Art Spiegelman on Maus and free speech: ‘Who’s the snowflake now?’

By Luke Winkie | The Guardian via Pride Nation

Since his early days in the underground comix scene, Spiegleman has reveled in ‘saying the unsayable’ and subverting convention.

Graphic novels artist Art Spiegelman.

Graphic novels artist Art Spiegelman. Photograph: Cavan Images/Alamy

In 1985, at the height of popularity for the faddish baby dolls, the Cabbage Patch Kids, the cartoonist Art Spiegelman debuted a subversive line of trading cards, the Garbage Pail Kids.

Featuring viscerally queasy drawings of, say, a mushroom cloud detonating from the roof of a cheery toddler’s skull, or a Raggedy Ann facsimile barfing up dinner into a pot, the Garbage Pail Kids were a sensation among edgy preteens all over the world. They were also swiftly banned in a slew of schools. To this day, Mexico has a law restricting the import and export of Garbage Pail Kids material.

“You know how Joe Manchin is a thorn in our side?” Spiegelman asked in a phone interview this week. “His uncle, A Jamie Manchin, was the state treasurer of West Virginia in the 80s. He said that Garbage Pail Kids should be banned because they’re subverting children. It runs in his family.

“It reminds me that things keep changing, but we’re still dealing with permutations of the same struggles.”

The latest permutation came last week, when the McMinn county board of education in Tennessee voted to remove Spiegelman’s 1991 Holocaust memoir, Maus, from its middle-school curriculum. Though the board cited the graphic novel’s use of non-sexual nudity and light profanity in defending its decision, the ban is part of a wave of scholastic censorship in the US, largely led by an agitated conservative movement and targeting books that deal with racism or LGBTQ issues.

But the author of the Pulitzer prize–winning graphic novel, which tells the story of his parents’ experience as Polish Jews during the Holocaust, traces his own free speech radicalism to a very different inflection point in America’s censorship wars. As a teenager, Spiegelman found himself siding with the right of Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois, a town with a significant population of Holocaust survivors.

“The ACLU lost a lot of members because they defended their right to march,” he said. “And I just thought that seemed right. Let them march, and if there’s any more trouble, stop them. I thought that was a conversation that had to take place.

“It shaped me.”

Born in Sweden after his parents were liberated from Auschwitz, Spiegelman grew up in Queens, New York, and began cartooning before he reached high school. He was a fixture of the 70s Bay Area underground comix scene, rubbing shoulders with world-renowned provocateurs like Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton. The work that birthed from that era was truly brazen – depicting drugs, violence and sex, with a thirsty anticipation for backlash.

Spiegelman says that he and his peers drew much of their rage from the rampant censorship campaign that targeted the comics industry in the 1950s – a time when, due to federal pressure, publishing houses instituted the Comics Code, which repressed even the teensiest adversarial tone in the work of mainstream cartoonists.

“There were literally parents and clergymen gathering comic books from kids and burning them in bonfires,” he said. “We as cartoonists of that generation loved the salacious, raucous, uninhibited expression of id. … We wanted to topple every article of the Comics Code if we could.”

The women’s auxiliary of the American Legion organized a bonfire of comic books it considered offensive in Norwich, Connecticut, in 1955.
The women’s auxiliary of the American Legion organized a bonfire of comic books it considered offensive in Norwich, Connecticut, in 1955. Photograph: Anonymous/AP

He began to publish the deeply personal Maus as a serialized comic in 1980 in Raw, an annual comics anthology he edited with his wife, Françoise Mouly. But Spiegelman maintained a fascination with both high and low culture, leading him to pursue projects like the Garbage Pail Kids.

Spiegelman hasn’t exclusively rankled political conservatives. In 1993, in the aftermath of the Crown Heights riots, he drew a cover for the New Yorker that featured a Hasidic man and a Black woman bonded by a passionate kiss. The imagery ruffled feathers, even within traditionally liberal enclaves. Spiegelman recalls one baffling criticism from a member of the New Yorker editorial staff, who believed that his cover depicted a Hasidic man hiring an escort. (That clearly was not the case.)

The controversial New Yorker cover.
The controversial New Yorker cover. Photograph: Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Alamy

A decade later, in 2002, Spiegelman struggled to find a domestic home for his 9/11-themed anthology of comics called In the Shadow of No Towers. Eventually he was forced to take it overseas to the German newspaper Die Zeit, due to what Spiegelman believes was the frothing jingoism that gripped the country after the attack.

“It was saying the unsayable. There’s one big panel in the second or third installment of In The Shadow of No Towers where I’m trying to take a nap at my drawing table. Osama bin Laden is on my left with a scimitar, while George W Bush is on my right with a gun to my head,” he says. “I think one of the people at the New Yorker said that I was crazy, that I was talking about those two things as equal threats. When that got back to me I said, ‘No, you’re right. America is a much larger threat.’”

A detail from Spiegelman’s book In the Shadow of No Towers.
A detail from Spiegelman’s book In the Shadow of No Towers. Photograph: Sipa US/Alamy

Now Spiegelman is gearing up for the same war he’s been fighting since he first started drawing cartoons more than 50 years ago. The characters and context have changed, but his core ethics have not. In fact, the more I talked to Spiegelman, the more I got the sense that the Maus censorship has shaken him more than any of his previous brushes against authority. When you consider the many years children have turned to the book to better understand the Holocaust, it’s not hard to understand why.

Still, the current controversy has also neatly illustrated one of the foundational principles of the publishing industry: nothing drives up interest in a book faster than a misguided prohibition. Maus is topping bestsellers lists across the country, as readers everywhere clamor to see what the fuss is about.

Maus, with its apparently shocking depictions of unclothed rodents, is selling out in bookstores across the country.
Maus, with its apparently shocking depictions of unclothed rodents, is selling out in bookstores across the country. Photograph: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

“You know how they publish book galleys before books are published? On the back of them it says, ‘Published April 3’ and a list of things that’s being done to publicize the book? I see a future where it says, ‘Published April 3, banned May 12,’” Spiegelman said. “That would be the end date of anything they need to do to publicize the book.”

I hope that dawning reality adds some clarity to the culture war, which is why it’s reassuring to watch Maus blast off to the top of the sales charts. The conceit that the left consists exclusively of nosy schoolmarms, while the right is united in first amendment patriotism, has surely been rendered counterfeit by now.

“This week has been like, ‘Well, who’s the snowflake now?’” said Spiegelman. Let’s keep those words in mind.

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