Note: This week I am breaking my no-politics policy by talking about Banned Books Week, and what it entails, and why it is important. I beg your indulgence and thank you for it.
The Chicago-based American Library Association said [in 2006 that] it knows of at least 14 graphic novel challenges in U.S. libraries over the past two to three years. Among the titles were The Watchmen by Alan Moore, which was challenged in Florida and Virginia as unsuitable for younger readers; Akira, Volume 2 by Katsuhiro Otomo, challenged in Texas for offensive language; and New X-Men Imperial by Grant Morrison, challenged in Maryland for nudity, offensive language and violence.
Even Maus and its sequel, Maus II, were challenged last year in Oregon as anti-ethnic and unsuitable for younger readers.
Sometimes the challenges are successful. In April, county officials in Victorville, Calif., removed from their library Manga: 60 Years of Japanese Comics, because the book included nudity and sexuality.
There is a certain mentality in this country that still obtains, where a large majority of people see comics and graphic novels as kids' stuff. They see pictures on a page and their brains fly out the window and they can't be bothered with it. There is a certain mentality in this country that turns away from the thought that graphic images can be used to tell a complex, moving, adult story with deeply felt characters and strong, even upsetting events. They see the graphic images and the image goes away, and all that remains is the word graphic. And they associate the word graphic with the pornographic, because that's how the media, especially television, portrays the word before them, from cradle to grave. They see the black and the white and never acknowledge the grey in between the two, no matter how many times you point it out to them. And a parent who thinks nothing of allowing their children to watch the graphic imagery of a hyper-violent action movie (remind me to tell you sometime about seeing children as young as eight or nine in the theater with their folks when I went to see Aliens) would surely howl to see their kids reading a thoughtful, deep, and searching graphic novel such as Blankets, or Ghost World . . . or Maus.
Somewhere, there is a failure of the imagination. Somewhere, there is a refusal to see what is being done with these stories. Somewhere there is a refusal even to acknowledge that one form of storytelling can be just as valid as another. And the eyes see only the surface of things, and never delve below, to see the fathomless wonders of the best graphic novels. It's not for nothing that Maus won a special Pulitzer in recognition of what Art Spiegelman was able to achieve with his symbolic representation of his father Vladek's journey through the Holocaust.
And perhaps it is with the symbolism itself that most people have the most problems. Nearly every objection I have ever read to Maus is the way Spiegelman chose to portray his characters -- as stylized animals. Jews are shown as mice, German Nazis as cats, Americans as bulldogs, Poles as pigs, etc. It is here that the anti-ethnic charges against the book seem to crop up. There have been specific objections to the Pole-Pig combination, for instance, as well as to Jews being portrayed as mice, or "rats" if you prefer. but what Spiegelman is doing, and what this type of reader invariably fails to see, is that the animal form does not matter. he is specifically pointing out how silly, and how arbitrary, it is to classify ethnicities as separate groups. At one point in Maus a Jew claims to be German, for instance, yet is still portrayed as a mouse, not as a cat. is this because he's lying -- or because that is how the other Germans -- i.e., the other cats -- perceive him? Or is it how his fellow Jews perceive him? Elsewhere in the story, Jews wear pig masks to "pass" as Poles . . . yet are still obviously mice in masks. Is it because of the masks, or in spite of them, that they cannot avoid discovery? The questions chase each other and soon our own perceptions are upended as a result.
Spiegelman later compounds this by portraying himself as a man wearing a mouse mask, and his wife Mouly -- a French woman -- as a mouse . . . even though other French people are portrayed as frogs throughout. Is this because Mouly converted to Judaism? Again, Spiegelman eventually reveals how futile, and how meaningless,. such cheap and easy symbolism becomes. If all you look at is the surface, the surface is all you see. If you see nothing but the pig, you will miss the Pole underneath -- and it is telling that some Poles reach out to Vladek and Anja and the other Jews, and hide them at risk of life and limb . . . hardly the acts of pigs, wouldn't you say?
In the end the symbolism is far less important than the story Spiegelman is trying to tell -- that of a man trying to record his father's experiences of the Holocaust, as a means of coming to better understand the father. If we worry ourselves so much with the symbolism that we miss the meaning of the deeper messages, then it is our failure, not Art Spiegelman's. If all we want to do is take offense at the image of an animal on the page, then we have failed. If all we see is that this is not a story that is appropriate for eight year olds (as apparently all comics should be), then we have failed -- especially if we as adults fail to read that story for ourselves and ponder its many meanings, its many questions about how we see others, and how we see ourselves, and how the one can affect the other. And in the end we will miss out, and we will be the poorer, because we have seen only the surface of a book like Maus, but never looked below it to see the unfathomable depths of its tragedies and its triumphs. Maus has changed me a little every time I've read it, because every time I read it I find something new to look at, to think about and contemplate, and to feel about the story.
That is why Banned Books Week is important. Because if books like Maus are removed based on what is seen of the surface, without ever once looking underneath to see what is really there, then we truly have failed. We have failed ourselves. And we have failed our future.