For all his Pulitzer-winning status as The Man Who Legitimized Comics, Art Spiegelman doesn't actually make comics particularly often. He edits comics anthologies like the defunct RAW and the ongoing Little Lit series, he lectures and writes about comics, and he produces commercial art that evokes his comic-book work. But the new In The Shadow Of No Towers is his first solo comics collection since his industry-shaking 1986 book Maus and its 1992 sequel Maus II. Comparisons and disappointment are inevitable, particularly since In The Shadow Of No Towers tells another autobiographical story about tragedy, shared history, and loss.
But comparisons belie the vast gulf between the two works. Maus told a complex story in a simple way, while No Towers is more like a state of mind, portrayed in complicated detail. In 10 colorful double-page spreads on heavy cardboard stock, Spiegelman layers single images and multi-panel strips in a variety of styles for an intensely visual design meant to recall turn-of-the-century full-page newspaper comics. He borrows heavily from those comics in the process; illustrating his experiences in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, he depicts the World Trade Center towers as the Katzenjammer Kids, and himself as Happy Hooligan, or Jiggs from Bringing Up Father, or Little Nemo. The result, as it was in his source material, is a cluttered, busy, and fragmented—but perfectly clear—narrative, in which Spiegelman crafts a personal response to a public ordeal.
Spiegelman builds up plenty of anxiety and emotion as he worries about post-Sept. 11 politics, his family's safety, the city's newly toxic air, conspiracy theories, "The New Normal," and other manifestations of his agitated fatalism. But he releases it all halfway through the brief book to share the spotlight with the old newspaper comics that inspired and sustained him during his 2001 crisis. While his text essay on those comics and his reprints of strips like The Kin-Der-Kids and Little Nemo In Slumberland are fascinating on their own, they also hijack No Towers, making it less personal and more craft-focused, the equivalent of a coffee-table art book reproducing famous paintings alongside contemporary imitations. By openly displaying his influences, Spiegelman tips his hand a little too much, and by dividing his attention, he takes some of the bite out of his primary subject, which has already been bitten half to death over the past three years. In The Shadow Of No Towers displays a masterful technical skill. But Spiegelman deadens the impact of his return to autobiographical solo work by stepping away from both the "autobiographical" and the "solo" parts of the equation.