Image of Twin Towers Ablaze Haunts Narcissistic Cartoonist

In the Shadow of No Towers , by Art Spiegelman. Pantheon, 42 pages, $19.95.

Of all the prizes and honors heaped over the years on Maus , Art Spiegelman’s great Holocaust cartoon, perhaps none was more telling than the distinction of appearing on The New York Times ‘ best-seller list first as a work of fiction ( Maus is sometimes called a “graphic novel,” sometimes a “comic book”), and then-after Mr. Spiegelman’s dignified objection-as a work of nonfiction. Maus tells the story of Mr. Spiegelman’s parents’ wartime ordeal, and paints an indelible portrait of the widowed father in old age, an insufferable, maddeningly tenacious survivor, noble despite himself. It’s a true story, verifiably non fiction. But it also transcends fact: Maus is a work of art, astonishing in its oddity, its complexity, its power.

Part of that power comes from Mr. Spiegelman’s talents as a cartoonist. His cats, mice and pigs give us a strange and utterly convincing perspective on Germans, Jews and Poles. Into the tiny frame of each panel, he packs visual information that enhances the story immensely-a thousandfold, if you buy the accepted formula. But I think it’s the story itself-always the same old routinely amazing survivor’s tale: courage, blind perseverance, dumb luck-that grips us, that calls us back again and again to witness the remarkable fact of human endurance.

Mr. Spiegelman’s new book, In the Shadow of No Towers , is also about surviving-this time the trauma is 9/11-but it fails to tell a story: not a whole one, anyway, and certainly not a coherent one. Michiko Kakutani, in her New York Times review, seems ready to forgive the disjunctions and amputations on the grounds that Mr. Spiegelman has at least “suggest[ed] one aesthetic approach for grappling with the enormity of 9/11.” She believes that with “[i]ts frantic, collage like juxtaposition of styles; its repudiation of traditional narrative; its noisy mix of images and words; its trippy combination of reportage, fantasy and paranoia,” In the Shadow of No Towers somehow captures the essence of that terrible morning when the terrorists struck.

I wish I could agree. Mr. Spiegelman dazzles with his artistry: He flashes his wit; he shows off his remarkable flair for design. But he never hooks his reader, mostly because he hasn’t found a way to tap into the tragedy of the attack-the “enormity,” as Ms. Kakutani puts it, “of 9/11.” Four times he uses the word “awesome” to describe the collapse of the World Trade Center towers-which he witnessed from just blocks away-but he has no access to the desperate terror of the people actually in the towers, and no words or images to communicate the aching grief of that day. He tracks his own movements on the morning of the attack and his fierce resistance to “the new normal,” but he can’t seem to broaden his perspective or show how his narrow focus connects with a wider context (the nation’s false sense of security on Sept. 10, say, or the generous, citywide solidarity exhibited in the weeks afterward, or the postmortem investigations of the 9/11 commission). He gives us only the very personal and the bitingly political (furious and by now familiar attacks on “the Bush cabal”).

In short, No Towers is interesting, provocative, even amusing-but not compelling.

The fact that Mr. Spiegelman doesn’t tell a story (Ms. Kakutani calls this a “repudiation of traditional narrative”) is only part of the problem, but it’s a big one. The book consists of a preface; 10 outsize (141¼2-by-20-inch) pages, each one an installment of a comic strip called In the Shadow of No Towers ; a “Comic Supplement” that offers a capsule history of newspaper comics and explains, in part, the artistic sources of Mr.Spiegelman’s own work; and seven plates of comics from the beginning of the 20th century, tacked on by way of illustration (and because they can be read, by the agile, as commentary on 9/11).

The 10-part strip is visually engaging and loaded with incident. Fans of Maus will be pleased to see the return of certain motifs, includingMr. Spiegelman’s mouse persona, his perpetually dangling cigarette and his refreshingly well-balanced wife, artfully positioned as his foil. There’s also a new and powerful motif, repeated on each page: a vertical orange grid-the latticework of disaster-instantly recognizable as “the image of the looming north tower’s glowing bones just before it vaporized.” It was the sight of “the glowing bones of those towers,” he says, that unhinged him. The jostled, helter-skelter design of the pages reinforces the impression that the artist is still reeling from shock three years later.

Characters from early-20th-century comic strips romp through the pages, adding to the frenzy.This rather elaborate conceit is based on geographical proximity: The long-ago offices of newspapers owned by Joseph Pulitzer and WilliamRandolph Hearst, “the twin titans of modern journalism,” are just a stone’s throw from where the TwinTowers once stood. Mr. Spiegelman explains that “[t]he blast that disintegrated those Lower Manhattan towers also disinterred the ghosts of some Sunday supplement stars born on nearby Park Row about a century earlier. They came back to haunt one denizen of the neighborhood, addled by all that’s happened since.”

Mr. Spiegelman becomes some of the comic-strip characters-Happy Hooligan, for instance (with a dangling cigarette, naturally)-but though he morphs a half-dozen times, he’s always center stage, parading his panic, his paranoia, his politics. Self-aware in the extreme, he comes close to acknowledging that the trauma he needs to survive is his own tortured psyche: One sequence shows Mr. Spiegelman somer saulting down the façade of one of the towers; the caption reads, “He keeps falling through the holes in his head,though he no longer knows which holes were made by Arab terrorists way back in 2001, and which ones were always there.” Or again: “I know I see glasses as half empty rather than half full, but I can no longer distinguish my own neurotic depression from well-founded despair.”

If the 10 strips show us a self-absorbed man shocked into a more perfect self-absorption, the preface is just plain irritatingly egocentric. In detail only publishing types could care about, we hear how the book came to be, what got left out, etc. From the first sentence (“I tend to be easily unhinged”) to the last (“I still believe the world is ending, but I concede that it seems to be ending more slowly than I once thought … so I figured I’d make a book”), the preface echoes with the clamor of the first-person singular.

Maus was full of Art Spiegelman’s father; No Towers is full of Art Spiegelman.

And no one, I’m sorry to say, will mistake In the Shadow of No Towers for fiction.

Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer .