A few weeks ago, inside Ryan Higgins’ comic shop, the sounds of British rock blared as a steady stream of customers browsed through issues and collected their orders.
Some had lined up before the Sunnyvale store opened in hopes of scoring variant book covers or picking up the new “Batman Catwoman Special.” Less noticed was the pair of copies of “The Complete Maus” graphic novel that sat on his shelf.
At least, until about 4 p.m. It was then that Higgins learned that a Tennessee school board had removed from its eighth-grade curriculum Art Spiegelman’s nonfiction book, which describes interviews Spiegelman conducted with his father, Vladek, and recounts his story as a Holocaust Survivor. He tweeted an offer to donate up to 100 copies of the book to any family in the area of Tennessee where it was banned.
The tweet went viral.
“We always have a few copies in stock. These disappeared within a minute of this event,” Higgins said. “I could never have imagined the answer.”
“Maus,” first published in Spiegelman’s 1980 comedy anthology “Raw,” is set in 1940s Poland during the Holocaust and chronicles his parents’ internment in Auschwitz, portraying the Nazis as cats and Jews like mice. The book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, has been translated into several languages and has sold over a million copies worldwide.
In January, the McMinn County Board of Education in Tennessee voted to ban the book over concerns about “foul” language and a nude depiction of the dead body of the author’s mother, according to minutes of meetings. “Maus” was part of the eighth-grade English language arts curriculum, and its removal — sparked by a discussion about how best to teach students about the Holocaust — drew international attention.
“We don’t need this kind of stuff to teach history to children. We can teach them history and we can teach them graphic history,” a board member said at the January meeting. “We can tell them exactly what happened, but we don’t need all the nudity and all the other stuff.”
The board said in a statement that it decided to withdraw 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 intended to diminish the value of “Maus”.
The controversy lands amid a national dust over the teaching of difficult subjects in states like Oklahoma, Wyoming and Tennessee that have challenged or banned books about sexual and racial identity.
At first, Spiegelman thought the recent withdrawal “was a joke.”
In an online chat earlier this month, the 73-year-old accused the council of wanting “a fuzzier, softer and warmer Holocaust” taught in schools.
“It’s about parents who want to control their children under the guise of protecting them,” he told the meeting.
Spiegelman never thought of his novel as a learning tool while he was writing it.
“I never tried to write ‘Auschwitz for Beginners,'” he said. “What I was really trying to do was learn something myself. … How the hell could I be born when both of my parents were supposed to be dead before I conceived?
Hillary Chute, a comic book and graphic storytelling expert who collaborated with Spiegelman on “MetaMaus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic, Maus,” said she was surprised to see the school board’s reasons for pulling the book, but was not shocked that it was banned because the novel “always got very strong reactions from people”.
“It’s kind of a tricky dynamic with comics, because for years cartoonists have tried to produce work that wouldn’t be considered just for kids,” she said. “The same people who are trying to get the work recognized as sophisticated for adults are now able to say it’s also for children.”
Higgins said he’s gotten calls from people across the country who are worried about the book bans in their schools or telling him they don’t have access to “Maus.” Bookstores in Tennessee and other parts of the United States have made similar overtures, offering to put copies of the novel in the hands of readers.
“I’ve received phone calls from people whose parents survived or died in the Holocaust, heartbreaking stories, and it’s a very surreal experience,” he said.
For Higgins, whose mother and grandmother worked in education, “Maus” is a perfect example of an “incredibly literary work” that just happens to be a graphic novel.
“Even 30 years after the collected edition, it is still as relevant as ever,” he said.
Higgins bought the store, which opened in 1993, about 15 years ago. He moved the business to its current location in a mall in 2018. A fan of comic books since childhood, he now employs around four people – mostly part-time – to help customers who enter the 1,200-foot store. squares. neighboring tech companies, including Apple and Facebook.
“COVID strangely kicked our business into high gear. The techs were bored and had extra money and a few local competitors shut down when COVID hit,” he said. “We took over their business.
The 42-year-old’s foray into donating copies of ‘Maus’ isn’t the first time he’s tried to get banned books into the hands of those who’ve been told not to. read. He also offered to donate copies of graphic novels to students after a Texas school banned a list of books last year, including “Y: The Last Man” and “V For Vendetta.”
“I understand that there are comics and manga for adults,” he said. “’Maus’ is a very different book. It’s not sexualized; it is not graphic to be graphic. It is a historical biography. The actual Holocaust imagery is far worse than anything in “Maus.”
So far, the store has about 100 copies of the book it plans to give away, in addition to others that customers have also ordered.
The Comics Conspiracy website is now accepting pre-orders for the graphic novel, and Higgins said the store gets a truckload of copies every week.
“We’ve sold hundreds of copies on top of the ones we ship, many of which are first-time buyers,” he said. “The order I placed today should bring us over 400 copies. We are a small store — for us, 400 copies is a lot.
Higgins said he decided to donate copies because, as a fan of comics and graphic novels, the banning of “Maus” affected him personally and he saw it as an opportunity to have a impact.
Now, about a month after the Tennessee ban, people are still calling her and offering to send her money for books. Instead, he asks them to donate to their local libraries.