Art Spiegelman on Maus and Free Speech: “Who’s the Snowflake Now?” | Art Spiegelmann

In 1985, at the height of the popularity of fashionable dolls, the Cabbage Patch Kids, cartoonist Art Spiegelman launched a subversive line of trading cards, the Garbage Pail Kids.

Featuring viscerally sickening designs of, say, a cloud of mushrooms exploding from the roof of a cheerful toddler’s skull, or a facsimile of Raggedy Ann vomiting dinner into a pot, the Garbage Pail Kids caused a stir among pissed off tweens. of the whole world. They were also quickly banned in many schools. To date, Mexico has a law restricting the import and export of Garbage Pail Kids material.

“You know what a thorn in our side Joe Manchin is?” 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 Garbage Pail Kids should be banned because they subvert children. He runs in his family.

“It reminds me that things keep changing, but we still face permutations of the same struggles.”

Garbage Pail Kids Trading Cards. Photography: Chris Hondros/Getty Images

The latest switch came last week, when the McMinn County School Board in Tennessee voted to remove Spiegelman’s 1991 Holocaust memoir Maus from its high school curriculum. Although the board cited the graphic novel’s use of non-sexual nudity and mild profanity to defend its decision, the ban is part of a wave of school censorship in the United States, largely led by a conservative movement agitated and targeting books that deal with racism or LGBTQ issues.

But the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel, which chronicles his parents’ experiences as Polish Jews during the Holocaust, traces his own free-speech radicalism to a very different inflection point in the wars of American censorship. As a teenager, Spiegelman found himself on the side of the Nazis’ right to march in Skokie, Illinois, a town with a large population of Holocaust survivors.

“The ACLU lost a lot of members because they stood up for their right to march,” he said. “And I just thought that felt right. Let them go, and if there are still problems, stop them. I thought this was a conversation that needed to take place.

“It shaped me.”

Born in Sweden after his parents were released from Auschwitz, Spiegelman grew up in Queens, New York, and began drawing before reaching high school. He was an integral part of the Bay Area underground comix scene of the 70s, rubbing shoulders with world-famous provocateurs like Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton. The work that grew out of this era was truly brazen – depicting drugs, violence and sex, with a thirsty anticipation of backlash.

Spiegelman says he and his peers drew much of their rage from the rampant censorship campaign that targeted the comic book industry in the 1950s — a time when, due to federal pressure, comic houses publishing instituted the Comics Code, which suppressed even the most adolescent contradictory tone in the work of traditional cartoonists.

“There were literally parents and clergy people collecting children’s comics and burning them in bonfires,” he said. “As cartoonists of this generation, we loved the salacious, gruff, uninhibited expression of the id. … We wanted to subvert every section of the Comic Book Code if we could.

The American Legion Ladies Auxiliary held a comic book bonfire she considered offensive in Norwich, Connecticut, in 1955.
The American Legion Ladies Auxiliary held a comic book bonfire she considered offensive in Norwich, Connecticut, in 1955. Photograph: Anonymous/AP

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

Spiegelman did not exclusively harass 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 in a passionate kiss. The imagery ruffled feathers, even within traditionally liberal enclaves. Spiegelman recalls a baffling criticism from a New Yorker editor, who believed its cover depicted a Hasidic man hiring an escort. (That was clearly not the case.)

The New Yorker's controversial cover.
The New Yorker’s controversial cover. Photography: Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Alamy

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

“It was saying the unspeakable. There’s a big panel in the second or third episode of In The Shadow of No Towers where I’m trying to take a nap at my drawing board. Osama bin Laden is on my left with a scimitar, while George W Bush is on my right with a gun to his head,” he says. “I think one of the people from The New Yorker said I was crazy, that I was talking about those two things as equal threats. When it came back to me, I said, ‘No, you’re right. America is a much bigger 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. Photography: Sipa USA/Alamy

Now Spiegelman is preparing for the same war he’s been fighting since he started drawing cartoons over 50 years ago. The characters and the setting have changed, but not its fundamental ethos. In fact, the more I talked to Spiegelman, the more I felt Maus’s censorship had rattled him more than any of his previous run-ins with authority. When you consider the many years children have turned to the book to better understand the Holocaust, it’s not hard to see why.

Yet the current controversy has also perfectly illustrated one of the fundamental principles of the publishing industry: nothing generates interest in a book faster than a misguided ban. Maus is topping bestseller lists across the country, with readers everywhere clamoring to see what it’s all about.

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

“You know how they publish galleys of books before the books are published? On the back it says “Published April 3” and a list of things that are 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 for whatever they have to do to get the book out there.”

I hope dawning reality adds clarity to the culture war, which is why it’s reassuring to see Maus soar to the top of the sales charts. The vanity that the left consists exclusively of nosy godmothers, while the right is united in First Amendment patriotism, has surely been counterfeited by now.

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

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