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Sketches of the apocalypse

Art Spiegelman draws nightmare of 9/11 in 'Shadow'

By Todd Leopold
CNN

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Art Spiegelman
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Art Spiegelman thinks of September 11, and dreams.

He dreams of the dying Twin Towers as shimmery, collapsing bones.

He dreams of George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden standing across a table from each other, one holding a scimitar, the other a gun.

And he dreams that the ghosts of Happy Hooligan and Little Nemo and Krazy Kat and the Katzenjammer Kids -- all the old, classic comic strip characters -- have been freed from their defunct Newspaper Row homes by the World Trade Center collapse, only to find themselves lost in 21st-century reality.

He dreams and he draws, and his drawings are dreams -- or nightmares: colliding planes and buildings, searching for his daughter, preparing for war, comic strip characters darting in the ruins. His work, originally done for the German newspaper Die Zeit, has now been collected into a new book, "In the Shadow of No Towers" (Pantheon).

He wasn't going to write about September 11 -- at least, not in these terms, he says in an interview at his studio in Manhattan's SoHo district.

"I thought all I was going to do was capture what happened to me that day," he says. "My goal was to show what I'd seen directly ... and contrast that with [the] media reality."

The project was going to be in comic form, he knew that, a change from the magazine covers he'd been doing for years. "I know I wasn't able to think coherently, and comics are a way I've been able in the past to put my thoughts in order, literally put them in boxes," he says. The main character in the pages was Spiegelman, sometimes drawn realistically, other times not.

But the other figures -- the old comic strip characters from the early 1900s golden age -- found their way into his work. "I was given a page [by Die Zeit] about the size of [a] USA Today [broadsheet] to work on. ... I'm sure the large-size pages had something to do with channeling these old characters," he says. "It was a net big enough to catch them."

'Melted-down state'

Spiegelman sits at a table, wearing a vest pinned with an upside-down peace button, and smokes one cigarette after another. His walls, where they aren't blocked by neatly jammed bookcases, are covered with posters and strips and memorabilia: an ad for a Chris Ware exhibit, an Ernie Bushmiller "Nancy," an old "Gasoline Alley," children's drawings, a nine-year-old Spanish calendar saved for its artwork.

This isn't the first time Spiegelman has taken on serious issues in the graphic-art format. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for his two-volume work "Maus," a graphic novel about the Holocaust that pictured the Jews as mice and the Nazis as cats.

He was also the driving force behind Raw magazine, one of the most important alt-comic 'zines, and has been drawing covers for The New Yorker magazine for more than a decade -- including the one that memorialized September 11, which consisted of the Twin Towers in a glossy black against a dull black background. (The cover, with the comic strip characters overlaid, also fronts "In the Shadow of No Towers.")

Spiegelman
Art Spiegelman

Spiegelman's first pages for Die Zeit stuck with his recollections of the attack leavened by ironies, such as a reference to the soon-to-open Arnold Schwarzenegger movie of the time "Collateral Damage" and the eerie contrast between the real event and pop-culture one-offs such as a Topps "Mars Attacks" card from the early '60s.

But Spiegelman's distress -- he describes himself as being in a "melted-down state" -- soon gave way to anger.

"Unfortunately what happened was that the hijacking of the planes got hijacked by the gang that's invaded New York [for the Republican convention], and I was forced to have to go there," he says. He describes the pages as "journal entries" done "while waiting for the apocalypse." (See another graphic from "No Towers." )

'Secret messages from the past'

Not every reviewer has approved. Newsweek liked the book, but Time panned it, saying that Spiegelman's drawing comparisons between U.S. figures, terrorists and comic strip characters like Ignatz Mouse, for example, was pushing things too far.

For Spiegelman, however, the comic strip characters bound the work together -- and connected it to the present. Indeed, the second half of "In the Shadow of No Towers" consists of the comic strips themselves, as they appeared on Sundays in 1902 or 1906 or 1911, with no comment beyond an introduction by Spiegelman.

"I'm trying to find a reason to make this a book, because [my work was] just pages, pages made while waiting to blow up," he says. "And I realized that ... the content [of the comic strips] seems to echo the present. Even though [they] were never meant to be here, it was like secret messages from the past were coming forward."

The comics are eerily resonant. In one, the hobo Happy Hooligan dresses as an Arab and hits a camel with a rifle. In another, the Yellow Kid stands at the end of a line of children being "mustered" for war. And another shows an oversized Little Nemo -- four or five stories high -- fleeing a metropolis being squashed by a friend.

For Spiegelman, even with their haunting qualities, the comics were like old friends. While other New Yorkers were turning to W.H. Auden's poem "September 1, 1939" -- "We must love one another or die" -- Spiegelman was immersing himself in the everyday solace of ancient Sunday funnies.

"When you look at these comics you're almost eavesdropping on some working stiff's daily life and he just happens to be a genius," he says. "['Little Nemo in Slumberland' artist] Winsor McCay was not making this thinking that, in 2010, the heirs of the planet will look back and see what genius once roamed the city."

And, he adds, there's something comforting in the transience of the world -- and the willingness of the world, particularly his New York world, to let eras live on top of one another.

"I can't reduce it to a sound bite, but [the work] has various resonances for me, and those include the nature of the ephemeral and the eternal -- what it is to have something that was never meant to last, like a newspaper, and something meant to last forever, like the pyramids or the World Trade Center towers... ," he says. "That the city is a kind of collage of past and present. ... Insisting on the happy ending of 'No Towers' existing probably somewhere in 1901 instead of 2010 is part of the way I was able to find this as a book."


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