Art Spiegelman: Voice in the wilderness

Art Spiegelman is one of the world's most revered graphic artists. Yet when he turned his hand to the burning issues of our day, the US media didn't want to know. Hannah Cleaver discovers why
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This morning, if he gets up in time, Art Spiegelman, the Pulitzer-prizewinning New York cartoonist, will walk to Ground Zero - early, to avoid the crowds, as he did last year. It's a short walk: he lives "in the last block that wasn't sealed off" when the twin towers collapsed, while his daughter Nadja goes to school nearby. When he gets there, he will meditate on the monstrous loss of innocent life two years ago. He will also reflect on the fear that he felt as he saw the towers in flames, and on his panic as he frantically searched for Nadja in the chaos; and on the thousands who, unlike him, failed to find their loved ones alive.

But the acclaimed creator of the Maus books might also reflect on the curious evolution of "In the Shadow of No Towers", the cult cartoon strip into which he has channelled his response to that day and the events that have flowed from it.

Spiegelman was working at The New Yorker at the time as a designer and illustrator. (His wife, Françoise Mouly, is the art editor there.) His first response to the atrocities - an almost entirely black cover for the magazine, on which the iconic rectangular outline of two towers could just be discerned - was rapturously received.("When I saw the picture for the first time," wrote the novelist Paul Auster, "it was as if Spiegelman had placed a stethoscope on my chest and methodically registered every heartbeat that had shaken my body since September 11.") But Spiegelman - a child of Holocaust survivors whose whole life has been coloured by the shadow of ideologically motivated terror - was traumatised by what he had seen that day, and wanted to do much more in response to it. "The September 11 attacks taught me some lessons," he said later. "One, cigarettes may not be what kills me. Two, I understood why the Jews didn't leave Germany after Kristallnacht: I loved New York. I wasn't leaving. And three, I was wasting my time doing anything besides comics."

In the decade since the publication of the two Maus books - graphic novels about the Holocaust in which Jewish mice are persecuted by Nazi cats - Spiegelman had drifted away from cartoons in favour of illustration and design. Some feared that his genius had become blocked; or that, in one rival's dismissive words, he was just "a guy with one great book in him". Now, finally, the proximity of death refired his enthusiasm for the calling that made his name. He realised, he says, that "there is something I can do in comics that I cannot do in other ways." He began to make notes for a post-September 11 cartoon strip, finally producing sketches in May 2002.

You would have expected the US media to sit up and take notice; instead, it slumped in its comfortable chair and closed its eyes. Yes, Spiegelman is a Pulitzer-prizewinning cartoonist; yes, he has a particular genius for describing the human price of fanaticism. Rarely have commentator and theme been so perfectly matched. But in the new "with-us-or-against-us" climate of aggressive US patriotism, his habit of expressing uncomfortable truths was becoming awkward. Once, The New Yorker had been happy to stand shoulder to shoulder with Spiegelman in the face of controversy (notably in the case of his notorious 1993 cover depicting an orthodox Jew passionately kissing a black woman); now he found himself being urged to tone down his work. "I found that I was fighting for every picture, and that was really exhausting." He realised that his new cartoon stood no chance of being published there; and, by extension, that he was probably working in the wrong place. (Spiegelman finally resigned this February, after 10 years, saying that The New Yorker was "marching to the same beat as The New York Times and all the other great American media that don't criticise the government for fear that the administration will take revenge by blocking their access to sources and information.")

Other leading publications were no more enthusiastic about the prospect of a Spiegelman cartoon on the theme of September 11. The New York Times never even responded to his offer of a strip; The New York Review of Books rejected what it saw with the opaque comment: "This would be great for Europe." Eventually, "In the Shadow of No Towers" was commissioned by the German newspaper, Die Zeit - whose editor, Michael Naumann, is an old friend and admirer.

