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December 31, 2009

CR Holiday Interview #11—Timothy Hodler On In The Shadow Of No Towers


If Tim Hodler isn't my favorite critical voice of the last half-decade, he's in the top three. The New York City-based writer and editor is part of the Comics Comics gang via his participation in The Ganzfeld. I think he has a way of sliding up and over the rhetorical pile-ups that accumulate around various comics works and getting at their heart in clear, forceful language. I was delighted that we ended up picking Art Spiegelman's In The Shadow Of No Towers for our chat. For obvious reasons, that book will be remembered as a comics publication tied into this decade. -- Tom Spurgeon

TOM SPURGEON: Tim, I'm going to apologize in advance for a few more questions of set-up than usual. First of all, can I ask you about your personal experience with 9/11? Were you in the city? What are the memories that stick out to you now about that time just after, your own reaction and what you observed from others?

TIMOTHY HODLER: Oh, good! If there's one thing I've learned over the last eight years, it's that everyone loves hearing about what you were doing on 9/11. My fairly typical for a New York City resident story: I was lying in bed, listening to my clock radio and procrastinating the start of my work day when I heard a loud bang that may or may not have been one of the planes hitting the World Trade Center. I lived in the Park Slope area of Brooklyn at the time, and don't really know if I was actually close enough to hear the collision, but when I got up and turned on the television, CNN was reporting that an airplane had hit the towers. At first, it didn't really sink in as anything more than a freak accident, and I was late for work, so I just kind of goggled for a moment before showering and heading for the subway. When I learned that the trains into Manhattan weren't running, I thought, "Great, one more thing is going wrong." Then I noticed that everyone on the street seemed incredibly frightened, and I began to realize the magnitude of what had happened.

Fortunately, I did not know anyone personally who died in the attacks, but like everyone else in New York, the following days and weeks and months were very frightening. I won't rehearse the details everyone has heard a million times (Giuliani, cell phones, ashes, etc.). I was working at New York magazine at the time, and in charge of the letters page, and that became a slight issue after anthrax attacks began that were believed to be targeted at the media. There was a strange but strong feeling of community in those days, which you could tell even at the time was fleeting. When a young person went out at night to a show or a concert or party or something, it felt like an act of communal bravery, like an existential act in the face of apocalypse. You know, someone would always take the opportunity to shout into the microphone some New Normal bravado like, "We're still here!" or something angrier and more profane. Occasions like that were obviously stupid but in the midst of a crowd (and the times) carried an emotional charge. Another difference, I found, is that at any moment, an intense argument could start between people who were friends, each taking on uncharacteristic stances. In retrospect, the intensity of those days is hard to comprehend.

The last strange thing from that time I will mention is that on the night of September 11, my now-wife and I walked to the shore of the East River in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to look across the water at downtown Manhattan, and found a large crowd of scores of people already there, staring in silence at the pillars of smoke where the WTC once stood, which were framed by a bizarrely technicolor sunset. I have to admit that I felt a little like a lemming, but also like it was somehow important to participate, for reasons I can't articulate. It didn't feel ghoulish until we spotted a tattered denim-and-leather, tattooed Williamsburg couple, groping each other and making out like there was no tomorrow. Based on the looks people were giving them, not many appreciated their disaster-inspired exhibitionism, but somehow it really brought out the surreality of the situation for me. Very extreme Thanatos versus Eros stuff, all wrapped up in a designer clothing. I was disgusted by them at the time, but I'm not sure I was right to be.

imageSPURGEON: Have you read or seen any other 9/11-related art that weren't comics, like Oliver Stone's World Trade Center, the Onion's post-9/11 issue or Paul West's The Immensity Of The Here and Now? What stands out to you almost a decade later and why?

