‘They’re Authoritarians, Dammit!’ Art Spiegelman On the School Board That Cancelled ‘Maus’

Art Spiegelman has been around for four decades Maus,The graphic novel was a huge success, selling millions of copies and winning a Pulitzer Prize. It also earned a spot in the Western canon. The book communicates the history of the Holocaust through the history of his family— Polish Jews, who are rendered as mice, sent to death camps by Nazis, who are rendered as cats. Maus is taught in thousands of schools, including, until recently, to eighth-graders in Tennessee’s McMinn County, where the local school board voted 10-0 on Jan. 10 to remove it from the middle school curriculum. These were predictable.

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Already alert to a flurry of previous efforts to remove titles deemed inappropriate by state and local politicians—including a Texas state lawmaker’s demand that every school district “investigate” some 850 books dealing with race or sexuality—liberals smelled a rat. The culture wars many Republicans want to wage against public schools feature heavily in their school curriculums. Although progressives would prefer an unfiltered teaching of U.S. historical events, Maus, one member of the McMinn County school board found “it looks like the entire curriculum is developed to normalize sexuality, normalize nudity and normalize vulgar language. If I was trying to indoctrinate somebody’s kids, this is how I would do it.”

“Who’s the snowflake now?” Spiegelman shot back in one interview.

The cartoonist, who turns 74 on Feb. 15, spoke to TIME the morning after headlining a webinar that had attracted an audience of 17,000 before crashing the Facebook page of the Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga, which had hosted the conversation along with an array of Tennessee clergy, rabbis, and local activists Spiegelman found so enlightened and reasonable he said he might “have to jettison my caricatured notion of them all as Lil’ Abner-style hillbillies.”

TIME: What are the costs of caricatures?
Art Spiegelman: Well, we’re dealing with everything from vile, racist and antisemitic caricatures to caricatures of what children are. Perhaps caricatures can be applied in the same way Walt Kelly, Herb Block did them.

Do you remember ever going to east Tennessee?

Do you want to read the minutes?
Yes, I did. Yes, I did.

Do you believe there is a real conspiracy?
That’s what left me so filled with flop sweat before the conversation last night, because I kept veering back and forth. Are you just being Pollyanna-naive? These people are really dumb? Are they really sinister forces trying to kill America? Is that what they are? I don’t know to what degree they’re genuinely out to destroy America and to what degree they’re actually just like I the metaphor I used last night: If you saw somebody like a psycho killer, strangling a loved one of yours, and you couldn’t reach that person to stop them. And your only response was, “God, did you see the fingernails on that creep’s hands? They’re dirty.”

Would you agree that it would be beneficial to get to know the other people?
Bulletproof glass is a good option.

This is what we call a ban. It is a ban.
It’s not banned in its broadest meaning, but it is a ban of sorts to use authority to keep people from things. Yes, it’s a ban. And yet it’s not a book burning.

The board later put out a statement that their decision “does not diminish the value of Maus as an impactful and meaningful piece of literature.” Do you take them at their word?

I don’t know. That’s where I started this conversation with you. I don’t know. I don’t know. They rewrote their meeting minutes in an effort to eliminate all of the horrible things that were said between them. This was to allow us to clean up the minutes two to three weeks later. How could I find out? My guess is that what they did was the law of the land still is based on the 1982 decision that you can ban things further affect young minds and whatever but you can’t on the basis of content. So they focus on how terrible it was to see what they described as a nude woman—what I saw as the naked corpse of my mother in the bathtub having slashed her wrists in that bathtub. It made me mad to be called nude. You can be livid if you are naked, meaning a vulnerable, lack of cover. Oder a bathrobe that is splattered in blood from the tub. Which didn’t make any sense. They didn’t want to show it. This was an issue.

I just can’t tell to what degree this carried water for more whacked out people than they are, the ones who really stand to profit from getting more charter schools in the area that teach religion, thereby taking money away from a public education that needs far, far more to do its job well. I don’t know. So we’ll have to see how this plays out. I don’t think I’ve changed and hearts and minds. What this thing last night did show is that caricatures aren’t the way through unless you really know how to use them. It’s like these people that I met last night are wonderful … talking about building bridges rather than blowing bridges up.

