Like the death of Princess Diana, September 11th 2001 and the attack on the World Trade Centre is one of those events that we all remember where we were when we first heard about it. But few of us will have been walking the streets of New York itself and actually heard the first plane crash into one of the towers. Art Spiegelman was one of those people, for he lives and works in Soho, in Lower Manhattan, and was out on the streets that morning. He had no need of television coverage of the attack: he could see it all from his own apartment (though he spent his time trying to rescue his daughter from the nearby school and was enveloped in the dust from the collapsing towers).
A Pulitzer Prize winning author, Spiegelman was originally commissioned to make an artistic response to 9/11 for publication within a few months of the event. However, he took so long over the work that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had happened before he had completed it. As a result, the work becomes as much his reaction to the official government response than to the collapse of the WTC alone. He was deeply traumatised by the experience and the art work becomes his personal therapy, charting his despair, depression and obsession with conspiracy theories. But it also contains his increasing disbelief in what happened during that period of time and the way the US government handled things.
The book is not an ordinary book in any sense. For a start, it is 37cm by 25cm large, the size of a tabloid newspaper. But what you also need to be prepared for is the fact that it is printed on board, not paper. It weighs about a kilogram, and there are only forty pages. The majority of the book comprises the ten comic 'strips' prepared for Der Zeit, published at roughly five week intervals. To call them comic strips would be incorrect, however, since these are full-page works of art in comic form. The main section of the book is to be read sideways, so that each spread of the comic is printed across a double page.
For inspiration, Spiegelman has returned to some of the great comics of preceding decades. These are also reproduced in the book, doubling its length. There is also a number of essays by Spiegelman describing the origins of the project and its inspiration, and the why he drew on this collection of previous artwork.
In the aftermath of the American Presidential Election, Spiegelman proves to be someone anticipating many of the issues that have come to light as a result of George W. Bush's re-election. His anti-Republican stance is clearly stated, along with concerns about the actions of his President. But more than that, I find myself somewhat in awe of this achievement. There is so much to draw the eye's delight, and so much that challenges the brain's assumption that these issues and events have been dealt with. With every statement, every picture, there are perceptive insights that continue to make me think about the world we now live in, and the consequences of our decisions. This book is political, both in the party political sense and in the wider issues sense, but should be read by people of any political persuasion. I think it's worth every penny, and more.
John Wilks, February 2005
Previously published by London School of Theology. Reused here by kind permission.