But that was all the encouragement that Spiegelman needed. "In the Shadow of No Towers" has now been going for 10 episodes (six of which are reproduced here), in a loosely chronological sequence that takes us from the original attacks to "victory" in Iraq and beyond, and is now notionally complete. It has found further outlets: in The Forward, an admirable but hardly influential Jewish magazine based in New York; in Italy (in La Repubblica); in Belgium (in De Standaard); and, since March this year, in Britain, in the London Review of Books, in whose current issue you can see the final episode. But most people in Britain and the US are unaware of its existence. On this second anniversary of the al-Qa'ida outrages, it seems right to put it before a wider audience.

The strips are indeed subversive: characteristically complex and tormented, yet burningly articulate. You can see why the born-again US press steered clear - especially as the work moves on from the initial horror in New York to the subsidiary horrors of the "war on terror" and the changes it has wrought in US society. Yet there is also something shocking - and illustrative of those changes - in the thought that an artist of such towering reputation, apparently restored to the height of his creative powers, can scarcely get his work published in his own country.

"The US isn't the best place to be a dissenting voice at the moment," says Spiegelman. "People seem caught in a paroxysm of panic. The free press is spreading conventional wisdom most of the time. There is a real fear that seems to pervade journalists." He himself is no stranger to fear. "On September 11, I was scared out of my mind. You get that feeling that you are about to die and worry about whether you have been wasting your time."

In person, 55-year-old Spiegelman is the archetypal neurotic New Yorker, in touch with his inner terrors and unashamed to share them. He looks overworked, crumpled and tired, his smoking and his talking competing in speed. But he is also plainly sustained by his conviction that, in this work, he has been doing the right thing - both in his uncompromising message and in his choice of medium. "There is one thing I had an obligation to work in, and this had to do with making comics."

Fans of "In the Shadow of No Towers" see it as his most important and exciting work since Maus, a view from which Spiegelman does not dissent. "I think," he says modestly, "I got towards what I was after. This is as close to keeping my eye on the ball as I can get at the moment." He is now considering ways of pulling together the unusually formatted series in a single publication, and is working - at last - towards a new full-length graphic novel.

He has also been spending time in Europe - we met at a comics festival in Berlin. Given his parents' experiences in Germany, he enjoys the irony that he had to find refuge for his work in that country, and he is now an enthusiastic admirer of the Germans. "Over the past year, Germany has been the most morally exemplary nation that I can think of. Everyone has their own reasons behind things, but somehow, even more than the French resistance [to the war on Iraq], the German resistance seemed to be because 'It's wrong'. Germany followed its intuition."

He says he is "mystified" by Britain's support for the war, comparing Tony Blair to Voldemort in Harry Potter. "I still don't understand what he's doing. All that lack of information that we didn't have access to then is still not available to us now... You see, we have to talk in triple negatives."

As for America, he is disillusioned, but not despairing. "It feels lonely, but I do have like-minded friends. It's not a receptive time. But the zeitgeist changes." With Arnold Schwarzenegger campaigning for the Californian governorship, he and his friends are toying with the idea of Robert Redford as the man to save the US. Spiegelman has checked his politics and reckons he fits the bill. Then again, he adds, any film star would be an improvement on the current line-up. "I would be glad to have Godzilla. At least he is secular. People voted for Bush because they said that he would be their choice of candidate to have a beer with. Yet he has built his entire personality and identity on being a dry alcoholic."

While he will make his own pilgrimage to Ground Zero, Spiegelman will not take part in any ceremonies. "There is nothing like commemorating an event to make people forget it. Commemorations seem to be part of a revisionist memory process. Our heroic mayor; our heroic president..." He has banned himself from watching television - it makes him too angry.

As he contemplates Ground Zero and its ghosts today, it will be of little comfort to Spiegelman to reflect that the horrors unleashed two years ago might have been made for his pen. The rest of us may find hope in the thought that, whatever the inadequacies and insanities of our leaders' response to those evils, there is at least one clear voice that tells it like it is; and that Maus has rediscovered his roar.