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.

Watching Survival Horror Games

As I suggested in class today, the formal appeal of the survival horror genre comes from how it induces cycles of heightened tension and relief, which arise from experiencing occasional scares/assaults that you cannot entirely pre-empt and are not sure your character will survive, and then managing to pull through anyway. Philosophically, the genre can offer a vision of reality/fantasy which posits that evil cannot be entirely vanquished, only avoided for the time being.

This account, however, mostly assumes the role of the player or the identifying watcher. A different pleasure of the survival horror game comes from hearing players scream or whimper their heads off. In this case, a watcher experiences distance from the typical tension/relief cycles thanks to the foregrounded audio of the player’s voice, so that the gap between the fear the player is feeling and the un-scary reality of the player’s merely virtual experience produces a hilarity instead, as in this Amnesia: The Dark Descent playthrough video:

Of course, part of the humor of watching such playthroughs probably also stems from a gap between the player’s maleness and his un-masculine expressions of fear. What do people think?

See also:

The Desire for Worlds to Persist in “The Known World”

In her book Cruel Optimism, Lauren Berlant argues that we become most aware of being in the present when the things we believe should fundamentally persist in the world stop doing so. Edward P. Jones’ The Known World offers that sense of being caught in a world in transition, with multiple characters scrabbling to hold onto their “known world” despite (or because of) signs that suggest what about it is unknown, or coming to be so.

You can see this in the novel’s opening sentence: “The evening his master died he worked again well after he ended the day for the other adults, his own wife among them, and sent them back with hunger and tiredness to their cabins.” (1) One way of reading this sentence is that it casts the master’s death as a non-event: the slave system trundles on regardless. But another reading is that, in light of the disturbance caused in Moses’ “known world” by his master’s death, he repeats his overseer routine as a means of maintaining his orientation to a world in which the master’s death threatens to become a world-changing event (but might not). See also Skiffington’s refusal of a “bigger, better” map/world to replace the one he knows, however distorted it might be.

The W/Lizard of O(o)z(e)

As I mentioned in class, Jay Lake’s “The Lizard of Ooze” felt to me to embody some form of Jameson’s characterization of postmodern pastiche. Specifically I thought this in its relation to one of American pop culture’s most beloved fantasy other-worlds from The Wizard of Oz, from which Lake’s story draws its name. Parallels include an intrusion into Ooze by an outsider, a plot involving being off to see the Lizard, and the climactic revelation of the Lizard both looming larger than life and being “no bigger than a man” (170). There are allusions also to “West Witches” (163) and the protagonist having “got[ten] lost on his long, slow way to Kansas” (164).

What good do these mirrorings of Oz do for Lake’s story? Most of these features do not quite poke irreverently at the original story, as parody might. Instead, the story grounds itself largely within readers’ shared sense of pop history. Are we then in the realm of the intertextual, as David Foster Wallace might put it, where all we have is (pop) texts all the way down? Or do the Oz references perhaps serve the story’s attempts at estranging what’s recognizably human in order to critique anthropocentric worldviews?

Neuromancer, Inception and Postmodern Commodification

The similarities between William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) and Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010) are hair-clutchingly obvious. Notably, both works feature a technician (Case/Cobb) who can control parts of a sensorialized virtual space; who is hired as part of an espionage team to orchestrate a corporate break-in in exchange for the return of a desired personal state (ability to enter the matrix/return to his children); and who faces the climactic threat of being trapped within the dilatory time of that virtual space (“flatlining”/limbo), represented as a beach, with the simulation of a dead former lover (Mal/Linda Lee). (Other online writers who have previously noticed these similarities: 1 2 3 4 5.)

Since Nolan’s work is apparently a direct homage of Gibson’s novel, Inception doesn’t quite represent the postmodern paradigm of non-authorial pastiche that Fredric Jameson describes in “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”. Inception‘s toothless recombination of those elements, however, might well advance Jameson’s point about the increasingly commodified nature of artistic production. Gone is Gibson’s prescient vision of a hegemonically transnational cyberspace, replaced by oddly rigid, flatly individualized dreamscapes. Gone is the unprecedented frontier of a merged super-AI, replaced by mere corporate interest in the non-merger of two competing corporations. Perhaps this is a result of the shift in medium, from the more permissive imaginary space of the print novel to the populist demands of the Hollywood blockbuster. However, I don’t wish to reverse Jameson’s periodizing of Neuromancer as a quintessentially postmodern text by casting it as a high-art masterwork against Nolan’s mass-art commodity. What do people think?