HODLER: Hmm. I don't know how much September 11th-related art I've actually seen. I mean, Reno 911 was okay, but lacked focus. (That's not funny, so pretend I didn't say it.) I didn't see the Oliver Stone movie or read the Paul West novel, but I did read the Onion issue, and found it mostly solid but underwhelming. Like, it wasn't really bad, but not nearly as funny as everyone made it out to be. I mean, take something like the "God Angrily Clarifies 'Don't Kill' Rule" -- not really a laugh riot, and the ending ("God's shoulders began to shake, and He wept.") is sentimental to a fault. I think a lot of that issue was like that. But there's question but that it seemed to serve a necessary function for a lot of people. I could never tell how sincere people were being when I heard the constant refrain about needing "permission to laugh again." When David Letterman teared up on his initial return to television, it felt genuine and moving, but six or seven weeping television hosts later, it started to feel like kabuki theater or something. (Of course, kabuki apparently fills a cultural need, too.)

In fact, I would say almost all of the art I've experienced that was intended to be a direct response to the attacks, from Don DeLillo's Harper's article and novel to the statue of a falling woman that stirred up a lot of controversy in the New York tabloids at the time, struck me as pretty strongly inadequate. Michael Moore's an egomanical boor, but the opening of Fahrenheit 9/11, which used audio from the World Trade Center attacks that morning, actually brought me to tears in the theater -- the one and only time I have ever cried at the movies. I actually resented him for including those recordings, which felt like an exploitative sucker punch. (That is also why I have yet to see United 93, an experience I had no interest in reliving, though I've heard some good things about it, and maybe I should.) In general, I have preferred works that indirectly approached the events to ones that tackled it head on. It is quite possible that I am forgetting more than one work that deserves more praise.


SPURGEON: Do you think there are difficulties specific to this event in terms of making art about it? I've had it suggested to me that the event itself was such an artistic experience on the ground and on TV that it makes suspect other takes on the same circumstances. But I'm not sure why that is. Is it harder to make 9/11 art than it was to make art about Pearl Harbor? What makes it different?

HODLER: Is there a lot of great Pearl Harbor art that I am unaware of? The Michael Bay movie was fairly hilariously despicable, and 1941 is justifiably considered a debacle, but I guess From Here to Eternity had its moments. [Spurgeon laughs] I think it is impossible for an artist to wholly capture the experience of a person walking down the street to buy a sandwich, much less the violent deaths of 3000 persons in a politically inspired attack that ended up effecting the lives of nearly everyone on the planet. Which doesn't mean it shouldn't be tried; I'd love to read a novel that really brought to vivid life the whole sandwich-buying experience.

Your point about the vast amount of media exposure that 9/11 received from the get go is an interesting one to ponder -- if 24-hour cable news channels existed in the days of "King" Arthur, would we ever have gotten a book as miraculous as Mallory's Le Morte d'Arthur? My guess is no, we wouldn't, and yes, our art and literature has been impoverished by internet-enabled information overload. But that's just how I feel today. On other days, that position would feel like myopic whining. There have always been obstructions to creating complicated, life-enriching art; it's just the nature of the obstacles that change, not their magnitude.

SPURGEON: In comics, specifically, did you experience any of the comics tribute issues that came out in the months after 9/11 or have you looked at them or considered them since? The newspaper strips did one as well later that year. Can you articulate a thought or two on the kind of art that resulted? While I'm sure everyone who approached the project did so sincerely, I had a negative reaction to a lot of that art. To paint in broad strokes, I thought the one with the crying superheroes were silly to the point of insult, the ones with people standing outside and musing on the state of the universe were self-indulgent and the ones with patriotic leanings seemed knee-jerk, angry and ill considered. That makes this question loaded as well as rambling, but did you have similar reactions? What did you think then and what do you think now?

HODLER: I read the 9/11 Emergency Relief anthology from Alternative Comics when it was published, mostly because my wife was invited to participate and received free copies in exchange, and I read the two DC "Artists Respond" charity anthologies this month, after you invited me to participate in this interview. (I had skimmed them, and the Marvel book, back when they were first published, but didn't read them very thoroughly at the time.)