Some people at the webinar seemed very happy. Did they feel happy because there was a fight?
Yeah. They’re fighting not to burn the book burners or whatever, but really trying to make some kind of bridge—although I think it might be a bridge too far—it’s such an admirable thing to do. They’re better people than I am. I attempted to rise above the situation. Caricatures are a way to be subverted. It’s like when Nazis and Jews were reduced to Cats and Mice. By showing caricatures with people underneath them, and drawing attention to it more and more throughout the book, the metaphor dissolves their caricature. But you’re play with dynamite when you’re playing with caricature.

It’s such a personal book. What is the personal nature of this offense?

Yes. Because when they’re really most focused on me yelling at my father when he destroyed my mother’s diary and finally confessed to it. I say something like “God damn you, murderer, you murdered her a second time!” The memories that she had managed to preserve for me, because what she said when she was young ,when she died, reoccur, and were destroyed so my cursing is there. And I’m cursing at my mother. I’m calling her a bitch, in the confusion of finding out that my mother had just died that day by killing herself. And there’s a a turmoil, there’s a turmoil of remembering my early childhood, of what the reasons might be, ranging from premenopausal depression to life in the camps damaging her so badly.

It was like they’d really concentrated on this little area. What was the reason? It was because I believed they thought I had broken the commandment to honour thy father or mother. That was usurping their authority. They’re all parents. They don’t want their kids talking to them like that, thank you. They love authority the most. They’re authoritarians, dammit.

The board’s attorney said the book could be salvaged if the author approved “extensive edits,” like whiting out “bitch.” Maybe we should just put in “blintz” or “bagel.” Make for a more wholesome Jewish cultural experience.

There is a history of censorship in your family, correct? The Comics Code?
It was the Comics Code that made me. It was true, comic books were burned by parents, teachers, and clergymen in the 1940s and 1950s. Many bonfires were lit across the nation. One of the bonfires I remember was one I saw in Binghamton (N.Y.), where I lived until I was kicked out. That was an important moment because comics had been perceived as being for children, although adults—certainly, GIs, and young women who read true romance magazines were reading romance comics—were probably reading them more than children. It was all about the same things that school board members focused on: we must protect children rather than educate them and let them follow their dreams.

But the comics they were reading were far too far out and were becoming more outlandish as they delved into adult territory. Because they showed me their worst exaggerations, horror comics as well as some very graphic images found in those comics were my favourite. I absolutely love the horror comics. I love the companion horror comics from the same publisher.MAD. If one of these were available Citizen KaneMy biographies, such as the one at the end about the rosebud, would be copies ofMAD comics.

This controversy has boosted sales, hasn’t it?
It’s a huge part of my thinking. I haven’t seen it yet. But you know the cynical side of this is like: “Oh man you just got to get your book banned, it’ll really do wonders.” I can envision a future in which there are book galleys going out to people saying publication date, April 5, ban date May 1 .

I didn’t need the uptick in sales. MausThe book has been steadily selling since its first publication in 1986. This was even more after winning the Pulitzer Prize. I didn’t need to boost my income. It’ll give me more money to donate to things like voter registration.

But the other thing about the forbidden is that it’s it’s it’s always richer if you have to sneak it right? It was something I needed to conceal. MADMagazine from my mother.

My oldest and closest friend (now deceased) would tell you that there came a time when he needed to run.MADHe was in a school book and had to conceal his identity. MADIn his copy Playboy.

Which you’ve also worked for, as the school board noted.
It was indeed noted! They likely have their ban on the list, as it contains a number of authors that appear there. Gabriel Garcia Marquez is one of them. Margaret Atwood and Shel Silverstein are also on the list. It’s an honorable company to be in, even though I understand how Playboy hasn’t aged well in our current moment. It’s a wonderful one that I can throw at.


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