Maus is the book that changed my life, that turned my vision of the world from black and white to color. Maus showed me it was possible to tell an honest and complex story about a parent who was a Holocaust survivor. Maus helped me figure out how to understand and explain my own family’s history. Maus made it possible for me reach for the words I needed and the anger I needed to talk about what had happened to my family before they were able to flee Germany. It is impossible for me to imagine what my life would have been like, or who I would be, if I had not read Maus.
Everyone by now knows that in January this year the school board in McMinn County, Tenn., voted unanimously to ban Maus from schools in the district. Everyone knows, too, the explanation the board members gave: the graphic novel about what happened to Spiegelman’s family during the Holocaust contains eight mild curse words. It shows a woman—that is, a cartoon mouse version of a woman—naked in one panel. I am not particularly interested in analyzing the school board’s decision. The absurdity of their decision, the crudeness of their explanation, the way they have tried to position themselves as vulnerable in this situation (which all perpetrators do) tells you everything you need to know about who they are.
Every time I see the cover of Maus—displayed in a bookstore, reproduced on a newspaper page, as a thumbnail on a computer screen—I feel a kind of reassurance. I realize how strange it seems to say that about a book with a swastika on the cover. But Maus is the book that I’ve returned to again and again in hard times, because Maus is about the hardest of times and it doesn’t sugarcoat anything. And it never—I mean never—drops into cliché. What Maus shows, more than anything, is the real flawed and unpredictable humanity of people trying to make it through an inhumane situation.
The first time I heard about Maus, I was sitting in the living room of the house where I lived in Northampton, Mass.—the kind of ugly house you share when you’re a student. On the radio, someone was describing a graphic novel about a son trying to talk to his Holocaust survivor father. What was so remarkable, the broadcaster explained, was that the father wasn’t depicted as saintly. The writer’s father was a racist, and troubled—and he wrote about all of that.
I wanted that book immediately. Because I was, back then, just starting to talk about my own father’s history, and I had no idea how to talk about it. Sometimes new acquaintances would say: “Oh, your father must be an amazing man!” They would ask personal and intrusive questions. Or they would tell me what they knew about the Holocaust, which I was really—I mean really—not interested in. Or they would say facile and ignorant things about how my family’s survival showed that they’d been smart.
Here is what I read when I picked up Maus for the first time, and saw the scene where Art goes to see his therapist, who (like Art’s father Vladek) is also a Holocaust survivor:
Therapist: So do you ADMIRE your father for Surviving?
Art: Well-sure I know there was a lot of LUCK involved, but he WAS amazingly present minded and resourceful…
Therapist: Then you think it’s admirable to survive. Does that mean it’s NOT admirable to NOT survive?
Art: Whoosh. I—I think I see what you mean.
Therapist: Yes. Life always takes the side of life, and somehow the victims are blamed. But it wasn’t the BEST people who survived, nor did the best ones die. It was RANDOM!
For years after that, when anyone suggested that the people who escaped from Europe—that my family who escaped from Europe—got out because they were smart or admirable, I would conjure up that scene.
Maus came out in two parts: The first part, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History, came out in 1986. The second part, Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began, came out in 1992. Chapters of Maus—in which Jews were shown as mice, Germans as cats, and Poles as pigs—had been appearing in Raw magazine regularly since 1980. Spiegelman decided to publish the book in two volumes because he learned Steven Spielberg was making An American Tail, an animated film about a family of Jewish mice fleeing Cossacks and cats in early-20th-century Russia. Spiegelman thought that, if he waited until he completed both volumes of Maus, people would believe he had gotten the idea from Spielberg instead of the other way around. The publication of Maus I preceded the release of An American Tail by three months.
Maus became the first widely known graphic novel to tell a complex, vivid, and multi-layered story, the kind that people expected only from films and novels at that point. Spiegelman took what was considered low culture—comics—and created a thing most people weren’t expecting. His characters had animal heads, but they and their surroundings were depicted without the cuteness, beauty, or horror that most mainstream comics had. They were both surreal and startlingly real. The underground comix movement, which Spiegelman had been part of, had been producing comics that did this since the late 1960s. And Will Eisner first used the term “graphic novel” to describe his book A Contract With God in 1978. But Spiegelman was depicting in comic book form a subject that writers and film-makers for the most part depicted solemnly and rigidly: the Holocaust. The cartoon war correspondent Joe Sacco, whose work follows in the tradition of Maus, has pointed out that drawings can show you images that are too brutal to comprehend if you see them in photos. “Drawings allow you to look,” he said. Maus—unflinching, honest, and daringly creative—heralded a new genre.