My reactions then and now are extremely similar to yours. In the Alternative book, I found the shorter strips most tolerable, and least risible. Harvey Pekar and Tony Millionaire's modest and clear-headed opening contribution ("I bet it doesn't get any easier from here.") inspired hopes that the rest of the collection couldn't satisfy, though as I mentioned, there are a few strong entries here and there. The stories in both this and the DC books about comic-book fans who just can't believe that Superman didn't save them are and were disheartening, though I remember feeling more sympathy for their emotional stunted nature in 2002, both because the books were for charity, and because many of the cartoonists who participated didn't have a history of artistic ambition. Taking on 9/11 as your first serious attempt at art would be pretty daunting.

That said, there was one terrible category you didn't mention: the rambling, twelve-page diary comic stories capturing every mundane detail of the cartoonist's day on September 11, and imbuing it all with terrible significance, even though almost all of them revolved around watching television and talking to Mom on the telephone. (I know I'm asking for it after my answer at the beginning of this interview, but I tried to keep it short and unassuming -- and more importantly, I wouldn't have brought it up if you hadn't asked! I swear.)

But yes, supervillains crying over terrorist attacks are moronic, the "philosophical" strips are incredibly underwhelming, and the political strips didn't help much. I did like that Dean Haspiel didn't hesitate about drawing himself shirtless and in boxer-briefs, even in this context. That made me laugh, in a good way. And Frank Miller's "I hate God" strip is fascinating in a keeping-tabs-on-the-progress-of-his-evolving-and-inscrutable-political-philosophy kind of way. There are other strips worth talking about, but I've probably gone on long enough, and anyway, who's rambling now?

SPURGEON: There was an interesting notion that was floated around the time of the 9/11 tribute books that they were important divorced from their content because industries that support art forms make books of that kind at turning points in history, have some sort of reaction. To bring it to No Towers, you could also say that art forms that function in a certain way make tribute books and foster books in reaction. Do you think there's anything to that sort of artistic responsibility?

HODLER: I can understand why someone in an editorial or publishing position would think, "We need to cover 9/11," or why a weekly or daily cartoonist (especially a political one) would feel obligated to respond to an event of that magnitude. I mean, it would have been weird if Garry Trudeau had just gone on as if nothing had happened. That being said, I would hesitate before dictating to artists any specific responsibilities. I think artists are responsible to their own vision, that they have a duty to express artistic truth (a slippery word) as they see it to the best of their ability. But I think a world in which every cartoonist was forced to publish a response to 9/11 would lead to an enormous amount of bad art. See the contents of the previously mentioned anthologies for evidence of my position.

imageSPURGEON: Are there any works in which you can detect the presence of 9/11 that maybe doesn't work with it explicitly? Is there a hangover that effects the art, and if not, why not? For example, I've wondered after how it hasn't changed the scale of superhero comics, where in the real world this destruction of a few buildings turns the world upside own and in these stories they're frequently leveling entire city blocks in this kind of unrelenting series of physical horrors. But I could imagine a similar effect in any number of comics... is there anything resembling a 9/11 hangover you can think of?

HODLER: This is an interesting question for sure, and the answer to it will probably be obvious in hindsight, a decade or two from now. I think in some sense 9/11 itself hasn't caused a hangover (besides a temporary moratorium on disaster movies, and then, as you imply, an intensification of the CGI explosions in them now that they're back), but that subsequent events made possible by it have, such as the Patriot Act, Iraq, Abu Ghraib, et cetera.

I'm not sure if I'm reading you right in your comment on superhero comics, but if you're saying that there seems to be even more city-destroying mayhem than before, I think you're probably right, or at least it feels that way. One other thing that has changed is that both of the big superhero companies, Marvel in particular, seem to have figured out that piggy-backing on current events, even in the most half-assed way, can lead to media coverage. This is a pretty obvious thing to point out, but it's still maybe worth mentioning that line-wide events like Civil War and Dark Reign, et cetera, are largely fueled by recent world history, which I think is fairly new for superhero comics, at least to this huge extent. And of course, you have the constant dark "crises" at DC as well, which may not be new, but certainly grew more unrelenting. It's hard for me to tell how much of this is due to recent politics and how much is due to the state of the market as a whole, but it's there.

It is fascinating to me how much "alternative" comic-book artists have avoided the politics and history of the Bush era. It's a far cry from the underground days. I don't know whether that's good or bad, but it's understandable, as it's hard to make political art that is actually art. But I remember when Zap #15 came out, which included a Gilbert Shelton Wonder Warthog story that took on contemporary American politics. It wasn't really a particularly good strip, actually, but it still felt like something of an indictment of the timidity of so many current younger cartoonists. Then again, the culture has changed, and as I said above, I don't believe that artists have a responsibility to take on these things unless they feel the calling. It still seems remarkable that so few do feel the calling.

I also think that without Osama bin Laden, Lord of the Rings would not have won Best Picture.

imageSPURGEON: Can you give me a few sentences of thought on Art Spiegelman, where he stands in your personal pantheon of comics creators and as an arts figure generally? Did you have expectations based on that view when opening this book?

HODLER: Art Spiegelman is unarguably one of the most important figures in comic-books of the past thirty-five or so years, but he's never been a particular favorite of mine. I find his persona grating; he is sometimes comes off as irritatingly self-involved, and his critical enthusiasms often appear curated for hip credibility and respectability (an odd thing to claim of a cartoonist, I know, but still). These very personal, unfair, and probably irrelevant criticisms aside, Maus was the first comic I ever read with unmistakable artistic ambitions, and I still think it one of the very greatest, most successful, and most moving single works ever created in the medium. That alone earns him a lifetime pass, and when you add the nearly impossible to overstate influence of RAW, you've got two lifetime passes, which is a record for American cartoonists. His critical essays are pretty much unfailingly insightful and deeply considered, even when I disagree with them, and he's produced a handful of New Yorker covers that will probably be considered classics for as long as the magazine is remembered. Breakdowns and the new memoir are interesting and important minor works, but I'm not much of a fan of most of the other comics and illustrations I have seen from him. His recently published sketchbooks are valuable and surprisingly revealing, of not only his artistic limitations, but also his insecurities, and what I (cringe to) call his generosity in allowing readers access to them. Oh, and the Toon Treasury of Classic Children's Comics he co-edited this year is impeccable.

In terms of my expectations towards In the Shadow of No Towers: I had read some of the strips in their serialized form, and did not have high hopes for the book as a whole, but was still very interested to read it -- as I will be in nearly anything he chooses to publish -- for all the reasons stated above.

SPURGEON: Spiegelman was busy enough with various comics and related projects in the 1990s that we sometimes forget In The Shadow Of No Towers was his first major comics project after Maus. Is there anything in the reading of it that indicates its place in Spiegelman's career to you? How does it function as a follow-up to that work? As I recall, there are outright references to this work following Maus in the introduction and in the text.

HODLER: Earlier you brought up the question of whether or not artists had a responsibility to cover 9/11. Besides a few stray references in the text to the earlier work -- none of which seemed particularly resonant to me -- I think the main influence that Maus had on No Towers was to make its creation inevitable. Maus made Spiegelman the go-to guy for taking on the unspeakable. I don't think it functions as a follow-up in any other meaningful way, and think Spiegelman was wise to avoid making the connections too prevalent or obtrusive -- though they are there a bit. Mostly, Maus makes No Towers look bad.


SPURGEON: As you've probably guessed, I struggled greatly with In The Shadow Of No Towers as a response to 9/11, and I wondered how you looked it. Looking at it recently, I saw a bunch of discordant elements that never really cohered to pull things in any one direction. There's an element of reaction by making art, but also a repudiation of past artistic approaches and this outright nostalgic celebration of a lost past. How do you think No Towers functions as Spiegelman's response to what he saw and how he was feeling?

HODLER: In his introduction, he calls it "a slow-motion diary of what I experienced while seeking provisional equanimity," and that strikes me as accurate. More than any of his other comics, with the possible exception of "Prisoner On The Hell Planet," No Towers reads something like art-as-therapy. Much of it appears haphazardly put together, sloppily argued -- often crudely drawn -- and straining for a significance it's unable to articulate for readers. And yet, at least to someone who lived in New York in that era, it definitely evokes the emotional state of those years -- which were often enormously frustrating and confusing and panic-strewn. It doesn't appear to me he was able to shape a lot of the raw emotional subject matter into a cohesive whole, but the parts are there. Or at least some of them are. The most fundamental problem with the book to me is the fact that Art Spiegelman didn't have much of a story to tell -- nothing really happened to him! Or at least, not much more than happened to me. All he did was see one of the planes hit, and then go take his kids out of school. This wouldn't necessarily be a problem if so much of the comic didn't revolve around the idea that the experience was profound and of universal interest, something he never convincingly demonstrates.

imageOne of the more interesting failed communications in the book can be found in what Spiegelman calls "the pivotal image of my 9/11 morning -- one that didn't get photographed or videotaped into public memory but still remains burned onto the inside of my eyelids several years later ... the image of the looming north tower's glowing bones just before it vaporized." This image, as he created it with computer software, is repeated throughout the ten strips that make up the book, and doesn't really register at all. It's not a powerful image, except apparently in Spiegelman's mind -- instead it just looks cheesy and half-baked. That the symbol so pivotal to Spiegelman, something I would not have guessed if we didn't have the introduction -- and obviously we do have it so we should keep that in mind, comes off as so underwhelming is indicative of many of the book's shortcomings.

Despite the book's flaws, it still holds a lot of interest, if only to see how such formally minded an artist as Spiegelman attempts -- and fails -- to solve various problems of representation. And while it often appears overwrought and out-of-control, Spiegelman openly admits as much within the strip itself, and there is, or was -- this is one of the ways a book like this can date itself -- something cathartic about his willingness to attack the then-prevailing let's-conquer-Iraq-and-by-the-way-you're-a-traitor mindset so unequivocally. It sometimes seems impossible to believe just how dramatically limited the public expression of dissent really became.

I think it's only in the last strip that Spiegelman really succeeds in his aims -- despite the fairly obvious visual metaphor he creates by formatting two columns to resemble the twin towers. In that one, he recounts an interview he gave to NBC for the 9/11 "Concert for America" as part of a collection of conversations with "typical New Yorkers." For the first time in the book, he describes an experience that really is fairly unique, and he manages to make something funny and poignant out of it. The gears-switching in the final panels displays an awareness and control mostly absent from the rest of the book. Not enough to save it, but enough to make me wonder what he could have done with this subject if he'd waited a few years before taking it on. But then we wouldn't have got the book we do have, which is almost more fascinating because of its flaws. Hell, Spiegelman's already made a near perfect book, maybe it's more rewarding now to work without a net and see what results.


SPURGEON: A lot of my comics-reading friends seemed to have a hard time with Spiegelman's choice to look at old art work, both as an appropriate or even interesting way to process the event. How do you view that impulse from Spiegelman? Does it work for you, both as an inquiry of its own and as it's presented here?

HODLER: I don't know. I didn't quite buy Spiegelman's claim that no art could get past his defenses in those days except for these old comic strips; the idea that everything from Aeschylus to Rembrandt to Beethoven was useless next to Happy Hooligan is alien to me. But I love old comics too, and the idea of reviving them for a contemporary audience is admirable. (It's interesting that this book came out a year before So Many Splendid Sundays, and in a way, was one of the first books in the recent wave of reprinting old strips in something approaching their original size.) For the most part, unfortunately, I don't think he was able to really make the connections between his project and the older work cohere in any meaningful way. It was nice to see them, but their connection to current events seemed a stretch at best. Except, I guess, for the reminder they give that even dramatic and monumental events usually lose their force and meaning for later generations.

