Skip to main content

The Sky Is Falling, the Sky Is Falling!

ISSUE:  Fall 2004

Everyone around the world with access to a television set saw the cataclysmic destruction of the World Trade Center towers, saw it in constant replay, burning—and burning itself into our collective retina. I saw it that way too, but first saw it unmediated. On September 11th my wife, Françoise Mouly, and I had just stepped out of our Lower Manhattan home. Those towers had been our taken-for-granted neighbors, always picture-postcard visible a mile south of our front stoop. That morning, out of the very clear, very blue sky, a plane roared right over our heads and smashed into the first tower. The scale of the disaster was at first unclear: as many have since observed, it seemed “surreal”—and we had to get over our stunned disconnect to realize that this was no movie, and that our fourteen-year-old daughter, Nadja, was in the heart of the growing pandemonium.

Nadja was a freshman at Stuyvesant High School, right below the towers. I went upstairs to call the school. While I was trying to get through, I turned on the TV to find out what had happened. All of a sudden we heard this other crash, and on the TV screen we saw the second tower. My wife shouted, “Forget the damn phone—just hurry!” So, while everyone else began to run out of the neighborhood, we were beginning to run in. A half hour after the first blast, we had made our way into the lobby of the school to find Nadja. It took an hour to locate her among the 3,000 disoriented students in the ten-story building. Some of her classmates had parents who worked in the towers; some had seen bodies falling past their windows. While we were there, the building momentarily lost its power and shook as the South Tower crumbled right outside. We got Nadja out a few minutes before the school decided to evacuate, and we made our way home on the promenade alongside the Hudson. We turned back to see the North Tower tremble. The core of the building seemed to have burned out, and only the shell remained—shimmering, suspended in the sky—before ever so slowly collapsing in on itself. Françoise shrieked, “No! No! No!” over and over again. Nadja cried out, “My school!” while I stared slack-jawed at the spectacle, not believing it real until the enormous toxic cloud of smoke that had replaced the building billowed toward us.

I tend to be easily unhinged. Minor mishaps—a clogged drain, running late for an appointment—send me into a sky-is-falling tizzy. It’s a trait that can leave one ill-equipped for coping with the sky when it actually falls. Before 9/11 my traumas were all more or less self-inflicted, but outrunning the toxic cloud that had moments before been the North Tower of the World Trade Center left me reeling on that fault line where World History and Personal History collide—the intersection my parents, Auschwitz survivors, had warned me about when they taught me to always keep my bags packed.

It took a long time to put the burning towers behind me. Personal history aside, zip codes seemed to have something to do with the intensity of response. Long after uptown New Yorkers resumed their daily jogging in Central Park, those of us living in Lower Manhattan found our neighborhood transformed into one of those suburban gated communities as we flashed IDs at the police barriers on 14th Street to be allowed to walk home. Only when I traveled to a university in the Midwest in early October 2001 did I realize that all New Yorkers were out of their minds compared to those for whom the attack was an abstraction. The assault on the Pentagon confirmed that the carnage in New York City was indeed an attack on America, not one more skirmish on foreign soil. Still, the small town I visited in Indiana—draped in flags that reminded me of the garlic one might put on a door to ward off vampires—was at least as worked up over a frat house’s zoning violations as with threats from “raghead terrorists.” It was as if I’d wandered into an inverted version of Saul Steinberg’s famous map of America seen from 9th Avenue, where the known world ends at the Hudson; in Indiana everything east of the Alleghenies was very, very far away.

One of my near-death realizations as the dust first settled on Canal Street was the depth of my affection for the chaotic neighborhood that I can honestly call home. Allegiance to this unmelted nugget in the melting pot is as close as I comfortably get to patriotism. I wasn’t able to imagine myself leaving my city for safety in, say, the south of France, then opening my Herald Tribune at some café to read that New York City had been turned into radioactive rubble. The attacks taught me some lessons. 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. I made a vow that morning to return to making comics full-time, despite the fact that comics can be so damn labor-intensive that one has to assume that one will live forever to make them.

In those first few days after 9/11 I got lost constructing conspiracy theories about my own government’s complicity in what had happened that would have done a Frenchman proud. (My susceptibility to conspiracy goes back a long way but had reached its previous peak after the 2000 elections.) Only when I heard paranoid Arab Americans blaming it all on the Jews did I reel myself back in, deciding it wasn’t essential to know precisely how much my “leaders” knew about the hijackings in advance—it was sufficient that they immediately instrumentalized the attack for their own agenda. While I was going off the deep end in my studio, Françoise was out impersonating Joan of Arc—finding temporary shelter for Tribeca friends who’d been rendered homeless, sneaking into the cordoned-off areas to bring water to rescue workers, and even, as art editor of the New Yorker, managing to wrest a cover image from me, a black-on-black afterimage of the towers published six days after the attack.

I’d spent much of the decade before the millennium trying to avoid making comics, but from some time in 2002 until September 2003 I devoted myself to what became a series of ten large-scale pages about September 11th and its aftermath. It was originally going to be a weekly series, but many of the pages took me at least five weeks to complete, so I missed even my monthly deadlines. (How did the newspaper cartoonists of the early twentieth century manage it? Was there amphetamine in Hearst’s water coolers?) I’d gotten used to channeling my modest skills into writing essays and drawing covers for the New Yorker. Like some farmer being paid to not grow wheat, I reaped the greater rewards that came from letting my skills at combining the two disciplines lie fallow.

