Comics entered American newspapers at a moment of rapid, profound, and prolonged change the dawn of the twentieth century was met with an explosion of new technologies, not to mention significant dislocations of the population from the farms to the cities, from the south to the north, and from Europe to America. Comics spoke for the lower classes who had not yet reaped the benefits of those changes and for a middle class that felt disoriented by them. Characters like the Katzenjammer Kids, Happy Hooligan and Krazy Kat with their perpetual energy and eternally elastic bodies could neither be contained nor destroyed; their misadventures were being read alongside news reports of people suffering electric shocks from faulty wiring, dying in tenement fires, or getting run over by streetcars. These comics helped turn-of-the century Americans laugh at things that otherwise felt hopelessly out of control.
Spiegelman reproduces a selection of early comic strips, including a remarkable Winsor McCay strip, published in September 1907, in which his protagonists are depicted as giants, trampling over buildings in Lower Manhattan, not far from where the twin towers were later built and then destroyed. The McCay cartoon is striking because of the contrast between the artists detailed representation of New Yorks architectural wonders and his surrealistic images of giant cigar-chomping clowns climbing skyscrapers. Similarly, the cover of No Towers uses a realistic but shadowy rendering of the World Trade Center as the disturbing backdrop for cartoonish figures raining from the sky.
Spiegelman wants us to read these vintage images of toppling skyscrapers and raining people against the reality of what happened on September 11, transforming slapstick fantasies into chilling prophecy. He has explored this terrain before, depicting the horrors of the Holocaust through images from funny animal comics in Maus. No Towers is not as good as the Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus but these images hit such a raw nerve at the time he created them two years ago that he had trouble finding a U.S. publisher.
Kerry Conran, Sky Captains director, was also haunted by ghosts of tomorrows that never were. He told Entertainment Weekly that the film took shape around a haunting mental image of a Zeppelin descending through snow and searchlights toward its moorings in Manhattan, which called out to him from some now-forgotten Hollywood movie. Conran spent years recreating these images on his home computer before getting independent funding to finish the film. The result is gee whiz technological magic with most of the sets created digitally as actors performed in front of blue screen and with Lawrence Olivier, who died in 1989, restored to life and playing a new character, thanks to digital sampling.
In the film, The Zeppelin is identified as the Hindenburg III, suggesting a world where the deadly explosion of the original Hindenburg never took place or where the culture chose not to let the tragedy reshape their lives. If Spiegelman wants us to reconnect his slapstick images with the pain and suffering of 9/11s real world victims, Conran invites us to imagine a world where many of the traumatic events that would shape twentieth and twenty-first century history have not and may never occur.
An army of giant robots march down Broadway. Airships barely avoid colliding with skyscrapers. A mysterious mad scientist with a quasi-religious vision of purification and redemption – threatens to destroy the world from his hiding place in some uncharted spot. Just as we can now go back and read the popular culture of the late 1930s for its traces of an America on the eve of a world war, future historians will be able to read these images as displacements of early twenty-first century concerns but mapped onto an imaginary world where gum-chewing boy geniuses, dapper young pilots, plucky “female reporters,” and dashing British commanders can overpower anything the terrorists throw at us.