Wallace Baine: The ‘Maus’ that roared and its author’s little-known connection to Santa Cruz
There are lessons to be learned from a book-banning attempt in a rural Southern county, and it all somehow relates back to this place, where freedom of expression is always top of mind. Like most such efforts, it has had the absolute opposite effect of what was originally intended.
Last month, you might have heard, a school board in Tennessee voted unanimously to ban Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel, “Maus,” from local schools.
To which I say: Hallelujah! Can I hear an amen?
I applaud not the ban itself, obviously, but the spectacular backlash to it.
The ban comes by way of the school board in McMinn County, a tiny county in the Appalachian region of eastern Tennessee with a population roughly equal to that of the city of Santa Cruz. Since news site The Tennessee Holler first reported on the ban Jan. 26, the story has ricocheted back and forth across the national media landscape and, as so often happens in attempted book bannings, has created the absolute opposite effect of what was originally intended.
In the week after the story was first reported, sales of “Maus” nationwide jumped more than 750%. By Feb. 1, the book had reached No. 1 on Amazon’s bestseller list. At least one bookstore owner has offered to send 100 copies of the book, free of charge, to anyone living in McMinn County.
The effect of the ban in a tiny jurisdiction in the rural South has been to throw a national spotlight on one of the most important titles in the history of the graphic novel and a much-praised and moving depiction of the inhumanity of the Holocaust. People are picking up “Maus” again for the first time in years, even decades. Others are learning how to most effectively fight book bans and censorship. How can that not be a good thing?
“Maus” is a pair of books, often published in one volume as “The Complete Maus,” the first of which was released in 1986. Presented in comic-book form, “Maus” tells a personal story of the Holocaust, depicting Nazis as cats and Jews as mice, based on the author’s father.
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Spiegelman, 73, is a legendary cartoonist in his own right whose career took him from creating the ad-parody stickers “Wacky Packages” (remember those?) to the underground comics movement in the 1970s to the publication of “Maus.” In 1992, “Maus” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
Spiegelman has a direct connection to Santa Cruz pertaining to “Maus.” He was, in fact, just beginning a stint as guest lecturer at UC Santa Cruz in 1992 when he learned he had won the Pulitzer. On Monday, Spiegelman will be part of an online webinar in which he’ll address “Maus,” its place in schools, and the recent banning of the book.
Joe Ferrara of Santa Cruz’s Atlantis Fantasyworld has been selling Spiegelman’s “Maus” pretty much continuously since its publication. Joe is both a merchant and a kind of comic-book historian. He said “Maus” was one of the first books to tell a non-superhero story in comic-book form. When “Maus” was first published, critics and booksellers struggled to find a way to describe it. The term “graphic novel” was not yet in the vocabulary of the mainstream.
Artist Will Eisner is credited as the main pioneer of the graphic novel. But with its historical orientation and serious subject matter, Spiegelman’s “Maus” moved the medium into the vacuum that existed at the time between the comic book and the traditional book.
“That’s why [‘Maus’] made such an impact,” Joe told me, “because they had never used the medium to tell such a powerful story. Hence, the Pulitzer. You don’t win that for no reason.” (Joe had the chance to meet Spiegelman many years ago. He described the experience as “kind of like meeting a Mensa person who had lived on the street. He was streetwise. He was brilliant, and he did not tolerate fools lightly.”)
That’s why [“Maus”] made such an impact because they had never used the medium to tell such a powerful story. Hence, the Pulitzer. You don’t win that for no reason.
— Joe Ferrera
Nowadays, of course, the graphic novel is a publishing behemoth, a widely popular form that has brought countless authors and readers to each others’ attention. It has no doubt moved literature forward. And it has also brought a new dimension to the 20th century’s most heartbreaking and galvanizing tragedy. It’s a humane response to inhumanity, and in that respect, it’s not just appropriate for schoolchildren, it’s vital.
And herein lies the good news: Even if the school board in McMinn County doesn’t get that, hundreds of other school boards, and millions of parents and teachers, do get it. In a red/blue culture-war context, book banning is a home game for progressives. The massive, lightning-fast response to the banning of “Maus” has raised its profile as high as it’s ever been.
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Yes, the McMinn County case is hardly the only instance of book banning happening in the U.S. today; the state of Texas, to name one chilling example, is engaged in a much bigger and more serious effort at censorship. But the “Maus” episode might discourage savvy would-be book banners (it must be said, from both the right and the left). And, even if it does not, it provides book defenders the energy and support they need to fight these bigger, more serious efforts.
Teachers, librarians, and booksellers like Joe Ferrara know how to combat this stuff. It’s not name-calling and belittling. It’s more about engagement that might lead to understanding, which is, after all, the whole purpose of art.
“The banning of books will continue,” said Joe, “but the response has to be that we approach it with intelligence and calmness. The first question is, ‘Have you read the book?’ And secondly, after you’ve read the book, let’s have a discussion about what’s in there that you object to. And that’s the only way you’re going to successfully communicate with people.”
“Maus” is not currently available at Atlantis Fantasyworld, but Joe has it on order and hopes to have it back in stock soon: “We have never not carried ‘Maus’ since the day it was published.”