magazine, a trend-setting showcase for adult comic talent.
Respect, major commissions, prizes and fame. It's a long way from the days when Spiegelman was practically embarrassed to tell people what it is he did. "Like I'd get on an airplane and they'd ask for my occupation on the form they ask you to fill out, and I'd say 'publisher' or 'graphic artist,' " he says, "because cartoonist was blue collar. Also, you'd get into weird conversations where people would be amused, it's as if you'd said 'sword swallower.' And that's now changed."
What changed was critical respect for works like "Maus" and other graphic novels, a term Spiegelman refers to as "a marketing concept," nothing else. "Now comic books, if they're called graphic novels, won't seem like they're stupid and for kids," he says. "What is relatively recent is the 200-page comic book, which was born for me when I did 'Maus,' not because I wanted to make the world a better place, but because I had this vision of a comic book that needed a bookmark. I wanted something that you couldn't read as a quick read."
He's being a tad ironic here. Graphic novels have covered subject matter ranging from teenage alienation ("Ghost World") to living in Iran under the ayatollahs ("Persepolis"), and Spiegelman is the first to acknowledge that the comic form can do some things better than other media ever will. "Because it's made of words and pictures," he says, the art form "is plugging into two sides of your brain and it's the only medium that can do that while standing still. That means you have the luxury of appreciation and analysis; it offers a chance for reflection."
That, in essence, is what "No Towers" is about -- a chance to reflect on Sept. 11 from two very personal, but alternate, perspectives. The first part is, says Spiegelman, essentially "condensed diary entries" that reflect the fact that he is "furious at [the Bush administration for] the hijacking of the hijacking that reduced a cataclysm to a war poster."
The second part, the old comics pages, is something else entirely. It shows Spiegelman's love for his art form and his astonishment at the ways in which transient culture can actually survive and take on deeper meaning. The old comics, he says, "were made to be read -- and one moves on. The fact that some of these things were made to be read and then tossed aside has a kind of amazing ability to resonate decades and centuries later. It's part of what gave me solace after Sept. 11. There's this thing called culture. It's what remains after civilization has turned to sand."
This talk of grand themes -- civilization, culture -- is central to Spiegelman's work and his response to the twin towers tragedy. Three years later, he believes America has become a more fearful place, "shaped by the vision of the towers as a kind of Armageddon harbinger. If I had done an 11th page of the 'No Towers' plates, the 11th would have to be the War Between Heaven and Heck, the battle between the secular and religious, because what it really comes down to is that's the fault line that was exposed by the earthquake of Sept. 11th.
"Those nuts who ran those planes into the towers were informed by visions of dancing girls in a milk and honey paradise. And the Ashcroft response is informed by a feeling that we're living in the last days as predicted by the Book of Revelations."
This from a man who says "I don't know any Republicans," and is covering the convention because "this was a good chance to see what they look like." More than that, however, "No Towers" ultimately seems to be a plea to the world west of the Hudson River, an America that Spiegelman believes still doesn't understand what Sept. 11 was all about.
"It was one more special effects movie that was shown on all the networks simultaneously," he says.
"On the other hand, everyone knows something's up. We've gotten that far."