Navigating the Post-9/11 Mental Space Architecture and Expressionism in In the Shadow of No Towers by Aletta Verwoerd

18 Dec

On September 11, 2001, Art Spiegelman, son of Auschwitz survivors and renowned author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus (1992), found himself on a “ringside seat” to the attacks on the WTC (Spiegelman, 2004: p. 2). This was it; the moment his parents had anticipated when they taught him “to always keep [his] bags packed” (Spiegelman, 2004 [1]). Personal life and world history collided once again on Ground Zero and, after years of writing and illustrating for The New Yorker – though never combining the two disciplines – the cartoonist returned to the medium that he considers to be ultimately his own: comix.[2]

Spiegelman’s second opus In the Shadow of No Towers (2004) contains ten large-scale cardboard pages, each with an eclectic collection of images and frames: comic figures from the dawn of the twentieth century feature prominently in the autobiographical story that is further built on references to popular culture, including the author’s familiar ‘disguise’ as a mouse. Produced in the two years right after the attacks, the shape of the towers is frequently mirrored in both single panels and in page structures. All together, the book provides a nearly surreal report of life in lower Manhattan; the neighbourhood in which the absence of the Twin Towers was ultimately present. Further, in order to do justice to “oversized skyscrapers and outsized events” (Spiegelman, 2004) the templates are extraordinary in size; each of them designed to precisely fill a full newsprint page, in colour.

In this essay, I will discuss how Spiegelman takes comics out of their comfort zone through an exciting play with panels and scale and thereby creates a space for different levels of narrative to be voiced within a single template. In the Shadow of No Towers turns narrative into geography and challenges its readers to navigate through its different layers: both personal stories and (geo)political critiques; stories in which the reappearance of figures from a long-gone era of comics-making voices a strong sense of ephemerality which is, in turn, reflected in the apocalyptic sensibility of Spiegelman’s present persona (Versluys, 2006: p. 983). The abolishment of comics’ “grammar” of sequential art (Eisner, 1985: p. 2) and the absence of a clear reading route (Szczepaniak, 2010: p. 89) within a single template, reminds one of that other comics author that infiltrated mainstream publications with his extraordinary, challenging works, Chris Ware.[3] The close reading of In the Shadow of No Towers aims to support the argument that this particular book fits in a tradition of comics-making; a tradition that challenges classic definitions by theorists and cartoonists as, among others, Scott McCloud and Will Eisner. In other words, I aim to emphasize how Spiegelman’s work, like the works of Chris Ware,[4] explores the potential of the comics medium through a violation of its classic conventions.

Spiegelman’s approach to comics is an architectural one: each page is a totality (Spiegelman, 2011: p. 203) and each panel is a brick in its construction (Szczepaniak, 2010: p. 87). In an attempt to relive his memories of 9/11, Spiegelman utilizes the structure of a template to resonate with his scattered traumatic experiences: the towers are frequently rebuilt by piling up the panels and their form is mirrored in the shape of the frames. The result is a collection of diary fragments spread over ten templates that each displays a collage of narrative themes. As such, In the Shadow of No Towers challenges both Coulton Waugh’s characterization of comics – presumably one of the first attempts at defining the medium – and McCloud’s notion of closure. The former argued that comics first and foremost present their readers with a pictorial overview: “the special feature […] is that it jumps at the reader picture side first – you see the situation” (Waugh, 1947: p. 14. My emphasis). The latter introduced the concept of closure – the “phenomenon of observing the parts but perceiving the whole” (McCloud, 1994: p. 63) – as a key feature of the comics medium. Yet, the templates and panels of In the Shadow of No Towers are best characterized as parts of a decentralized network (Mikkonen, 2010: p. 80) in which linear sequences are replaced by architectural structures. Consequently, the lack of a clear – i.e. at one glance – pictorial coherence and the absence of closure shift the reader’s focus from the goal-oriented consumption of a narrative to the process of actively tracing the narrative themes (Szczepaniak, 2010: p. 91).