A restlessness with the New Yorker that predated 9/11 grew as the magazine settled back down long before I could. I wanted to make comics—after all, disaster is my muse!—but the magazine’s complacent tone didn’t seem conducive to communicating hysterical fear and panic. At the beginning of 2002, while I was still taking notes toward a strip, I got a fortuitous offer to do a series of pages on any topic I liked from my friend Michael Naumann, who had recently become the editor and publisher of Germany’s weekly broadsheet newspaper, Die Zeit. It allowed me to retain my rights in other languages and came complete with a promise of no editorial interference—an offer no cartoonist in his right mind could refuse. Even one in his wrong mind.

The giant scale of the color newsprint pages seemed perfect for oversized skyscrapers and outsized events, and the idea of working in single-page units corresponded to my existential conviction that I might not live long enough to see them published. I wanted to sort out the fragments of what I’d experienced from the media images that threatened to engulf what I actually saw, and the collage-like nature of a newspaper page encouraged my impulse to juxtapose my fragmentary thoughts in different styles.

The pivotal image from 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—was the image of the looming North Tower’s glowing bones just before it vaporized. I repeatedly tried to paint this with humiliating results but eventually came close to capturing the vision of disintegration digitally on my computer. I managed to place some sequences of my most vivid memories around that central image but never got to draw others.

I’d hoped to draw the harrowing drive through a panicked city to retrieve our then nine-year-old son, Dash, from the United Nations School that we thought a likely target that morning and, once we were all reunited, my breaking down in tears that shook my kids up far more than the events that precipitated my sobs. I intended to do a sequence about my daughter, Nadja, being told to dress in red, white, and blue on her first day at the Brooklyn high school she was transferred to while her school in Ground Zero was being used as a triage center. I forbade her to go, ranting that I hadn’t raised my daughter to become a goddamn flag; she placated me by explaining that she had the perfect jumper for the occasion. I planned a “terror sex” sequence about the rumors of women patriotically rushing into the wreckage to give comfort to rescue workers at night and noted one Tribeca bachelor friend’s wistful observation that those first days were “a really great time for picking up girls.” (I responded that I couldn’t imagine anything more detumescent than those two 110-story towers collapsing.)

I had anticipated that the shadows of the towers might fade while I was slowly sorting through my grief and putting it into boxes. I hadn’t anticipated that the hijackings of September 11 would themselves be hijacked by the Bush cabal that reduced it all to a war recruitment poster. At first, Ground Zero had marked a Year Zero as well. Idealistic peace signs and flower shrines briefly flourished at Union Square, the checkpoint between Lower Manhattan and the rest of the city. That was all washed away by the rains and the police as the world hustled forward into our “New Normal.” When the government began to move into full dystopian Big Brother mode and hurtle America into a colonialist adventure in Iraq—while doing very little to make America genuinely safer beyond confiscating nail clippers at airports—all the rage I’d suppressed after the 2000 election, all the paranoia I’d barely managed to squelch immediately after 9/11, returned with a vengeance. New traumas began competing with still-fresh wounds, and the nature of my project began to mutate.

I’d never wanted to be a political cartoonist. I work too slowly to respond to transient events while they’re happening. (It took me thirteen years to grapple with World War II in Maus!) Besides, nothing has a shorter shelf life than angry caricatures of politicians, and I’d often harbored notions of working for posterity—notions that seemed absurd after being reminded how ephemeral even skyscrapers and democratic institutions are.

As the series got rolling, I found my own “coalition of the willing” to publish along with Die Zeit. Most of the distinguished newspapers and magazines that found a way to accommodate the large format, quirky content, and erratic schedule were in the “old Europe”—France, Italy, the Netherlands, England—where my political views hardly seemed extreme. The concept of an overtly partisan press has a lot to recommend it. In America, my reception was decidedly less enthusiastic. Outside the left-leaning alternative press, mainstream publications that actively solicited work from me (including the New York Review of Books and the New York Times as well as the New Yorker) fled when I offered these pages or excerpts from the series. Only the weekly Forward, a small-circulation English-language vestige of the once-proud daily Yiddish broadsheet, enlisted and ran them all prominently. I pointed out to the Forward’s editor that my pages, unlike my Maus pages that they’d once serialized, wouldn’t have much specifically Jewish content. Offering me the Right of Return, he shrugged and said, “It’s okay—you’re Jewish.”

The climate of discourse in America shifted dramatically just as I concluded the series. What was once unsayable now began to appear outside the marginalized alternative press and late-night cable comedy shows. A profile of me in the Arts section of the New York Times in the fall of 2003 even included the very panel of me feeling “equally terrorized” by al Qaeda and by my own government that had made some editors visibly shudder two years earlier. Sigh! It’s hard to be an artist who’s consistently Seconds Ahead of His Time.

What changed? Basically, America entered its preelection political season. Free debate is expected as proof of Democracy in action. And though it has been an enormous relief to hear urgent issues get an airing again, I was disappointed that vigorous criticism had been staved off until it could be contained as part of our business as usual. The feelings of dislocation reflected in the No Towers pages arose in part from the lack of outcry against the outrages while they were being committed.

Still, time keeps flying, and even the New Normal gets old. My strips are now a slow-motion diary of what I experienced while seeking some provisional equanimity—though three years later I’m still ready to lose it all at the mere drop of a hat or a dirty bomb. I still believe the world is ending, but I concede that it seems to be ending more slowly than I once thought …


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading