The unattended smudge on Art Spiegelman's cheek is either ink or ash. If ink, it completes the costume of a 56-year-old author, editor, unmatched impresario, and the underground's ambassador to the elite who is the main man in the business of Serious Comic Books. The style is exemplified by the vests he's been sporting since he ''began looking at photographs of old cartoonists and found out that's the uniform.'' And if it's ash, well, that comes with the job, too. ''I can't keep a thought in my head once I decide I want to have a cigarette,'' Spiegelman says, explaining that he tries to get his lectures classified as ''performances'' so that he may smoke. ''I play the neurotic cartoonist who, when talking about September 11, needs to send a whiff of death into the air.'' This July morning, Spiegelman is lighting up in his Manhattan studio and talking about the World Trade Center because, with a jarringly provocative collection of strips titled In the Shadow of No Towers (Pantheon, $19.95),he has addressed the attack as no one else could even think to.
The book's introduction (''I tend to be easily unhinged. . .'') leads first to giant spreads depicting the morning he bolted toward the shadow of the burning towers to snatch his daughter from her high school and then to reproductions of the early comics (Krazy Kat, Little Nemo, and their innocent ilk) that were both his inspiration and his solace. Though Towers abounds with the satire of a Mad magazine fanboy -- say, the image of Dick Cheney slashing a bald eagle's throat with a box cutter -- its politics are not the point. Bits that might now read as calculated calls for dissent were more like guttural cries. ''In my head,'' Spiegelman says, ''it was as visceral as having those towers fall behind my back.'' Like Maus -- the groundbreaking graphic novel about his father's experience in the Holocaust, a 1992 Pulitzer Prize winner -- the new strips exist at the intersection of global events and personal history: ''They're like a lot of fragmented thoughts after a brain shatters.''
In fact, Spiegelman's fractured brain has given him his whole career. As a 17-year-old in New York City, he spurned an offer of a syndicated strip -- ''I'm restless'' -- in favor of crafting underground comics and working for Topps, where he designed everything from the borders of baseball cards to Garbage Pail Kids. Sent off to Harpur College in Binghamton, N.Y., by parents who'd hoped he'd pursue a conventional career, he discovered the counterculture and soon found himself institutionalized after a psychotic meltdown. ''I'm glad it happened,'' he says. ''Getting hauled off to a mental hospital for a month made me crazy enough to not be drafted and crazy enough to not be a dentist. I felt like my subconscious was taking me someplace and I better just shut up and follow.'' For going on 40 years, it's led back to himself. ''Art's explored the autobiographical impulse as richly as anyone,'' says Dan Frank, his editor. ''It has a lot to do with his graphic persona. He's found a way to universalize himself.''