The Comic Supplement in the Shadow of No Towers

In the topmost panel of #8 of Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers, the caption reads: “The blast that disintegrated those Lower Manhattan towers also disinterred the ghosts of some Sunday supplement stars born on nearby Park Row. They came back to haunt one denizen of the neighborhood, addled by all that’s happened since.” The panel depicts an angry turbaned goat furiously kicking a number of these “Sunday supplement stars” in a rightward, tumbling arc across its length. Why do these supplement stars from early NYC-based comix history haunt Spiegelman and In the Shadow of No Towers? (The panel described above even forms the inset image on the book’s cover, suggesting these characters’ importance to the totality of In the Shadow.) Is it enough to be told that “right after 9/11/01, while waiting for some other terrorist shoe to drop, many found comfort in poetry [while] others [including, presumably, Spiegelman] searched for solace in old newspaper comics” (#10)?

That question is rhetorical, for it remains to be asked: why would these old newspaper comics offer Spiegelman any solace? Do they represent for him a nostalgic brand of lost American iconicity? By Spiegelman’s own account: “The only cultural artifacts that could get past my defenses to flood my eyes and brain with something other than images of burning towers were old comic strips; vital, unpretentious ephemera from the optimistic dawn of the 20th century. That they were made with so much skill and verve but never intended to last past the day they appeared in the newspaper gave them poignancy; they were just right for an end-of-the-world moment” (“Comic Supplement”, emphases mine). The language of lost optimism and ended worlds recalls the point I made in an earlier post about the desire for fantasized “old worlds” to persist in the face of an event that signals their end (like 9/11 for Spiegelman, or abolition for the characters in E.P. Jones’ The Known World), even when that old world was never that uncomplicated or utopian to begin with.

Spiegelman, of course, is self-aware about this even in his nostalgic invocations of those Sunday comix stars, as is evident in his highly complex appropriations of them in In the Shadow. Here are two cases, though there are plenty more explorations possible:

The Katzenjammer Kids: Spiegelman uses Rudolph Dirks’ Katzenjammer Kids to anthropomorphize the two towers of the World Trade Center. This first occurs during Spiegelman’s recounting of his wife’s and his experience on the actual day of 9/11 (#2). A panel of the aliased digital reproduction of the towers, as though from their view after having “deigned to turn around,” is followed by a panel with the Kids running away with distressed expressions on their faces. Miniature towers are sticking out of their heads, with one of them smoking as the real towers are. It is nearly as though Spiegelman, unable to bear photographic evidence of the traumatic event, has to dissipate their force by translating the towers into comics (in multiple senses of “comics”). But the allusion is especially complex because the original Comics kids were trouble-making rascals (see Plate IV). As Spiegelman reminds us in the Comic Supplement: “‘Mit dose kids,’ as the strip’s bearded truant officer, the Inspector, succinctly put it, ‘society is nix!'” It is curious, then, that Spiegelman gives the Inspector a turban in #2 as the latter spanks the towered Kids, implying a certain degree of American truancy/nihilism being punished in 9/11 that is not implied by Spiegelman’s rosier language about the American comix icons.

Subsequent appearances of the Kids further suggest that they don’t stand in simplistically for an earlier unspoiled American ideal, or at least are not conflated with other forces such as the American media or state: #4 shows the two Kids crying as vulture-like camera crews (Spiegelman depicts one holding up a vulture) descend upon them, while #5 depicts a caricature of Uncle Sam (as “Uncle Screwloose”) setting the Kids ablaze with a barrel of oil and attacking a Saddam-headed “Iraknid” spider instead of the hornets (implying Al-Qaeda, the actual 9/11 terrorists) that are attacking them all. To say that the Kids are merely standing in for the “Noo York smart aleckers” that Uncle Screwloose leaves to their non-existent defenses at the end of #5 under-describes the dynamics of intra-/transnational scapegoating, blame and escalation activated by Spiegelman’s allusion to the original Kids.

Krazy Kat/Maus: At the end of the Comic Supplement, Spiegelman writes about the open-ended allegory that George Herriman’s Krazy Kat offers: “The ineffable beauty of Krazy Kat was that it was simply about a Kat getting bonked with a brick. It presented an open-ended metaphor that could contain all stories simultaneously; and after September 11, Ignatz [the mouse] started looking a lot like Osama Bin Laden to me!” But despite this Ignatz/Osama comparison, Spiegelman casts himself (or at least his alterego in Maus) as Ignatz in the last panel of #8, wielding a brick that is a facsimile of one of the Towers! What does it mean that the allusion suggests he is wielding the Towers as a brick to toss in the way of “NYC out of NYC”/Kat, and being threatened in turn by “NYC”/Kop to lose his cigarette (which stands in for Spiegelman’s own death wish, as seen in #3)? Recognizing his place as “obsessive and paranoid” (earlier in #8), he casts himself figurally as congruent with Osama Bin Laden, attempting to shake up a wilfully forgetful/ignorant America in the face of angry attempts to stop him from doing so.

1 thought on “The Comic Supplement in the Shadow of No Towers

  1. It was really struck by the embarrassing racial and ethnocentric caricatures in the comic supplements– I suppose it’s hard to read them from anything but a 21st century perspective. I did wonder to what extent Spiegelman might have found solace in these comics because they gave him some sense of progress during a moment in history where everything seemed to be moving backwards. This doesn’t necessarily contradict what you’re saying here– I think it might make an interesting addition. Perhaps the old comics were good for an “end-of-the-world moment” because they represented a sort of “this too shall pass” mentality when read in hindsight.

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