I devoured Charles Burns’s X’ed Out last night. Then I read it again this afternoon. I’ll read it again before I give it a proper review closer to its release date near the end of October. It’s weird, wild stuff, working in the idioms of William Burroughs and Hergé, brimming with punk rock energy and druggy art madness. It’s thoroughly Burnsian. X’ed Out is the first volume in what the publisher promises will be “an epic masterpiece of graphic fiction in brilliant color.” Like I said, full review down the line, but look out for this book. X’ed Out comes from the good folks at Pantheon, who’ve already proven their commitment to the graphic novel medium in stunners by publishing soon-to-be classics like David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp and Dash Shaw’s BodyWorld.
Art Spiegelman’s Maus, released as a graphic novel over twenty years ago, did more to legitimize the comic as an art form than any other work I can think of. It won a Pullitzer Prize Special Award in 1992 (the Pullitzer committee found it hard to classify…perhaps they didn’t want to admit that they were giving a prestigious award to a comic book!), and today Maus is a standard on many college English syllabi.
After Maus, Spiegelman worked for The New Yorker for over ten years, quitting in early 2002 after the September 11th attacks to work on a series of broadsheets entitled In the Shadow of No Towers. These broadsheets were collected in 2004 in an unwieldy 15″ x 10″ book.
Spiegelman lived in downtown Manhattan, right by the towers; his daughter attended school a few blocks away. He saw the towers collapse in person, fleeing for his life with his family. Spiegelman attempts to capture this raw, unmediated, and very personal experience in In the Shadow of No Towers (Sonic Youth’s 2002 album Murray Street works to the same end–only much more abstractly): the narrative is discontiguous, fluctuating from bitter satire to earnest inquiry. Spiegelman’s choice of the broadsheet as his medium (the broadsheets were published monthly by different newspapers as Spiegelman produced them) is tremendously affective: just like the 9/11 attacks, the broadsheets are larger than life, hard to grasp, hyperbolically resisting easy, singular readings. Spiegelman balances bitter attacks against the conformist mentality spurred by the Bush administration with pathos and humor; In the Shadow of No Towers recalls the good-natured satire of broadsheet comics from a hundred years ago, bittersweetening the content. The 2004 collection wisely contextualizes Spiegelman’s work by reprinting broadsheets of “The Yellow Kid” and “The Katzenjammer Kids.”
Like Maus, In the Shadow of No Towers is a fascinating exploration of how disaster confronts and transforms identity. And reflecting its heinous subject, In the Shadow of No Towers ends without concluding: as the foolish Iraq war begins, Spiegelman can no longer shape any meaning or sense from his work. This isn’t a graphic novel–don’t look for a cohesive narrative structure here; instead, In the Shadow of No Towers explores the loose ends, the detritus, the psychic remnants of disaster.