After a Tennessee school board banned ‘Maus,’ a California comic book store is donating copies
Inside Ryan Higgins’ comic book store a few weeks ago, the sounds of British rock blared as a steady stream of customers flipped through issues and picked up their orders.
Some had lined up before the Sunnyvale shop opened in hopes of scoring variant book covers or to pick up the new “Batman Catwoman Special.” Less noticed were the pair of copies of the graphic novel “The Complete Maus” that sat on his shelf.
At least, until about 4 p.m. That’s when Higgins learned that a school board in Tennessee had removed from its eighth-grade curriculum the nonfiction book by Art Spiegelman, which depicts interviews that Spiegelman conducted with his father, Vladek, and recounts his story as a Holocaust survivor. He tweeted out an offer to donate as many as 100 copies of the book to any family in the Tennessee region where it was banned.
The tweet went viral.
“We always have a couple copies in stock. Those were gone within a minute of this happening,” Higgins said. “I never could have imagined the response.”
“Maus,” first serialized in Spiegelman’s 1980 comic anthology “Raw,” is set in 1940s Poland during the Holocaust and chronicles his parents’ internment in Auschwitz, depicting Nazis as cats and Jewish people as mice. The book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, has been translated into multiple languages, and has sold more than 1 million copies worldwide.
In January, the McMinn County Board of Education in Tennessee voted to ban the book over concerns about “rough” language and a nude depiction of the author’s mother’s dead body, according to meeting minutes. “Maus” was part of the eighth-grade English language arts curriculum, and its removal — sparked by a discussion about how to best teach students about the Holocaust — has drawn international attention.
“We don’t need this stuff to teach kids history. We can teach them history and we can teach them graphic history,” one board member said in the January meeting. “We can tell them exactly what happened, but we don’t need all the nakedness and all the other stuff.”
The board said in a statement that it decided to pull the novel because of its “unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide.” The work is “too adult-oriented,” they said, adding that their ban was not aimed at diminishing “Maus’” value.
The controversy lands amid a nationwide dustup over teaching difficult subjects in states including Oklahoma, Wyoming and Tennessee that have challenged or banned books about sexual and racial identity.
At first, Spiegelman thought the recent removal “was a joke.”
During an online talk earlier this month, the 73-year-old accused the board of wanting “a fuzzier, gentler, warmer Holocaust” taught in schools.
“This is all about parents wanting to control their kids in the guise of protecting them,” he said during the meeting.
Spiegelman never thought of his novel as a learning tool as he was writing it.
“I never was trying to write ‘Auschwitz for beginners,’” he said. “What I was trying to do really was to learn something myself. ... How the heck did I ever get to be born considering both my parents were supposed to be dead before I was conceived?”
Hillary Chute, an expert on comics and graphic narratives who collaborated with Spiegelman on “MetaMaus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic, Maus,” said that she was surprised to see the school board’s reasons for removing the book, but wasn’t shocked that it was banned because the novel has “always elicited really strong reactions from people.”
“It’s a kind of tricky dynamic with comics, because for years cartoonists were trying to produce work that wouldn’t be seen as only for kids,” she said. “The same people trying to get work recognized as sophisticated for adults are now in position of saying this is also for kids.”
Higgins said that he’s received calls from people all over the country who say that they are worried about books being banned at their schools, or who tell him that they don’t have access to “Maus.” Bookstores in Tennessee and other parts of the U.S. have made similar overtures, offering to put copies of the novel in readers’ hands.
“I’ve gotten phone calls from people whose parents survived or died in the Holocaust, some heartbreaking stories, and it’s a very surreal experience,” he said.
To Higgins, whose mother and grandmother worked in education, “Maus” is a perfect example of “incredibly literary work” that happens to be a graphic novel.
“Even 30 years after the collected edition, it’s as relevant as ever,” he said.
Higgins bought the store, which first opened in 1993, about 15 years ago. He moved the business to its current location inside a shopping center in 2018. A comic book fan since he was a kid, he now employs about four people — mostly part time — to help the customers who pop into the 1,200-square-foot shop from the nearby tech companies, including Apple and Facebook.
“COVID oddly kicked our business into high gear. The tech people were bored and had extra money and a couple local competitors closed when COVID hit,” he said. “We picked up their business.”
The 42-year-old’s foray into donating copies of “Maus” isn’t the first time he’s tried to put banned books in the hands of those who were told not to read them. He also offered to donate copies of graphic novels to students after a school in Texas banned a list of books last year, including “Y: The Last Man” and “V For Vendetta.”
“I understand there are adult comics and manga,” he said. “‘Maus’ is a very different book. It’s not sexualized; it’s not graphic to be graphic. It’s a historical biography. The actual imagery of the Holocaust is way worse than anything in ‘Maus.’”
So far, the store has about 100 copies of the book that he plans to donate, in addition to others that customers have ordered to donate as well.
Comics Conspiracy’s website now accepts preorders for the graphic novel, and Higgins said that the shop receives a truckload of copies each week.
“We’ve sold hundreds of copies on top of those we’re sending out, a lot of them first-time buyers,” he said. “The order I placed today should put us over 400 copies. We’re a small store — for us 400 copies is quite a bit.”
Higgins said that he decided to donate copies because as a lover of comic books and graphic novels, banning “Maus” affected him personally and he saw an opportunity to make an impact.
Now, about a month after the Tennessee ban, people are still calling him and offering to send him money for books. He asks them to donate to their local libraries instead.
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