What is Spiegelman Really Doing?

Posted on December 5, 2005 by verna robinson

At first I too was taken aback by the tone, point of view, focus, images and diction of Spiegelman’s "comic narrative" in In the Shadow of No Towers.  In fact, I thought this response to September 11th irreverent and bordering on tasteless, considering the magnitude of human suffering that resulted from the event. I thought the tragedy warranted a more serious and thoughtful response, certainly not a comic book. However, when I put aside my initial concerns and took a closer look at who Spiegelman was, at the medium through which he sees and responds to the world around him, and what he could really be saying in the work, perhaps his response is the sanest and most appropropriate response an artist in our postmodern world could muster.

Immediately after September 11th the government provided its own "master narrative" of the tragedy that began to define, align and limit just who was the enemy. We saw all media outlets participate in a "blitz" that was both needed, appreciated, and appropriated by all of us. Little did we know but it was really working to a deeper, darker agenda. I was sitting in the parking lot on my campus, horrified and immobilized by what I heard on the news. The image of the enemy took shape within my mind and every student who looked like the images reported over the radio and on television became a potential terrorist for me. I had bought into the myth of the Muslim terrorist. Could Spiegelman’s text work to subvert the "master narrative" in some way and provide his own "narrative" of the events he witnessed.  The event for him was both intensely personal and intensely political, and the amount of historiography indicates an attempt on his part to write over the master narrative. Also, I think the book is meant to be cathartic, for him and for the nation.

Also, he uses the third person point of view.  I considered the sense of detachment one must achieve to witness and survive such an event, in one’s own backyard no less. Perhaps the use of 3rd person point of view allowed him to suspend reality and write about the event outside himself. For example, in one panel the image of falling men has the caption "He keeps falling through the holes in his head, though he no longer knows which holes were made by Arab terrorists… and which ones were always there…" He goes on to say, "He is haunted by the images he didn’t witness" perhaps connecting with the trauma of the survivor who feels guilty about being alive. As far as his choice and use of point of view, we have certainly read a number of works this semester where a shifting of narrative strategy and point of view were characteristics of postmodernism. Perhaps Spiegelman’s text is living up to the tenets of postmodern writing in these respects.

The tone is no less offputting for the same reason.  It seems the first section is replete with irony, parody, dark humor, even bizarre humor. For example, in the same panel as I mentioned above, the line "… especially one man, according to a neighbor) who executed a graceful Olympic dive as his last living act" is bitingly offensive. This image (of a man’s last living act as an Olympic swan dive) and these words and the tone could be his attempt at articulating the unimaginable horror of the tragedy. I thought as well of the title of one panel as particularly postmodern: The New Normal. The scene is of a family–father, mother, child–sitting in front of the television on September 10th, perfectly normal. On September 11th, each member is horrified beyond belief by the events of that day, evidenced by the electric socket coiffed hairstyles each one wears. Then, things are back to normal, with only a mild shock registered by the hairstyles. What Spiegelman could be saying here is that the "new normal" is only a degree less shocking and we go about our lives numbed into oblivion.

Finally, perhaps he finds in the "comic narrative" a way to respond to and comment on our postmodern and post-September 11th world.

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