Spiegelman & History

Though it isn’t technically a part of the “content” of the comics in Shadow of No Towers, I found myself very interested in the front cover page of the book. It depicts the front page of The World Newspaper on September 11th, 1901, exactly 100 years prior to the events of 9/11. It’s not quite the nostalgic slice-of-life we’d expect, either—“Anarchist Queen” Emma Goldman has been arrested, President McKinley has been shot, and the world seems at least as amiss as it has been in contemporary history. The back cover page uses the same image, this time superimposed with headlines responding to 9/11 and the subsequent “War on Terror,” ending with the tell-tale, “Britney Video Shocker—Pop-Tart Shelves Plan to Act Out Suicide.” What exactly is Spiegelman doing with these pages, thematically? My initial reaction was to view them as a “before” and “after,” with the fall of the twin towers acting as a turning point for the rest of American history. The layout of the book would support this, since the newspapers act as endcaps for the book’s content.

However I think Spiegelman’s work in general is more nuanced than that interpretation would imply. Instead, I would argue that he is attempting to frame the events of 9/11 as one historical moment among many, a momentous occasion that is unique among a line-up of other unique, momentous occasions. His use of news media in particular illustrates Spiegelman’s awareness of how the event might be remembered by audiences in the future. The contemporary headlines superimposed over the page from 1901 doesn’t necessarily represent one event eclipsing the other—you can still read the content of the original underneath—but a comparison of historiography. Can we ever understand the past, unhampered by our contemporary perceptions? How do we document the past? Traditional news media, Spiegelman argues, is an incomplete answer.

Comics, we see in Shadow, have the potential to capture history in a way that no other medium can, and to draw visual comparisons and juxtapositions between periods. Spiegelman’s use of his caricatures from Maus, for instance, inevitably draw to mind WWII and its impact, placing it in the same category of trauma as his 9/11 experience. Similarly, Spiegelman’s inclusion of the old comic supplements left me with a sense of a denial of the US progress narrative. He presents old comics that include a number of racist and ethnocentric stereotypes, which on first viewing offer up a sort of progressive-moral-porn-lite but which also draws parallels to the US’ racist responses to 9/11. 

In what other ways does the form of the book play with the idea of historical awareness and progress (or lack thereof)? 

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