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In a matter of just a few weeks, “Maus,” a more-than-35-year-old graphic novel, gained a huge number of new readers — and a massive boost in sales — after a Tennessee school board last month decided to remove it from its students’ homework.
In the opening pages of volume one of “Maus,” in a flashback to 1958, Vladek Spiegelman harshly tells his tearful 10-year-old son, Artie, whose friends ran off without him, “Friends? Your friends? If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week … then you could see what it is, friends!”
From there unfolds a narrative of betrayal and guilt, genocide, escapes, love, memory, generational bitterness, and survival. And while “Maus” frequently is classified as a graphic “novel,” for the lack of a better descriptor, this is a true story, a biography.
Art Spiegelman’s two volumes — “Maus” and “Maus: And Here My Troubles Began” — relate his parents’ experiences in Poland leading up to World War II, as captives in the concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, and their later lives in New York, as well as his own efforts to understand his father and mother.
The brilliant twist of Spiegelman’s books isn’t solely dependent on the gripping tale of Vladek and Anja, their family and friends. Spiegelman presents it all as if it were a comic book: Jews are depicted as mice, soldiers as cats, the Poles as pigs.
But “Maus” isn’t a Tom-and-Jerry animated cartoon; no juddering anvils crash onto the heads of cute critters, who shake off the pain in moments. Actual documented horrors are depicted — from early civic humiliations in the late 1930s to the crematoriums at the death camps as part of the so-called Final Solution, in the early 1940s.
“At that time it wasn’t anymore families,” the father recalls in relating his life story. “It was everybody to take care for himself!”
Spiegelman's drawings are rendered in black and white, fitting to their tone, often with heavy shadows. The protagonists may appear as mice, but their emotions are vivid.
“Maus” first saw light as serialized installments in the underground comic book — again, a shorthand descriptor — “R.A.W.,” launched by Spiegelman and his wife, Francoise Mouly (now New Yorker magazine’s art editor) — in 1980. Volume one was published in book form in 1986 and volume two in 1991.
Since then, the books have garnered awards in the United States and abroad, including a Pulitzer Prize — the only one, so far, presented to a graphic novel — and the industry’s Will Eisner Award. The art has been exhibited around the world.
“MetaMaus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic, Maus” — about the production of the books — came out in 2011. In it, Spiegelman also delves into why he chose the “cat-and-mouse” concept and explores the use of such imagery in anti-Semitic propaganda.
“Maus” since has become part of book clubs and school classrooms, the subject of scholarly papers, as an opening to discuss the history and lessons of the Holocaust and intolerance.
And then, on Jan. 10 of this year, the 10-member McMinn County, Tenn., Board of Education decided to cut “Maus” from its schools’ eighth-grade curriculum, pointing to “... its unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide.”
In response, sales of the books since have soared nationwide.
Amazon.com as of Jan. 28 listed “Maus” at No. 12. It stated copies won’t be available for delivery until mid-February, according to Associated Press. “The Complete Maus” — the two-volume set — was in ninth place and listed as out of stock.
For the month of January, print sales climbed 753 percent, Forbes reported on Feb. 4, citing NPD BookScan.
Social media comments, expressing indignation over the banning, noted Holocaust Remembrance Day was Jan. 27, the Nashville Tennessean said. An Episcopal church in McMinn County scheduled a public reading of “Maus.”
A store in Knoxville, Tenn., set up an online fundraiser to buy copies of the book for students, the New York Post reported.
U.S. House of Representative members from Tennessee condemned the board’s decision. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, for one, labeled it an “embarrassing example of close-mindedness.”
Spiegelman ends volume two on not exactly a happy note. But there is some solace to be found. And maybe some lessons learned.
But they are not easy lessons, as Vladek shows his son more than once.
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