SPURGEON: Does looking at In The Shadow Of No Towers now engender a different set of reactions than earlier readings? What maybe stands out now that wasn't apparent then?

HODLER: One thing that struck me upon re-reading it at this late date is just how much context it is necessary for the reader to provide on his or her own: just as in the political cartoons Spiegelman has claimed not to want to emulate, very little of the symbols are explained. Why is Cheney portrayed as slitting the American eagle's throat? You'd never know from these comics alone. Also, the crudeness of the drawings and rudimentary experimentation with computers seems far more forgivable to me now than it did in 2004. I basically find it no more impressive aesthetically than I did then, but am more drawn to it as an emotional experience and as a rather audacious act of self-revealment.


SPURGEON: One of the ways this book functions as a book of the decade is in its unorthodox presentation and formatting. I know that a lot of people were dissatisfied with it at the time, but how do you feel about this book as an object?

HODLER: I think that ideally it would not have been marketed as a $20 oversize book, packaged in such a way as to appear weighty and large, when it really consisted of only ten original comic strips and a handful of reprints. I'm sure market considerations drove that decision, but it isn't surprising that so many readers felt cheated. I remember thinking at the time that it took some guts to put out a ten-page book with pages thick enough to make it look like 200 pages. I mean, look at how much more you got in just one similarly priced volume of Maus. Still, now that my $20 is five years gone, the sense of being taken for a ride has faded. I like that the strips are big. Perhaps it would have been better published as a softcover, but Pantheon probably wasn't interested in letting a potential cash cow gift book like this slip by unexploited. It's nice to have some large examples of [Lyonel] Feininger and George McManus, at least.

SPURGEON: Spiegelman had another chance -- an earlier chance -- to comment on that world event: his New Yorker cover with the black on black towers. Do you have any comment on the effectiveness (or not) of that image, and how it might relate to his more considered efforts later on?

HODLER: It's hard for me to imagine many cover illustrations that could have portrayed that event without cheapening it; Spiegelman's cover was an elegant and impressive solution. The most obvious way it relates to the book is in its re-appearance on the latter's cover, and in the inspiration it presumably provided for the title. It is funny, though -- the best two pages by far created by Spiegelman were this early cover image and the last strip, nearly two years later in conception.


* In The Shadow Of No Towers, Art Spiegelman, Pantheon, 9780375423079, 2004, 42 pages, $19.95


This year's CR Holiday Interview Series features some of the best writers about comics talking about emblematic -- by which we mean favorite, representative or just plain great -- books from the ten-year period 2000-2009. The writer provides a short list of books, comics or series they believe qualify; I pick one from their list that sounds interesting to me and we talk about it. It's been a long, rough and fascinating decade. Our hope is that this series will entertain from interview to interview but also remind all of us what a remarkable time it has been and continues to be for comics as an art form. We wish you the happiest of holidays no matter how you worship or choose not to. Thank you so much for reading The Comics Reporter.

* CR Holiday Interview One: Sean T. Collins On Blankets
* CR Holiday Interview Two: Frank Santoro On Multiforce
* CR Holiday Interview Three: Bart Beaty On Persepolis
* CR Holiday Interview Four: Kristy Valenti On So Many Splendid Sundays
* CR Holiday Interview Five: Shaenon Garrity On Achewood
* CR Holiday Interview Six: Christopher Allen On Powers
* CR Holiday Interview Seven: David P. Welsh On MW
* CR Holiday Interview Eight: Robert Clough On ACME Novelty Library #19
* CR Holiday Interview Nine: Jeet Heer On Louis Riel
* CR Holiday Interview Ten: Chris Mautner On Scott Pilgrim



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