Spiegelman Redux

In 1999 I wrote a piece for The Village Voice urging a reconsideration of cartoonist Art Spiegelman, best known for his 1980s graphic novel “Maus” and subsequent cover artwork for The New Yorker magazine. That piece also bemoaned Spiegelman’s outsized ego and influence in the comics and editorial communities given the paucity of his creative output and his singularly unpleasant, ungenerous personality.

Five years later, Spiegelman’s influence has rightly waned. Upon discovering (after 9/11, when he seems to have discovered politics) that The New Yorker’s editorial viewpoint skewed somewhat to the right of The Progressive’s, Spiegelman sort of quit the long ossified magazine. His cartooning output has been limited to a monthly comic strip, “In the Shadow of No Towers,” that appears in The Forward, heir to the venerable Jewish weekly of a century ago. And he no longer pulls quite as many strings in the magazine world, where he once ordered artists whose work or disposition he found disagreeable blackballed; many such strings have been broken by as recession-ravaged glossies folded during the early part of the new decade.

American readers are now suffering something of an attempted Spiegelman comeback in the form of his new booklet “In the Shadow of No Towers” (42 pages for $20!). Spiegelman, in drawing INSONT, gushes the New York Times Book Review, “has now surpassed the dean of the underground school, Robert Crumb.”

Quelle insulte!

I’ve been waiting for someone else to say it, but as far as I know no one else has. So I will: “In the Shadow of No Towers” is the greatest publishing scam since the Hitler diaries. The cover is recycled from Spiegelman’s New Yorker cover after 9/11: a stupid-beyond-words gray-out of the World Trade Center on a black background. The last half of the booklet’s 42 pages—printed, like a child’s tome, as a board book in an absurd attempt to make it seem substantial, as if it were a real book worthy of discussion, even purchase—is composed entirely of classic turn of the century Sunday comics. Which, it hardly need to be noted, Spiegelman did not draw. The book’s only original content is its introduction. So here we are, 14 years since “Maus,” and Spiegelman has written an essay. Which is fine, but why should anybody care?

The reprinted cartoons from the Forward are the mystery meat in this Brit-thin sandwich. I’ve been scouring the Web for the most likely places where criticism might be found: the comments section for the title on Amazon, the always cranky posters to the Comics Journal. But here too Spiegelman remains a sacred cow. Some are disappointed at the padded content of the book, but one wonders why they would want any more given the quality of what’s there. INSONT’s Forward cartoons suck. They suck so hard that it’s nearly impossible to quantify their suckiness; they suck worse than most of the sucky sample comics aspiring teenagers send to professional cartoonists by email. They suck worse than most daily comic strips, which is saying something, and they suck worse than almost anything printed in an alternative paper. They are drawn like shit—and coming from me, that’s saying something—and the jokes are impossibly stupid. Not one, but two “gags” about shoes falling from the sky, one set of Texas-style cowboy boots (get it?). But don’t trust me, just go to a bookstore and look at the thing, for truly it is a thing of wonder that a major publisher has the audacity to try to foist an object of such suckosity, even on the American public.

Even people who support Bush don’t deserve this.

And yet, The New York Times Book Review, along with most other august institutions of the literary world, dares to compare him to Duke Ellington. “Shaken out of his complacency by Sept. 11, Spiegelman ‘made a vow that morning to return to making comix,’ he writes.” Some gave blood, others enlisted, I went to Afghanistan. Spiegelman hit the drawing board. Step aside, firefighters, and meet the real hero.

“‘I remember my father trying to describe what the smoke in Auschwitz smelled like,” he writes in one panel. “The closest he got was to tell me it was…’indescribable.’ That’s exactly what the air in Lower Manhattan smelled like after September 11.” How do you know, Art? I wasn’t at Auschwitz and neither were you but I’m willing to bet good money that it didn’t smell like 9/11, which smelled like burning flesh mixed with that electrical burning scent you get from model trains. No charred wiring in the Reich’s machinery of death. More to the point, 9/11 killed 0.05% of the Holocaust death poll. Oh, and there was nothing personal about 9/11 to Art Spiegelman, save that he’s a millionaire who lives in the tony Tribeca neighborhood near where the Towers fell. He may suffer increased risk of lung cancer down the road from sucking up all of that EPA-approved residue but as a two pack a day smoker, one doubts that it will make much difference to him. To top it all off, this neurotic nut, writes: “‘I finally understand why some Jews didn’t leave Berlin right after Kristallnacht!” Because, you know, living in Tribeca is like being a Jew in Nazi-era Berlin. Get it?

Lots of people write shitty books. Others write padded excuses for a book. But it’s something of an event when such a preposterous pile of pretentious bullshit is widely lauded for its genius. Perhaps it’s appropriate for a time when George W. Bush can be compared to Winston Churchill.

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