Spiegelmans 9/11 book achieves epic heights

It’s almost 15 inches tall and pitch black. On the back cover, silhouettes of classic funny-pages characters tumble down. Their descent is unending — they keep falling off the bottom of the cover. If you stand it up on end and knock it over, the book hits the ground with a “THWACK!” that sounds louder than a book should.

But “In The Shadow of No Towers” by Art Spiegelman is the first work of art that addresses the tragedy of 9/11 with a technique that gets at the uniqueness of the catastrophe.

How does the author — who spoke Monday, Oct. 4, at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco — achieve this lofty feat? By tackling the situation from many different angles at once. “No Towers” is laid out like a newspaper — you have to turn it on its side to read the comics, which comprise the bulk of the text.

It contains two sections: Spiegelman’s autobiographical, political comics that comprise his personal reaction to the trauma, and a supplement of early 20th-century comics that relate in uncanny ways to the disaster that occurred 100 years after their publication.

But a brief description can do this work no justice. You have to hold it and flip through the pages to really get it.

It’s no wonder that a Jew is responsible for this articulation of the Twin Towers devastation. As the son of someone who lived through hell, Spiegelman earned his fame from his ability to express the tale of a survivor, as well as his own tale of survival.

“Maus” is about more than Spiegelman’s father. It also conveys the awkwardness of growing up with a legacy of horror in a relatively normal world. This added level of talking about the Shoah experience is what makes “Maus” one of the most affecting works in Holocaust literature.

Spiegelman’s parents taught him “to always keep his bags packed.” The author’s neurosis and paranoia meet their match in the real world as the collapse of the towers turns the Spiegelman’s Lower Manhattan neighborhood into an apocalyptic scenario. The surrounding streets are coated in toxic ash, while the fate of his two children, in school near the World Trade Center complex, is initially unknown.

The scope of 9/11 draws the author out of a self-admitted post-“Maus” complacency, forcing him to rise to the task of expressing multiple, complex emotions.

The result is an absolutely original blend of genres and media. It’s impossible to simply describe the book — it contains two essays that are simultaneously semi-autobiographical, political and scholarly. And devastatingly funny and moving.

It contains huge productions of Spiegelman’s digitally and hand-rendered comics that suggest everything from 19th century cartoons, “Maus,” 1950s kitsch, R. Crumb’s deviant graphics to computer-drawn paintings that are almost futuristic.

The last section is the spookiest. It is a simple set of reproductions of 100-year-old funnies from the old Hearst papers that all relate to the events of 9/11. The more time you spend with these unaltered reprints of “The Yellow Kid,” “Old Happy Hooligan” and “Little Nemo in Slumberland,” the more you see the ghosts of American history passing through 9/11.

These ghosts are those qualities of history that are hard to name — a gut feeling, the sense of watching the footage of the plane going into the tower over and over again, the relentless media coverage, the sense of wounded New York pride — that make 9/11 still hard to deal with, still a fresh wound. But somehow Spiegelman has found a way to start naming some of these, to put the almost unspeakable trauma into a perspective that allows his audience to begin to bring a small amount of past and future history into the heavily loaded 9/11 narrative.

The neurotic and fiercely lefty tone of “No Towers” will put off many. But it’s worth looking at anyway. Unlike the emotional monotone of “Fahrenheit 9/11,” there are so many flavors of emotion and different kinds of information in “No Towers” that a reader can use the book without buying into its political position.

A reader of any political stripe (with an open mind) can use this book — like another recent book by a Jewish American writer, Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America,” — as a lens, to begin to see through the cloud of recent events, to pick out bits of insight, to use the present as a tool for viewing American culture, past and future.

“In the Shadow of No Towers” by Art Spiegelman, (42 pages, Pantheon, $19.95).