On the fifth anniversary of 11 September 2001, George W. Bush placed a wreath at Ground Zero, the site where the World Trade Centre (WTC) once stood.
This event appeared on news shows, but discussion about the terrorist attacks on 9/11 was soon replaced by TV’s usual fare.
Apart from endeavours like the documentary The Falling Man and the exceptional Flight 93, there have been few attempts to compete with the dominant images of 9/11 and its aftermath such as those necessary, if banal, pictures of the President paying floral tribute to the victims of that infamous day. At the time of writing, Oliver Stone’s World Trade Centre was due to open in Australia within a fortnight.
Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel, In the Shadow of No Towers, is a searing look at the destruction of the WTC, and personal and political reactions to it.
Spiegelman combines beautiful illustrations of the frame of a building gleaming as if ablaze with drawings of his fearful self, an anti-Semitic vagrant who, along with some Arab commentators, was sure of Jewish guilt, and Americans with their heads stuck in the ground like ostriches and targets on their backsides.
“Uncle Sam” douses the burning “Tower Twins” with oil before declaring that he does not care about revenge attacks on “Noo York Smart Aleckers”. This is an example of how cartoon characters like those traditionally used for the purposes of reactionary propaganda become servants of the author’s opposition to the Iraq War and certain anti-terrorist measures.
There are depictions of a family going from impassively watching the television on 10 September to blankly viewing the television post-9/11, albeit with their hair standing on end and a flag replacing the calendar on the wall in the last of the three panels that feature them.
The author is nearly at his most provocative when he recycles an artistic device from his Pulitzer Prize winning Maus, in which he portrayed Nazis as cats and Jews as mice.
In his later work, it is ordinary Americans who are rendered as persecuted rodents, while Bush and al-Qaeda are the bad guys.
In his book about graphic novels, Paul Gravett describes Maus as “a fresh, involving way for (readers) to try to grasp the Holocaust and its toll on survivors and their children.”
Even if In the Shadow of No Towers is often ideologically abhorrent, it is also creative and engaging, as well as being sharply satirical, which the mainstream media and popular culture do not usually have the desire or capacity to be.
In an article by Peter Huck in the Sydney Morning Herald, Spiegelman claimed that, “The American press has become very acquiescent. It’s very vulnerable to tugs on its leash by its owners…the fourth estate’s become a fifth column.”
If this statement is at all true, readers can at least depend on alternative sources of information like graphic novels to add diverse opinions to political discourse.
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