"In the Shadow of No Towers". Coping with National Trauma through a Comic

Academic Paper, 2015
13 Pages, Grade: 2.3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Difficulties when depicting Trauma in a Comic

3. Recurring Parts of his Trauma

4. Criticism of the U.S. Government

5. Comparison to Maus – A Survivor’s Tale

6. Conclusion

1. Introduction

September 11 2001 was incredibly devastating nationally, as well as internationally but one can only imagine the intensity of horror the local New Yorkers were confronted with, resulting in a long-lasting trauma for most. One of those individuals who has spent most of his life in NY and was very present when the planes struck the towers is Art Spiegelman. Like most Americans, the events that day left him traumatized leading him to attempt to deal with 9/11 by portraying his emotions in the autobiographic post-traumatic comic book titled In the Shadow of No Towers. In an interview with The Progressive shortly after the release he stated "This book is fragment of diary. In making the book, I'm trying to work my way out."

This research paper will deal with his attempt to cope with personal and national Trauma and if depicting it in a comic can be justified as an appropriate medium. The issues when portraying Trauma as a comic and Spiegelman’s technique will be discussed. It will also provide a structural analysis and show themes and specific events concerning his 9/11 experience. It will also give an insight and an analysis of the many segments in which the U.S. Government’s actions following 9/11 are heavily criticized. Lastly the undeniable similarities as well as the differences between In the Shadow of No Towers and his most famous work Maus will be examined.

2. Difficulties when depicting Trauma in a Comic

According to the Oxford Dictionaries "trauma" is defined as an "Emotional shock following a stressful event or a physical injury, which may lead to long-term neurosis". Due to trauma and the lack to grasp or cope with the event, the affected person shows a change in attitude and behavior such as becoming strongly introverted. The affected are frequently haunted by nightmares and flashbacks. Whereas personal trauma occurs after an event that effects a smaller group of people such as a family, national trauma can be detrimental and horrifying to a whole country and also affect its latter generations. National trauma mostly occurs in the form of wars, genocide or major natural disasters, however the terrorist attacks on September 11th 2001 changed the U.S. forever and are often described as the most national traumatizing event of the 21st Century.

The representation of events as traumatizing as the Holocaust or 9/11 in literature, film or imagery is a constant topic of discussion. These events have been described as "unrepresentable" and "imcomprehensible" resulting in the opinion of many that they should not be represented at all. Obviously, people looking at the events from an outside point of view will neither see the devastation the way, the attendees did nor undergo the same experiences and emotions they had and have to deal with. This also brings up questions about morals and values of the representers and the nature of humans feeling offended when a stranger speaks on their personal issues. The soundlessness of trauma is another point that opponents of it often rely on. Since trauma itself can never be seen or heard and only the effects of it are tangible and comprehensible to outsiders, the question if and how it can be described with words is also often asked. In conclusion, they often argue that attempting to represent trauma can only be inaccurate and distancing from the reality of the event and those involved. Spiegelman was already well aware of these facts when made Maus. He even shows it in the comic when Artie Spiegelman's psychiatrist says that "the victims who died can never tell THEIR side of the story, so maybe it's better not to have any more stories". Artie then answers "Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness" (205). Although he knows that he has to "express the inexpressible" (Versluys, 61) his notion is that these events need to be represented to avoid neglect and disinterest. The remembrance of the event and the victims was a reason for him to write In the Shadow of No Towers but this writing process was also sparked by another motive. As someone fortunate enough to be a survivor of 9/11 he saw it is an obligation to write about it. It actually affected him so heavily that he broke his nearly ten year abstinence from making comics stating because he "has the duty to make his [...] voice heard, if only to honor the victims and make sure their deaths were not in vain" (Versluys, 61). Furthermore the way the U.S. government dealt with the situation was also an issue that needed to be addressed and urged him to make it.

Evidently representing trauma in any way provides many issues but depicting it as a comic provides further complexity. Because of the popular assumption that comics are meant for kids due to the humorous, playful and often satirical pictures, this medium seems more than inappropriate when dealing with something as serious as national trauma. Spiegelman embraces the fact that the horror and extent of trauma cannot be represented in a perfectly accurate manner and uses a technique in Maus referred to as mimetic approximation by using the animal metaphor. This allows him to distance himself from the actual events without belittling them and also prevents deceptive authenticity. The animal metaphor is used in In the Shadow of No Towers as well but because he tells his own tale, he was operates less restrained and mostly uses humans in the comic. In both works the severity remains but the use of cartoon characters prevents the reader from being misled and view the comic as an exact representation of these historical events.

3. Recurring Parts of his Trauma

The comic book is divided into two parts. The first part illustrates Spiegelman's 9/11 experience and also gives an insight of his mind-state after the attacks. The second part is a collection of old newspaper copies which is an addition of comics. According to the author he split the book up in to two parts just like the WTC consisted of two towers. One representing "[his] ephemeral plates, and ephemeral plates from a hundred years earlier". In attempt to give the reader a sense of heavy nostalgia but also serve as happy ending. "The combination demonstrates how the surreal, image-text medium of comics perfectly reflects the topsy-turvy, nonsensical post-9/11 world by graphically literalizing the palpable absurdities forced upon public consciousness in the days, months, and years after the initial shock treatment of 9/11 became normalized" (Smith, 2).

