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  BELIEVE THE HYPE? IN THE SHADOW OF NO TOWERS BY ART SPIEGELMAN.  
   
   
 

With the endless influx of information available through every possible source and orifice, it's nearly impossible to sift through all the clutter and hype to figure out whether or not the hot new thing is any *good* or not. We at The Black Table are here to help. We proudly introduce "Believe The Hype," the new bi-weekly column from Tim Grierson, music critic and editor of The Simon. A Los Angelino, he's immune to the whims of New York's trendsetters, giving you a different take on whether that band, movie, show or trend that everyone's talking about it actually worth all the chatter -- rating them on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 living up to expectations. He loves it when you think he's an idiot, so feel free to tell him so, or suggest future columns, at timgrierson@yahoo.com. Enjoy.

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Here's a question you never get asked: Do you remember where you were September 11, 2002? How about 2003? As our collective memories ossify, the terrorist attacks lose their specificity,

 
 

their emotional pulse. Eventually, they're just images replayed in films, just some cliched words used as catchphrases. But what remains individual is each person's inward journey since the events: the path from stunned uncertainty to wherever it is you are now. Nationally, that road has been dotted with war, terror alerts, some primaries and the current presidential race. But individuals record their own high points -- their gradual shifts in outlook and attitude -- and it is here that we

     
 

get the sense of how a community accepts such a quantum change in its society.

Once you've won a Pulitzer in an unfashionable medium by retelling your father's survival from Nazi prison camps as a comic-book struggle between mice and cats, you've probably got as much right as anyone to share your feelings about 9/11's aftermath. Maus, Art Spiegelman's lauded Holocaust work from 12 years ago, is one of the quintessential "cool" pieces of hipster entertainment. Bold, emotional, autobiographical, relevant, underground and unconventional, its mixture of serious subject and niche artform has made Maus (regardless of its considerable achievement) one of those books smart people make sure they have displayed somewhere prominently in their home at all times. Because of its sweeping success, Spiegelman has become one of the handful of comic artists normal folks have heard of. And finally he has returned, again tackling a serious subject -- the fallout from 9/11 -- in strictly personal terms.

Some will find In the Shadow of No Towers, his collection of elaborate comic panels, hopelessly self-indulgent. Much in the vein of other celebrated underground artists like Robert Crumb and Harvey Pekar, Spiegelman cares less about narrative and more about his own mental therapy, turning autobiography into entertainment. But these 10 strips, spanning roughly the two years since the towers fell, often artfully intermingle Spiegelman's observations with most other thinking people's reactions to the attacks. And it works wonderfully as an emotional charting of the anxious months since 9/11 -- how dread turned to paranoia turned to despair turned to anger turn to one big resigned mess.

Most popular art -- TV, movies and music -- manages to capture only a snapshot of a particular moment in time. In the Shadow of No Towers, by comparison, chronicles the slow, sickening descent of one man's mood -- and, by extension, our collective mood. A citizen of New York, Spiegelman hardly seemed like a fully functioning individual before the attacks, but these 10 strips elegantly map precisely what drove him so nutty since. As a form of healing, hopefully this book will give him some comfort. But even for the sympathetic reader, not to mention comic buffs and art enthusiasts, there is also much to take away from this work.

The panels start off simply at first, memorializing the event and recalling his family's actions during that day. Within each oversized panel, he interweaves different drawing styles and themes, incorporating disparate characters and caricatures into the mix. For the uninitiated, this hodgepodge of thoughts can be downright baffling -- Where do I start reading on this page? The top left? The top right? What does this thing have to do with that thing? But despite its maddening lack of discipline and its frustrating willingness to leave a thought half-finished and unexplored, you can't deny how Spiegelman captures the fractured mindset of a frightened age. In his review in The New York Times, David Hajdu compared this crosscutting to "the scattershot multiformity of the Web," but this technique more accurately reflects every individual's internal battle between reason and panic after the towers fell. Though chaotic at first, this tension slowly gets to you. (As a sidenote, I recommend against reading this book late at night; Spiegelman's horrific portrayals of Bush's regime are done with such sickening energy that I had trouble sleeping. Dear God, is this the world I live in?)

If No Towers simply compiled the artist's sky-is-falling missives, you could place it next to your photo albums and other scrapbooks from bygone times to take out when you wanted a fresh jolt of memory. But Spiegelman puffs up this thin 42-page volume with a compendium of comic art from 100 years ago that is both a history lesson and an ode to nostalgia. Like most everyone else after 9/11, Spiegelman couldn't be comforted by music of any kind. Instead, he found himself drifting back to long-forgotten comics: "vital, unpretentious ephemera from the optimistic dawn of the 20th century." As such, he enthusiastically launches into a lengthy essay about the art's past -- and also how individual strips influenced his work in No Towers. (Indeed, there are several visual references in this new work to older characters and structuring strategies.) Much like DVDs with their litany of special extras and commentary tracks, No Towers comes complete with a sort of behind-the-scenes featurette. And while I admire his zest for those comforting yellowed comics with their outdated notions on race and what-not, I find this section more intellectual than resonant -- like talking to any friend whose geek devotion involves a hobby in which I don't share an interest. But since I'm not the audience for such minutia, I feel confident that the folks who can tell Chris Ware and Adrian Tomine apart on sight will find Spiegelman's process richly rewarding.

As a whole, In the Shadow of No Towers turns the nifty trick of propelling Art Spiegelman's personal recollections and political opinions onto the reader without making one feel beset by the ramblings of a madman. Perhaps he sums it up best in his introduction: "My strips are now a slow-motion diary of what I experienced while seeking some provisional equanimity -- though three years later I'm still ready to lose it all at the mere drop of a hat or a dirty bomb." Yeah, I think he's exaggerating his constant terror. But, as another September 11 drifts by on the calendar, who doesn't still feel the occasional moment of apprehension, this nagging sensation that something used to be so much better in this country, and now that something is gone for good?

Spiegelman's diary of witty, churning comics reenergized a great artist who has the misfortune of turning great tragedies into profound work. We should be thankful we're not great artists. No matter how deeply a chord In the Shadow of No Towers strikes in many of us, it took the magnitude of Spiegelman's pessimism and sadness to create it. I hope he feels better. And I also hope to hell that the world isn't as doomed as his dispiriting book succinctly argues.

Believe the Hype rating: 7 out of 10.
(10 being completely worth it, 1 being full of hot air)

 

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Tim Grierson is the editor of The Simon.