In Defense of “Maus”

Fictional stories are often told with the intent of pulling some kind of special meaning from them, even if (or especially if) the subversion of an existing trope is the catalyst for telling them. In stories like Watchmen we find just that: a retelling of the superhero genre to look inward at our expectation of a style of story. Often, such stories are dedicated to a specific point or moral, like many stories of our collective past (Aesop’s fables, Hans Christian Andersen tales, etc).

True stories don’t have that kind of specific baggage. There isn’t always a “deeper meaning” to find, or a moral to take to heart. The story is the reason for its telling. And these are the stories most needed in the world… because they lead to empathy.

-Kevin Schaller, August 2021

When I wrote that, I was finishing up my English degree at Solano College. It was for my final, an interconnected site discussing storytelling in the US from the end of the Civil War to the modern day. The instructor asked all the student to select their own material to cover, over four separate eras, and my immediate first pick was Maus.

In short, just in case you don’t know dear reader, Maus is the story of Jewish cartoonist Art Spiegelman (the author) and his estranged relationship with his father Vladek. Art asks Vladek, in an effort to learn more about his and his family’s history, about his time in Nazi Germany during the Holocaust, including Vladek and Art’s mother’s time spent in a concentration camp. In graphic novel format the story is equal parts heartbreaking and horrific, covering both the rize of the Nazi party within Germany’s borders and the atrocities of daily life for prisoners in one of the worst camps, Auschwitz. Even if it was a novel, with descriptions of what happened there, it would be worth reading and experiencing as a living tome of how bad humanity can be.

But instead, Spiegelman brings the horrific experiences to life, his father’s words inspiring the images painstakingly printed across the panels. The kind of detail that despite, the anthropomorphization of its characters, tells of the tolls those experiences take on those experiencing them. For anyone that thinks “comic books” can’t be art or powerful storytelling, Maus is one of the strongest counterpoints to that point of view.

Books discussing this kind of material are always on some school board’s proverbial chopping block. Hundreds of books have been banned, or attempted to be banned, from education across all levels as “harmful” or “problematic”. And in that regard, Maus isn’t special. But having removed it from eighth grade classrooms in Tennessee recently, it’s the latest bit of high-profile literature to hit the headlines for its banning.

Maus being banned is in good company. Above are some personal recommendations from me to you.

The reasoning this time was “due to concerns about profanity and an image of female nudity in its depiction of Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust.” Profanity being, words like “goddamn”, and the nudity being a memory of Art Spiegelman seeing his mother’s body after her suicide in a bathtub. In a subpanel, in a memory. Which tells me the officials banning it probably didn’t finish the story, as there’s a lot more to be disturbed by; a scene of the artist, considering the ethical ramifications behind profiting from such a book (atop a pile of dead anthropomorphic mice), the group shower that was thankfully not the gas chamber itself, the depictions of actual racism between cats/German soldiers and mice/Jews. There are more, as it’s a graphic and disturbing account of a real series of events, but because it says “goddamn” and a very small image of female nudity (without any mention of the various times that MALE nudity is shown throughout), it’s basically porn, is that right?

This book banning, like so many others, has nothing to do with “protecting children”. These are eighth grade kids, early-teens or so, and Maus is an entirely reasonable way of introducing a human element into the single most horrifying historical event of the 20th century. What are we protecting them from, empathy? Critically reviewing a realistic depiction of a historical event? I sure hope it’s not because of language, because for fuck’s sake, if anybody is familiar with swearing it’s teenagers (and at least Maus has context for the words it does use). From what I can tell, this is either about rejecting context of a major 20th-century event that significantly shaped the world as we know it today, or about teaching the Holocaust with as clinical an approach as possible (if at all, since many school districts determine their own curriculum) to… I don’t know. “Good people on both sides” with regards to a genocide?

I doubt anyone young enough to be in middle or high school will ever read this, but just in case you do, let me tell you something, friend: these are the kinds of books people don’t want you to read, because they’re the kinds of books you learn the most from. Books like Maus humanize not just an event, but those that lived it. They make you consider just what human beings have actually gone through, beginning to end, and how our collective experience changed the course of our history. Not everyone will get the chance to speak personally to a Holocaust survivor, and this is an approachable way to receive their story. We can then better approach such an event with a critical eye of the politics, methods, experiences, and lessons.

Read broadly. Read critically. Question the world and those who would influence it. And learn the lessons from history passed along from those who lived it.

Stand Tall, friends. And a personal “thank you” to Art Spiegelman for such an important and worthwhile story told well.