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USA: Art Spiegelman on Maus and Free Speech: ‘Who’s the Snowflake Now?’

Banned Books Should Be Required Reading

Sunday 13 February 2022, by siawi3


Art Spiegelman on Maus and Free Speech: ‘Who’s the Snowflake Now?’

Art Spiegelman

February 5, 2022

Since his early days in the underground comix scene, Spiegelman has reveled in ‘saying the unsayable’ and subverting convention

“Art Spiegelman” , photo by Austin Kleon (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In 1985, at the height of popularity for the faddish baby dolls, the Cabbage Patch Kids, the cartoonist Art Spiegelman debuted a subversive line of trading cards, the Garbage Pail Kids.

Featuring viscerally queasy drawings of, say, a mushroom cloud detonating from the roof of a cheery toddler’s skull, or a Raggedy Ann facsimile barfing up dinner into a pot, the Garbage Pail Kids were a sensation among edgy preteens all over the world. They were also swiftly banned in a slew of schools. To this day, Mexico has a law restricting the import and export of Garbage Pail Kids material.

“You know how Joe Manchin is a thorn in our side?” Spiegelman asked in a phone interview this week. “His uncle, A Jamie Manchin, was the state treasurer of West Virginia in the 80s. He said that Garbage Pail Kids should be banned because they’re subverting children. It runs in his family.

“It reminds me that things keep changing, but we’re still dealing with permutations of the same struggles.”

The latest permutation came last week, when the McMinn county board of education in Tennessee voted to remove Spiegelman’s 1991 Holocaust memoir, Maus, from its middle-school curriculum. Though the board cited the graphic novel’s use of non-sexual nudity and light profanity in defending its decision, the ban is part of a wave of scholastic censorship in the US, largely led by an agitated conservative movement and targeting books that deal with racism or LGBTQ issues.

But the author of the Pulitzer prize–winning graphic novel, which tells the story of his parents’ experience as Polish Jews during the Holocaust, traces his own free speech radicalism to a very different inflection point in America’s censorship wars. As a teenager, Spiegelman found himself siding with the right of Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois, a town with a significant population of Holocaust survivors.

“The ACLU lost a lot of members because they defended their right to march,” he said. “And I just thought that seemed right. Let them march, and if there’s any more trouble, stop them. I thought that was a conversation that had to take place.

“It shaped me.”

Born in Sweden after his parents were liberated from Auschwitz, Spiegelman grew up in Queens, New York, and began cartooning before he reached high school. He was a fixture of the 70s Bay Area underground comix scene, rubbing shoulders with world-renowned provocateurs like Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton. The work that birthed from that era was truly brazen – depicting drugs, violence and sex, with a thirsty anticipation for backlash.

Spiegelman says that he and his peers drew much of their rage from the rampant censorship campaign that targeted the comics industry in the 1950s – a time when, due to federal pressure, publishing houses instituted the Comics Code, which repressed even the teensiest adversarial tone in the work of mainstream cartoonists.

“There were literally parents and clergymen gathering comic books from kids and burning them in bonfires,” he said. “We as cartoonists of that generation loved the salacious, raucous, uninhibited expression of id. … We wanted to topple every article of the Comics Code if we could.”

He began to publish the deeply personal Maus as a serialized comic in 1980 in Raw, an annual comics anthology he edited with his wife, Françoise Mouly. But Spiegelman maintained a fascination with both high and low culture, leading him to pursue projects like the Garbage Pail Kids.

Spiegelman hasn’t exclusively rankled political conservatives. In 1993, in the aftermath of the Crown Heights riots, he drew a cover for the New Yorker that featured a Hasidic man and a Black woman bonded by a passionate kiss. The imagery ruffled feathers, even within traditionally liberal enclaves. Spiegelman recalls one baffling criticism from a member of the New Yorker editorial staff, who believed that his cover depicted a Hasidic man hiring an escort. (That clearly was not the case.)

A decade later, in 2002, Spiegelman struggled to find a domestic home for his 9/11-themed anthology of comics called In the Shadow of No Towers. Eventually he was forced to take it overseas to the German newspaper Die Zeit, due to what Spiegelman believes was the frothing jingoism that gripped the country after the attack.

“It was saying the unsayable. There’s one big panel in the second or third installment of In The Shadow of No Towers where I’m trying to take a nap at my drawing table. Osama bin Laden is on my left with a scimitar, while George W Bush is on my right with a gun to my head,” he says. “I think one of the people at the New Yorker said that I was crazy, that I was talking about those two things as equal threats. When that got back to me I said, ‘No, you’re right. America is a much larger threat.’”