When I try to remember what existed before Maus about having parents who were survivors, all I can think of is Helen Epstein’s Children of the Holocaust. It was a starting point, but as a book of oral history about transgenerational trauma, it was a specialist publication. Maus was something else entirely.
Vladek, Art’s father, is difficult, bigoted, and mean sometimes—he’s fucked up and flawed. Which is to say, he’s like a lot of fathers. Maus is also, very much, a story about trying to tell a story. Art is constantly grappling with how to draw things. Should he draw his wife, Françoise Mouly, a convert to Judaism, as a mouse? He draws her with a mouse mask on. I think a lot, still, about the scene where Art, with a pile of cartoon bodies next to his drawing desk, tries to come to terms with what he’s taken on. Then there was the dark humor of Maus. “And Here My Troubles Began” is the title of the chapter where Vladek arrives at Auschwitz. Before this, however, he’s already been imprisoned in a ghetto, was a forced laborer, lost his young son and in-laws, was turned away by non-Jewish acquaintances, and betrayed by a smuggler he’d hoped would bring him and his wife from Poland to Hungary.
Maus went on to win a Pulitzer Prize, received hundreds of dazzling reviews, and was on the New York Times best seller list week after week. “I was delighted to see it surface on your best-seller list,” Spiegelman wrote to the Times in 1991. “I never expected my work to reach such heights (my mice never dressed for success). Delight blurred into surprise, however, when I noted that it appeared on the fiction side of your ledger.” Maus was classed by its publisher as “History: Memoir.” The Times ultimately moved the title to its nonfiction best seller list.
Around the time that Maus came out, American narratives about the Holocaust most often involved uplift and melodrama. In Schindler’s List (1993), a Nazi collaborator is ultimately redeemed; the victims of the Nazis are there for his edification. In the mini-series Holocaust (1979), cliched characters appear in soap opera scenes. These were Holokitsch, Spiegelman explained: cloying sentimental stories. I felt erased by those stories; Spiegelman gave me a vocabulary to talk about that.
I saw Art Spiegelman talk about the genesis of Maus at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst in 1994. He also talked about how his life had been changed by its publication, how being the child of a survivor was only part of his identity, and that was all anyone wanted to talk to him about for a while. At some point, the projector in the middle of the overcrowded room broke (things were always breaking at underfunded UMass). While someone tried to repair the projector, Spiegelman kept talking without any access to the slides he’d brought. He pulled out a cigarette but knew he couldn’t light it indoors. “I just want you to know that those ‘no smoking’ signs look like swastikas to me right now,” he said. Then the projector was repaired, and we saw one of the first cartoon characters, the Yellow Kid, on the screen. There were images from Nancy, and Donald Duck, and then Mad magazine, whose political satire nourished a generation of protest. Mad, Spiegelman said, had been one of his inspirations for Maus. And then we saw Spiegelman’s own drawings from Maus, bigger than life, on the screen in front of us.
Twitter this week has been abuzz with postings about the Tennessee banning. “School and public libraries face a wave of bans across the country with a clear focus on removing books by and about people of color and LGBTQIA folks,” wrote editor Andrew Karr. Kathy M. Newman, who teaches a course on banned books, noted that while “stated objections to a specific book are almost always for reasons of prudery, book banning attempts come in waves (the early years of Reagan’s presidency for example),” and focus on books that, like Maus, “expose and redress wrongs done to marginalized and oppressed peoples.”
Stories, of course, are what help us to form our identities, to understand our histories, and to recognize what’s possible in the world. They also make it possible to enter the consciousness of other people. And I keep thinking about what the McMinn county school board (and school boards like them) are keeping from students. Whatever explanation they come up with for banning books, I keep thinking about the stories that can’t be read, that won’t be known, and all the possibilities that are being taken away.