By Jeremy Appel
(AJNews) – Cartoonist Art Spiegelman, who depicted his father’s Holocaust survival in the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus, spoke on Feb. 21 at an online forum hosted by Edmonton Public Library in partnership with Calgary Public Library and Edify Edmonton, as part of its Forward Thinking Speaker Series.
The event, which had almost 600 viewers, was a dialogue between Spiegelman and local author Sandra Wong, where they discussed Spiegelman’s life and career, and a rural Tennessee school board’s decision last year to ban Maus from its curriculum.
Spiegelman recalled grappling with this question of what art is while on nitrous oxide during a dentist appointment, and he came up with an answer.
“Art is anything that gives form to your thoughts and feelings,” he said. “That’s a lot better than what I learned in college, which was just that art is anything you can get away with, which means if they’ll buy it, it’s art.”
Throughout the talk, images of Spiegelman’s works that were being discussed were put on screen for the audience to see.
“Maybe all art is provocative,” said Spiegelman. “You just have to spend a longer time finding what the provocation is in certain paintings.”
One of Spiegelman’s earliest influences was Mad Magazine, which he described as “unlike anything else available” at the time.
“It was my gateway to America. My parents couldn’t give me that and we didn’t even have a television set when I was little,” Spiegelman recalled.
“Mad was telling you that the whole adult world is lying to you. ‘And we here at Mad, we’re adults,’ so it was a magazine asking you to think for yourself even as a kid.”
New Yorker covers
In a particularly provocative and prescient New Yorker cover from September 1993, Spiegelman depicted students returning to school, but all of them were armed with guns — six years before the Columbine massacre brought the issue of gun violence in schools to the forefront of U.S. cultural discourse.
“I was just worried because my daughter was about six years old, so she was in school when I did this,” he explained.
“And even before Columbine, there have been shootings in schools in the United States since about 1848. Nothing as dramatic as what seems to go on every week now, but in the year leading up to [the cover image], there was a shooting in a middle school.
“It was definitely on my mind. As sort of a back to school moment, I just figured the guns would be an appropriate image.”
Spiegelman acknowledged that he seeks to push the boundary of what’s acceptable.
“A lot of it just comes from knowing approximately where the lines are going two inches over,” he said, “but sometimes I get more like two feet over it and this usually involves getting rejected.”
These lines are often set by New Yorker arts editor Francoise Mouly, who is Spieglman’s wife.
His first cover art for the magazine, which Wong described as “beautiful,” was drawn after the 1991 Crown Heights riots, showing an image of a Black woman and Hasidic man kissing.
When Spiegelman set about writing Maus, there wasn’t as much written about the Shoah as there is today, nor was it a major part of popular culture.
“I could read everything in my college library in about three weeks that was in English and was serious about that subject,” he said.
That began to change when the French documentary Shoah came out in 1985. “It unleashed a popular culture version of the Holocaust in a much bigger way and soon after that, maybe because my generation came of age, there were a lot of books,” Spiegelman said. “Now one couldn’t read them in a lifetime.”
Spiegelman watched the seminal miniseries with his father and step-mother, who was also a Holocaust survivor.
“He just walked out saying he already knows all this stuff,” Spiegelman said.
The artist embarked on telling his father’s story. Spiegelman decided to use anthropomorphic animals — Jews as mice and their persecutors, both German and Polish, as cats — in part to recognize his narrative’s limitations.
“No matter what I did, I could never get it right. Even if I lived through it, I wouldn’t be able to get it right,” he said. “It was all attempts to get closer and closer, but still acknowledge in various ways in the course of the book that this was as close as I could get to finding that story.”
Wong asked Spiegelman what he saw as his responsibility to those who died in the Shoah and its survivors.
Spiegelman recognized that surviving the Holocaust was largely a matter of luck. “If the war lasted longer, everyone would have been killed, so to do that, and have him presented with his flaws, was to me a much more important way of doing something about what he lived through,” he said.
“It was about how this person survived from a combination of luck and very strong will, always looking for what he could do next to keep it going.”
Of the decision to ban Maus, the McMinn County School Board’s decision referenced the book’s “unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide,” the latter referring to his mother’s death.
“Obviously, none of them read it,” Spiegelman said.
In the book, Spiegelman’s character refers to his mother as a “bitch” after he finds out she died by suicide. “I’m screaming about her death and abandoning me, and I’m left as the prisoner on the whole planet without her,” he explained. The only nudity in Maus is a picture of his mother dead in a bathtub.
In another part, Spiegelman exclaims “goddammit” when he found out his father burned his diaries.
“There were very few bad words in Maus. I wasn’t trying to avoid them or use them. They were just where they had to be,” he said.
These were simply pretexts to ban the book, Spiegelman suspects. When news came out about the school board’s vote, Spiegelman told the New York Times that McMinn trustees just wanted to “teach a nicer Holocaust.”
Still, Spiegelman admits he was somewhat shocked when he initially discovered that young children were being assigned Maus in schools, given its heavy subject matter.
“I just looked dismayed, like it was a form of child abuse,” he recalled. “It took me a while to get used to the fact that I later met many kids who had read it and many adults who had read it, and often the kids were more alert with their questions than the adults.
“I was just being ageist in reverse.”
In response to a question from an audience member, Spiegelman placed the Maus ban in the context of an “insane culture war” in the U.S., a key battleground of which is “trying to limit what children can read.”
This push for more parental control over their children’s education is part of a larger attack on public education itself.
“That’s, I think, the very strategic and specific agenda. The yahoos on the school board just thought that this was a book they could remove without anybody even getting upset,” Spiegelman observed, noting that the meeting’s minutes were posted on Jan. 27, which is Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“I think they were actually just dumbasses. It wasn’t a belligerent thing.”
The controversy has been good for business. Sales of Maus increased 753 per cent in January alone, Forbes reported.
“They were very shrewd marketers in McMinn County,” Spiegelman said.
Jeremy Appel is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter.