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Art Spiegelman, In the Shadow of No Towers Discussion Questions

Michael Lawrence and Chip Cobb

1. Just as Jonathan Safran Foer seems to look to the past (specifically, the bombings at Dresden and of Hiroshima) to understand 9/11, Speigelman revisits the trauma of the Holocaust in this collection, but also revisits the “ancient comics” of an alternate “Ground Zero”: “The first decade of comics was the medium’s Year Zero, that moment of open-ended possibility and giddily disorientation that inevitably gave way to the constraints that came as the form defined itself” (“The Comic Supplement”). This estimation of the turn of the 20th century Year Zero echoes, eerily, the language of critics who saw 9/11 as a moment in which the United States, through its response to the event, could (re-)define itself. It also recalls the hopes of Project Rebirth, the documentary summarized by Grusin in Premediation. By describing this “Year Zero,” is Spiegelman advocating a new symbolic interpretation of 2001’s Ground Zero? Or, by specifically not describing Ground Zero in these same terms, is he indicating a distinction between the modern and postmodern “Zero” spaces? In the most general terms possible: what is Spiegelman’s relationship with the past?

2. Throughout In the Shadow of No Towers, depictions of pain and trauma coexist with exacerbating political cartoonsand far-from-subtle cultural critique. Oftentimes, the very same image expresses both. How do we read this simultaneity in light of the move “from elegy to critique” that David Wyatt notices in “September 11 and Postmodern Memory”? For Spiegelman, is there even a difference between the experiences of trauma and critical reaction (via his alienation & isolation in his response to the event, creating a traumatic experience in and of itself)?

3. In the Shadow of No Towers tells a number of forbidden stories, each forbidden by different forms of media. By appropriating his own cover for The New Yorker for the cover of this book, but filling it with images Spiegelman claims The New Yorker would have censored, he returns to his subversive 60s and 70s form. Elsewhere, Spiegelman finds that “the pivotal image” of his experience of 9/11 is “one that didn’t get photographed or videotaped into public memory but still remains burned onto the inside of my eyelids several years later…the image of the looming north tower’s glowing bones just before it vaporized” (“The Sky Is Falling!”). Though those of us for whom the experience of 9/11 came mediated are unfamiliar with this particular image, it becomes “the central image” of Spiegelman’s narrative, the most heavily recurrent motif. Why, besides the fact that he is a cartoonist, does Spiegelman find the medium of comics to be the most effective to communicate these forbidden moments and narratives? What unique agency, in other words, does the medium provide in the wake of 9/11?

4. Scott Bukatman characterizes Windsor McKay’s work with Little Nemo in Slumblerland as containing a ‘plasmatic’ energy—in other words that its concepts of space, scale, and the permanence of reality are inherently flexible. This is particularly interesting, given that Bukatman also says that McKay’s work helped to define the formal norms of the genre. Spiegelman draws heavily on McKay’s surreal, experimental spirit, as well as the standard-frame-progression that McKay helped to proliferate, but always with his own twist. How do we see the formal experiments in Spiegelman’s work (be they derived from Nemo or The Upside-Downs, or Hogan’s Alley) functioning toward the advancement of the artist’s story? How does the physical form of the book interact with Spiegelman’s image-based choices?

5. Especially given the close cultural association in contemporary times of comics with children, the role of the child seems to ask for particular attention. Children are present throughout In the Shadow of No Towers, as they are in much of the 9/11 fiction we have read so far. However, it is worth asking if they operate in different ways from what we have yet seen. Sometimes children are actual characters for Spiegelman, and sometimes they are formal/genre tropes being played with. How do children, in their various forms, function in this text, and how does that inform our understanding of what roles children are allowed to play in the literature of 9/11?

6. Spiegelman petitioned the New York Times to move Maus from its fiction list to its non-fiction. Quite simply: do we (or can we) read this book as fiction or non-fiction?