How Maus Changed the Place of Comics in CultureBreaking News
tags: Holocaust, comics, Maus
BREAKDOWNS: PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG %@&*! By Art Spiegelman
MAUS NOW: SELECTED WRITINGS By Hillary Chute, ed.
When I was a junior in college, I studied abroad for a semester in Rome. I only managed to make one Italian friend, a charming boy with a winsome smile who, when he focused his attention on you, made you feel like you were at the center of the world. Needless to say, I had a crush on him. He did not have a crush back, but we spent a lot of time wandering Rome’s cobblestoned streets and sitting on the graffitied embankment of the Tiber River. On one of those occasions, he admitted something: He had read Mein Kampf and found it interesting. He knew what Hitler had done was wrong but was intrigued by the book nonetheless.
I didn’t know what to do with this confession. As the grandchild of Holocaust survivors whose families were almost entirely killed during the war, I could not assimilate this information into my relationship with my friend or even the context of my life. I had grown up with the importance of Jewish identity drilled into me—but always as a response to, and at a remove from, the past. The Holocaust was an unspeakable horror, but it felt distant to someone growing up as a privileged white person in the New York City suburbs, where I rarely, if ever, encountered anti-Semitism. So when my friend told me he was curious about Hitler, I told him I found it troubling. That was it. We stayed friends for a while and never spoke of it again.
I’ve thought of him in recent years, as overt anti-Semitism has become more of a fixture of American society and the Holocaust an occasional flash point in the right-wing culture wars. This past March, a Florida high school removed the graphic adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary from its library, after someone from the local chapter of a conservative parents’ rights group objected to it and the school principal agreed. Last year, a county board of education in Tennessee voted unanimously to ban Art Spiegelman’s Maus from its eighth-grade curriculum. “I love the Holocaust,” said an unnamed and probably well-intentioned teacher at the January 10, 2022, meeting where the vote was taken. “I have taught the Holocaust almost every year in the classroom, but this is not a book I would teach my students.”
Naturally, once the ban made headlines, the sales of Maus took off. More than 30 years after its release, the book—which intertwines the story of how Spiegelman’s father survived the Holocaust with the author’s own tortured relationship with him, using a visual trope that presents Jews as mice, Germans as cats, and Poles as pigs—remains both pertinent and, it seems, controversial. For his part, Spiegelman, now a 75-year-old comics icon, responded to the uproar and attention good-naturedly. He gave interviews addressing the controversy and said he didn’t see it as anti-Semitic so much as representative of a different, arguably related problem: “They want to teach the Holocaust,” he told Vulture. “They just want a friendlier Holocaust to teach.”
Maus can be described as many things, but it is decidedly not friendly. Yet the decades-long transition from a comic originally serialized in the pages of an alternative magazine to a mainstream, foundational, and even, yes, educational book has created a tension between the kind of text it is and the kind of text it’s expected to be. It has become a reference work about the Holocaust and a tool for those who are descended from such trauma (like me) to better understand their inheritance. It’s also one of myriad graphic novels about difficult subjects that are often taught in schools today, at least until crusading conservatives try to ban them, thus turning them into identity-politics rallying cries.
At the end of last year, Pantheon—the original publisher of both volumes of Maus, in 1986 and 1991—released two books that help cut through the controversy and showcase Spiegelman’s achievements more clearly. Maus Now: Selected Writing is a collection of previously published critical essays (both academic and journalistic) about the graphic novel, edited by Hillary Chute, a comics scholar and longtime Spiegelman interlocutor. Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*! is a collection of experimental comics by Spiegelman, now in its third iteration: The first gathered, in large format, the underground comics he’d made between 1972 and 1977 and was published the following year by a small press; almost half of its 5,000 copies were rendered unusable by an ink spill at the printer. Pantheon revived the book in 2008, repackaging it with new work: a 19-page introduction (in the form of a comic) and a prose afterword. The volume published this fall is essentially the same as the previous edition, except that it is now in paperback, slightly smaller, and with a new cover.
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