• Ideas
  • Books

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

10 minute read
Karl Vick is an editor at large at TIME. He has also served as TIME's Jerusalem bureau chief. He has reported from 60 countries and in 2001 was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for coverage of the spread of AIDS in Africa.

In the four decades since Art Spiegelman began Maus, the graphic novel has sold millions of copies, won a Pulitzer Prize, and secured a place 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. With predictable results.

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. Public school curriculums feature prominently in the culture wars that many Republicans are hoping to ride to electoral victory. Progressives may argue for an unvarnished instruction of U.S. history, but in 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: How much are we dealing with caricatures here?
Art Spiegelman: Well, we’re dealing with everything from vile, racist and antisemitic caricatures to caricatures of what children are. And on the other end of the spectrum, maybe caricatures the way Walt Kelly and Herb Block applied them.

Have you ever been to eastern Tennessee?

You read the minutes of the meeting?
Yes I did. Several times.

What do you think is actually going on?
That’s what left me so filled with flop sweat before the conversation last night, because I kept veering back and forth. Am I just a total Pollyanna naive idiot? Or are these people really idiots? Or are they actually sinister forces that have gathered to, like, kill America for their own profit? Or what are they? 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.”

Do you think it would help to meet the people?
Through bulletproof glass, yeah.

We refer to it as a ban. Is it 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. Did they rewrite their minutes to get rid of all the terrible things actually said to each other in order for us to sanitize the meeting minutes, two or three weeks later? How would I know? 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. And to call her nude, it made me angry. Naked, which means a kind of vulnerable lack of covering, is enough to get you livid, because look, what do they want me to show, like her upside down in the bathtub? Or wearing a bathrobe splattered with blood in the bathtub? Which didn’t make any sense. They didn’t want to show it. And that was a problem.

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 of the people in the webinar appeared quite pleased. Was that because they have a battle that has been joined?
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 tried to rise to the occasion. But the caricature thing is: caricatures can be used be used to subvert themselves, you know, like the caricature of reducing Nazis and Jews to Cats and Mice. But by showing the caricatures as masks with humans underneath it, and pointing to that more and more as the book goes on, dissolves whatever their caricature is by creating a kind of self-destructing metaphor. But you’re play with dynamite when you’re playing with caricature.

It’s such a personal book. Is the offense personal?

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.

That I felt was a little place they had really focused. But why? Because I believe, they were upset that I was breaking the commandment to honor thy father and mother. And that was usurping their authority. They’re all parents. They don’t want their kids talking to them like that, thank you. Authority is what they like 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.

You have a long history with censorship, right? The Comics Code?
The Comics Code is what made me. Yes, the burning of comic books literally in the 40s and 50s by teachers, clergyman, parents. There were several bonfires across the country. I have a photo of one in Binghamton, N.Y., where I was in college till I got 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. But it was focused on the same thing these school board people focused, on we have to protect the children as opposed to educate them, and not let them actually follow their fantasies.

But those comic books that they were burning were pretty far out there and getting more far out as they lead into the more adult audience. You know, the horror comics and some of the very lurid images in many of those comics more and more were among the comics I love the most, because they were kind of on the edge of the forbidden, because they were showing me things to their most exaggerated. And I love those comics, the horror comics. And mainly the horror comics companion from the same publisher: MAD. If there was one of these Citizen Kane biographies about me, like the rosebud at the end would be a copy of MAD comics.

This controversy has boosted sales, hasn’t it?
I think enormously. 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. Maus has been really selling steadily since 1986, when the first volume came out, even more so after it won 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? I had to hide MAD magazine from my mom.

As my friend oldest, closest friend, who is now dead, would say, there was a point where he had to hide MAD inside a school book, and a point where he had to hide MAD inside his copy of Playboy.

Which you’ve also worked for, as the school board noted.
Yes, they sure did note it! The roster of authors who have appeared there probably are on their banned list. They include Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Margaret Atwood, Shel Silverstein. It’s an honorable company to be in, even though I understand how Playboy hasn’t aged well in our current moment. Great one to be able to throw at me.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.