Sometimes Art Spiegelman has a little trouble figuring out who he is. Especially when he travels, he says, "it's really an identity crisis. You know that form you fill out when you get on an airplane going abroad? I've used every possible description--journalist, writer, graphic artist, whatever. Then, finally, and rather proudly, cartoonist. For a while, I was sort of embarrassed, because for much of my life, being a cartoonist had about as much status as being a plumber. Now one can say it with actual glee." Sitting in his downtown Manhattan studio, a Camel Light seemingly surgically attached to his right hand, Spiegelman makes an uncharacteristic pause, and then plunges on. "But I don't like being noticed. I like when the work is noticed. But not me. When I wrote down 'cartoonist,' I was stopped by a customs guard and asked, 'You make comics? Spiegelman? You make "Maus"?' All of a sudden I'm talking about my life with a customs guard. After that, I decided to go back to 'small businessman'."
Spiegelman's dilemma makes sense to anyone who knows his work. He is a graphic artist, and an illustrator, and a cartoonist, and a novelist and, yes, a small businessman. When the Pulitzer committee gave him a prize in 1992 for "Maus," his groundbreaking graphic novel about his family and the Holocaust in which Jews are mice and the Nazis are cats, they had to create a special prize just for him. There'd never been anything quite like "Maus" before. Now, with the imminent release of "In the Shadow of No Towers," his book about September 11, the problem starts all over. His first book-length work for adults since "Maus," it is otherwise utterly unlike the earlier book. Starting out as individual comics pages done for various newspapers, mostly in Europe, the strips comprise what he calls a "fragments-and-shards" diary of what it felt like to see the towers fall--Spiegelman lives only a few blocks from Ground Zero--of his mounting rage at the Bush administration and what he calls "the hijacking of America built on the hijacking of the planes." Mark Twain and Thomas Nast would recognize that old incendiary American cocktail of humor and rage. And order a double.
"In the Shadow" is the strangest book you'll pick up this year. It's a 32-page board book, like the ones babies teethe on--only bigger. The idea, Spiegelman says, was to get pages almost as big as the ones that held the Sunday funnies. Then he filled them with scenes from his own life cross-pollinated with comics characters--Happy Hooligan and Little Nemo, right alongside Osama bin Laden and George Bush. It's a crazy quilt of cartoons, real-life headlines, humor and horror. There go the Katzenjammer Kids wearing hats in the shape of burning towers. Here comes Spiegelman as Ignatz toting a brick (in the shape of a tower) to toss at Krazy Kat. You don't have to be a comics aficionado to see that Spiegelman has done a superb job of capturing the tragic absurdity of life in New York City on 9/11 and for months thereafter.
"In the wake of those towers' coming down, my neighbors were seeking comfort in the poetry of W. H. Auden," Spiegelman recalls, "but for me, none of this stuff was working. I couldn't even listen to music. The only culture I could take solace in was the many comics around this studio, the old daily strips from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Those old Sunday pages were made for reproduction, but they were also made to wrap fish. And that's part of their beauty, that a gesture is made so fully, for itself. That gave me goose bumps. It also gave me the cultural sustenance that other people got from other media."
Another pause, another cigarette. "We live in this world of things, of things like towers and governments and civilizations, and they're all incredibly fragile. Somehow that crumbling newsprint made that clear for me. It's about ephemera versus the apocalypse, about things that last and things that don't." The work of an almost neurotically solipsistic artist, "In the Shadow of No Towers" is also deeply funny, subversive, silly and profound. When Spiegelman says, "See you in the funny papers," he means all of us.