The structure of the comic symbolizes the two towers but the unique layout of the panels, frames and many segments also serve a specific purpose. "At first sight, each page is a shapeless mass of frames which is closer to a collage than to a comic" -Esther Claudio. The striking feature is the form of non-linear reading which stretches itself throughout the comic. It is not mandatory for the reader to go through the texts and images left to right and top to bottom instead he can choose a path because all texts and images are connected. However, this also makes the initial reading process confusing because it is unclear where to begin and when finishing a segment, where to continue. When looking at page one of the comic several panels resulting in segments are visible. The ones on the top and middle of the page run horizontally and the part on the right and bottom left side run vertically. If one starts at the most noticeable panel, being the large round one on the bottom with the caption "waiting for that other shoe to drop", it doesn't seem too plausible at first glance but the saying is explained in "Etymological Vaudeville" below the title. The two cohering panels are separated by another segment. If the reading begins at the title the reader follows the panels that show on of the towers and are accompanied by texts. These run vertically to the bottom and are continued on the lower left side of the page. Once again the cohering panels are separated, this time by the round frame already mentioned. There are many ways to "tackle" each page in order gain an understanding for the different themes and storylines. This style reflects not only Spiegelman's confusion and restlessness and also the uproar every American felt after the attacks but is also aimed to make the sense of panic understandable for the reader.

Spiegelman himself functions as the protagonist throughout the first part who desperately tries to grasp the situation and fight his post-traumatic stress disorder and that of the U.S. . He also gives satirical and at times humorous cultural insights of changes in New York following the attacks such as the woman at the night club who happily states that she was robbed thus indicating that New York is "getting back to normal" (9). However a rather serious theme that recurs on nearly every page in the first part of the book is the incandescent tower that is accompanied by short monologues or descriptions of Spiegelman's thoughts from a narrative point of view. The burning tower appears in the foreground and in the background. He uses the towers to give the reader autobiographical insights to his 9/11 experience such as searching for his daughter (2) and being convinced he "[was] going to die" (2).The tower also shows the imposing imagery he witnessed and the inability to leave these pictures behind him with the captions reading "I still see the glowing tower. Awesome as it collapses..." (1) and "[...] he still sees that glowing tower when he closes his eyes". He explains that "[he] is just trying to relive [his] 9/11 trauma" (5) which adds to "[a]mazing how time flies when it stands still" (4) once again showing that time seems not to be passing for him because he refuses to move on is still trapped in his memories of 9/11 and the overwhelming image of the burning tower.

The controversial and horrifying images of People jumping from the skyscrapers on 9/11 have also been the subject to other literature about 9/11 such as the novel "Falling Man" by Don DeLillo. Spiegelman only scratches the surface of this motif and illustrates it once in the comic on page 6 when the tower reemerges once more but with the protagonist falling from it. In the first paragraph he uses the fall as metaphor and says that "he keeps falling through the holes in head" and is unsure how much of his trauma was caused by the attacks and how much existed beforehand. The second focuses on the literal aspect of the fall where he confesses that he did not see anyone jumping from the towers into their certain death on 9/11 and that "he is now haunted by images he didn't witness". This implies that not only the things he saw directly but also occurrences he heard about and saw secondhand through the media or his peers also heavily affected him. The bottom of the picture shows him back on the ground, transformed into the homeless person, resembling the protagonist of the popular American comic Happy Hooligan. Here he very briefly alludes to the deteriorating economic situation of many companies and the resulting increase of homelessness in Manhattan after 9/11.

The search of his daughter is also a part of his traumatic experience that recurs frequently in the pages 2 through 4. Whether shown as the Tower Twins (2) or as normal people (3), the pursuit of his wife and him to find their daughter plays a large role at the beginning of the comic. The search is shown in chronological and very detailed way. At first his wife and him hear the crash of the first plane making them reroute to their daughter’s school immediately. They then are shown panicking and running to the school (2). The next page features them at the school and a teacher / the principal being telling them that Nadja will be found for them. They are eventually reunited with their daughter and shown walking home (4).

4. Criticism of the U.S. Government

"[...] the assumption that comics are primarily aimed at children has actually allowed comic artists greater political freedom than they might otherwise have enjoyed" (Alberts, 179) is a thesis that many cartoonist seem to have implemented in them. In the past comics have often been used to convey a message for life, society and of course politics. Politics have always been a very important element particularly during the Golden Age of Comic Books. During this period many superheroes were introduced and the plot and illustrations in the comics would often revolve around the hero being victorious against a political enemy of the U.S. For instance,


Excerpt out of 13 pages


"In the Shadow of No Towers". Coping with National Trauma through a Comic
University of Würzburg
9/11 and Ground Zero Fiction
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
514 KB
art spiegelman, comic, ground zero, american literature studies, fiction
Quote paper
Henry Quevedo (Author), 2015, "In the Shadow of No Towers". Coping with National Trauma through a Comic, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/425380


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