One of the narrative themes unfolds once the reader discovers the critical potential of the American flags that s/he encounters throughout In the Shadow of No Towers. Stars and stripes as sign of public spirit are recurring visual elements that criticize the agenda of the mainstream media: too quickly after the attacks, the act of mourning was turned into the insincere sense of patriotism (Jameson, 2002: p. 299). Initial tears and fears were rapidly covered by American flags and U.S. citizens were forced back into their passive daily routine that Spiegelman refers to as “the new normal” (Spiegelman, 2004: p. 2) Further, the televised form of the reports on 9/11 is ironically critiqued by highlighting the medium’s inability to represent scale in a book which narratives are ultimately told through a playful use of scale and space. The medium of comics enables Spiegelman to map out a personal alternative to the patriotic agenda of the mainstream media. Taking his own position as a starting point, space and time are reorganized into a mental zone (Spiegelman, 2011: p. 166) that does justice to the author’s individual memories of 9/11. Whereas television spectators cannot escape the “stream of underselected images, each of which cancels its predecessor” (Sontag, 1973: p. 18), the static imagery of comics allows for readers to contemplate the versatility of 9/11. The size of In the Shadow of No Towers thus ultimately lends itself not only to the juxtaposition of fragments of memory (Dony and Van Linthout, 2010: p. 181), but also to changes in scale to emphasize the importance of certain narrative themes in relation to other storylines that are told simultaneously.

The simultaneity of different storylines make for a book that communicates a mood rather than a clear-cut narrative; feelings, rather than actions. In the Shadow of No Towers reads like a poem or, more specifically, like a sonnet:

Movements from page to page in these events do not reveal one continuous narrative; rather, these strip collections recall sonnet sequences, in that each page is a single unit and the aggregate whole is more concerned with communicating mood and feeling than in presenting narrative.

(Kannenberg, 2001: p. 178).

To put it differently, imagination is not at the service of narrative action; it is turned into a subject matter, demanding a different approach to comics-making. Whereas Eisner stressed that “[i]n visual narration the task of the author/artist is to record a continued flow of experience and show it as it may be seen from the reader’s eyes” (Eisner, 1985: p. 40), Spiegelman considers the pleasure of literary fiction to derive from “entering into another’s brain and seeing the world through that set of eyes” (Spiegelman, 2011: p. 201). This expressionist ideal of the comic does not so much influence the content of the picture as it does determine the architecture of a template. Fantasy of mankind is rich and multilayered, but it also has its holes and detours (Spiegelman, 2011: p. 201); mapping out the versatility of the imagination hence requires an intellectual construction of panels, gutters and towers. Whereas gutters are commonly used to trigger the imagination of the reader, a requirement to meaningfully connect the different panels (McCloud, 1994: p. 66), Spiegelman has an extra visual strategy at his disposal: the towers. The merging of comic structures (panels and gutters) with architectural constructions (towers) enriches In the Shadow of No Towers with a level of abstraction that forces the reader to imagine what one did not actually witness: no visual information on the human action inside the towers is provided, but “experience tells you something must be there” (McCloud, 1994: p. 67. Emphasis in original). The large-scale pages of the book facilitate the frequent depiction of outsized towers as architectural constructions that ensure that the reader, just like the author, is now haunted by imagined memories s/he prefers not to keep (Zelizer, 2004: p. 159). The haunting quality, inherent to the depiction of the towers, is utilized by Spiegelman to enhance the mood of confusion and trauma he aspires to voice with his collection of templates.

The multidirectional nature of the reading experience is facilitated by the shape of the book; the newsprint pages allow for great architectural freedom in communicating a personal account of 9/11 through the shapes and juxtaposition of panels and the playful use of scale. The simultaneity of different layers of narrative culminate into the realization of Spiegelman’s ambition to communicate inner experiences rather than the whole of a narrative: “An artist’s limitations […] are actually an asset: you enter into a person’s brain and world, and every brain has its deformations and its limitations. That’s part of what it is to see through somebody else’s eyes” (Spiegelman, 2011: p. 201). In the Shadow of No Towers is thus not so much about the presentation of a narrative as it is about the communication of mood and feelings through an ingeniously constructed explorative space, that is the template.

To conclude, the works of Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware, and similar artists call for appropriate models for analysis and close reading through which to study their playful use of space in order for comics scholarship to grow in keeping with the alterations of the medium. Still scarce in both production and theorizing, the study of comics that play with simultaneity – of both levels of narrative and reading routes – within the boundaries of a single page can deliver great insights in the potential of the medium. This essay, then, is but a small peek into the future of comics-making and its scholarship.