Now Spiegelman is gearing up for the same war he’s been fighting since he first started drawing cartoons more than 50 years ago. The characters and context have changed, but his core ethics have not. In fact, the more I talked to Spiegelman, the more I got the sense that the Maus censorship has shaken him more than any of his previous brushes against authority. When you consider the many years children have turned to the book to better understand the Holocaust, it’s not hard to understand why.

Still, the current controversy has also neatly illustrated one of the foundational principles of the publishing industry: nothing drives up interest in a book faster than a misguided prohibition. Maus is topping bestsellers lists across the country, as readers everywhere clamor to see what the fuss is about.

“You know how they publish book galleys before books are published? On the back of them it says, ‘Published April 3’ and a list of things that’s being done to publicize the book? I see a future where it says, ‘Published April 3, banned May 12,’” Spiegelman said. “That would be the end date of anything they need to do to publicize the book.”

I hope that dawning reality adds some clarity to the culture war, which is why it’s reassuring to watch Maus blast off to the top of the sales charts. The conceit that the left consists exclusively of nosy schoolmarms, while the right is united in first amendment patriotism, has surely been rendered counterfeit by now.

“This week has been like, ‘Well, who’s the snowflake now?’” said Spiegelman. Let’s keep those words in mind.



Banned Books Should Be Required Reading

The people who want to ban Maus or The 1619 Project are the ones who need to read them.

By Olivia Alperstein

February 2, 2022

In January, a Tennessee county school board voted unanimously to ban Maus, a graphic novel by Art Spiegelamn about his parents’ experience in Auschwitz, from school classrooms. The ban, which complained about profanity and (mouse) nudity, came shortly before Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Decisions like these shortchange kids in every community.

Authors like Spiegelman didn’t just write (or illustrate) their books for a Jewish audience. They wrote for a wider audience of people who don’t know how horrific the Holocaust was, what caused it, or that the Holocaust didn’t kill only Jews.

Most books like these are disturbing. They’re supposed to be. Reading about how human beings — including infants — died so horrifically, you’re supposed to break down crying, asking: How could this have happened, and how can we ensure it never happens again?

That gut-wrenching sense of mourning — and the thrill for the people who fought back — is similar to how you should feel when you read other banned books about Black Americans being sold as human chattel, lynched, or blasted with water cannons as they protested for civil rights.

The people who want to ban Maus or The 1619 Project or any number of books about the lives of queer people or people of color are the very ones who need to read them.

Perhaps they don’t want to confront that ugliness because it means confronting something within themselves, their upbringing, or their communities that needs fixing. Confronting history also means recognizing that those legacies are far from over, a tough but crucial realization.

Fear and hatred have a close cousin in ignorance — it’s much easier to hate or fear someone you can’t see. And millions of Americans may have never met a Jewish person, a person of color, or an immigrant. But one of the best tools to defeat prejudice is education.

That’s why books like Maus and other frequently banned titles are so powerful and necessary. The Holocaust, after all, didn’t start with gas chambers and crematoriums. It started with book burnings, segregation, persecution, and hateful rhetoric from powerful politicians whom some dismissed as harmless buffoons — until it was too late.

If you’re hearing eerie echoes of that today, you’re not wrong. The January 6 insurrection featured a shameful parade of anti-Semitic groups and white supremacists who would like to reprise the Holocaust. For hateful people like the rioter who wore a “Camp Auschwitz” t-shirt, “Never Again” doesn’t resonate as much as “Never Enough.”

Genocide isn’t a thing of the past any more than racism. For decades, Holocaust survivors have shared their stories, because they know that those who don’t understand past horrors are doomed to repeat them. So have others who endured slavery, racism, and all kinds of discrimination.

Participating in our democracy requires confronting some of the awful and inconvenient truths about our society. You can’t change things for the better if you don’t understand why they shouldn’t remain the same.

That isn’t critical race theory. That’s basic critical thinking.

Instead of banning books, we should be asking: Why aren’t more school districts requiring students to read Holocaust memoirs like Night or Maus, Black stories like Between the World and Me, or reflections on Japanese-American internment camps like They Called Us Enemy?

All of these titles have been banned at some point. That’s why we need more parents of all backgrounds demanding that kids in their communities get a chance to learn from these stories.

We still need Black History Month because Black history isn’t treated like U.S. history. We still need Holocaust Remembrance Day because some people don’t know why we should remember it. And every day of the year, we still need books — to remind us of how we got here, of our common humanity, and of a better future we’re still seeking for everyone.

Olivia Alperstein is the media manager of the Institute for Policy Studies. This op-ed was distributed by