Works cited

Dony, Christophe and Linthout, Caroline van. “Comics, trauma and cultural memory(ies) of 9/11.” Goggin, Joyce and Hassler-Forest, Dan (eds.). The Rise and Reason of Comics and Graphic Literature. Critical Essays on the Form. London: McFarland & Company, 2010: pp. 178-187.

Eisner, Will. Comics and Sequential Art (1985). New York: Norton & Company, 2008.

Goodbrey, Daniel Merlin. New Experiments in Fiction.

Jameson, Fredric. “The dialectics of disaster.” The South Atlantic Quarterly. Vol. 102, no. 2, 2002: pp. 297-304.

Joyce, James. Ulysses (1922). New York: Random House, 1986.

Kannenberg, Gene, Jr. “The comics of Chris Ware. Text, image and visual narrative strategies.” Varnum, Robin and Gibbons, Christina T. (eds.). The Language of Comics: Word and Image. Jackson: University Press Mississippi, 2001: pp. 174-197.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. The Invisible Art. New York: Harper Perennial, 1994.

McKean, Dave. The Rut. London: Pump House Gallery, 2010.

Mikkonen, Kai. “Remediation and the sense of time in graphic narratives.” Goggin, Joyce and Hassler-Forest, Dan (eds.). The Rise and Reason of Comics and Graphic Literature. Critical Essays on the Form. London: McFarland & Company, 2010: pp. 74-86.

Spiegelman, Art. In the Shadow of No Towers. New York: Pantheon Press, 2004.

—. Maus. New York: Pantheon Press, 1992.

—. “Why comics?” MetaMaus. A Look Inside A Modern Classic, Maus. New York: Pantheon Press, 2011: pp. 164-234.

Sontag, Susan. “In Plato’s cave” (1973). On Photography. New York: Penguin Group, 1977: pp. 3-24.

Szczepaniak, Angela. “Brick by brick. Chris Ware’s architecture of the page.” Goggin, Joyce and Hassler-Forest, Dan (eds.). The Rise and Reason of Comics and Graphic Literature. Critical Essays on the Form. London: McFarland & Company, 2010: pp. 87-101.

Versluys, Kristiaan. “Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers: 9/11 and the representation of trauma.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies. Vol. 52, no. 4, Winter 2006: pp. 980-1003.

Ware, Chris. Jimmy Corrigan. The Smartest Kid on Earth. New York: Pantheon Press, 2000.

Waugh, Coulton. “In the beginning.” The Comics. New York: MacMillan, 1947: p. 1-15.

Zelizer, Barbie. “The voice of the visual in memory.” Phillips, Kendall R. (ed.). Framing Public Memory. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004: pp. 157-186.

Aletta Verwoerd is a graduate student in Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam. This article is a short version of an extensive and detailed analysis of the reading routes through specific templates of Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers. Interested in the full version? Please contact Aletta at

[1] – Here, I refer to the introduction of Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers (2004) in which pages are not numbered.

[2] – The late sixties saw the emergence of underground comics that dealt with topics of their time: sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll. The cartoonists of the movement distinguished themselves from the mainstream comics by slightly adjusting the spelling of their medium from comics to comix; the “x” highlights their x-rated characteristics. Spiegelman joined the comix movement in 1968 and continues to use their spelling to this day; a spelling that is appropriate considering the trouble he had finding a publisher for the templates that make up In the Shadow of No Towers.

[3] – Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan. The Smartest Kid on Earth (2000) has been compared to James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). The comparison is not so much made on a thematic level – both novels explore themes of fatherhood and alienation – as on the level of comprehension; tackling Ware’s work in its entirety is commonly considered a daunting task.

[4] – On paper, Art Spiegelman and Chris Ware are the leading artists when it comes to challenging the comics’ conventions. Yet, there is a rising number of artists that takes comics of the page and experiments with so-called ‘infinite canvas’ comics online (among others, the works of Daniel Merlin Goodbrey) as well as with the presentation of graphic narratives in installation art (e.g. Dave McKean’s The Rut).

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Posted by on 2012/12/18 in Guest Writers


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