When I was nine, I took religious confirmation classes in the same Methodist church my mother’s family had belonged to for decades. Every Wednesday afternoon Dr. Winefortner, our minister, prodded my ten classmates and me about matters essential to our souls and moral health. At the culmination of our six-week sessions we became official church members, which meant we could now attend morning services on our own, sit where we wanted, and each received a Revised Standard Edition Bible with our name embossed on it in gold.
Like many kids, I didn’t want to go to religious class. My mother gave me no choice in the matter, and my father, who was Jewish, took his usual hands-off stance. To get me to go, to help me make it through these confirmation classes, my mother agreed to buy me a new comic book each week.
The latest copy of Batman or Justice League awaited me on the front seat of my mother’s blue Chevrolet after each forty-five minute Jesus session.
I have no idea what happened to my gold embossed Bible, but I still possess my first comic bribe: Detective Comics #350, “The Monarch of Menace,” its tri-partitioned cover more memorable than any Bible cover.
Years passed and I put away these “childish things” and eventually earned my Ph.D. in Literature. Fresh out of grad school, I got a tenure-track position at Presbyterian College and was invited to participate in an experimental and interdisciplinary project—Media and Society—with colleagues from the Theater, Religion, and Philosophy Departments.
My colleagues espoused material from media theorists who proclaimed that “To best communicate complex information, you must present all ideas in logical, linear, sequential form” and “television, movies, or any visual medium are merely ways to amuse ourselves to death.”
To them, the written word was sacred and superior, and the only path to true enlightened understanding. Movies, television shows, and even painting or sculpture could never communicate “complex thinking,” they said. They uttered these profundities at almost every class period, not just to students, but to me, who taught film, and to my colleague Mark, an art professor.
Mark and I fought hard, and never conceded, but not even Guernica or the film adaptation of Howards End could sway our colleagues into reconsidering their privileged forms and spaces. We felt like we didn’t belong in the class, the college, perhaps even in academia.
Driving home after another of our failed attempts in this class, I was listening to NPR critic Alan Cheuse review a “graphic novel” entitled Maus. I hadn’t before heard the term “graphic novel,” which Cheuse confessed was just a fancy term for comic book. The terminology, however, didn’t matter. The story did: a Holocaust memoir that wrestled with the complicated history of survivors and their children.
When Cheuse ended his review, I turned off the interstate and headed in the opposite direction from home, toward the only independent bookstore in my town. I found copies of Maus I and Maus II in the Religion section. I felt odd, even ashamed. Why was I buying these? I had never heard of Art Spiegelman, and hadn’t looked at any comic book since college when I gave up on Spider-Man after his cloning episode.
Were these texts entertainment? Religious tomes? For adolescents or adults?
I brought the books home and was even a bit anxious about telling my wife what I had purchased. Our finances weren’t great, and here I was buying comic books again.
I read both volumes that evening. I couldn’t believe the depth and complexity of Spiegelman’s story—his and his parents’ history. The fact that heroes were hard to find, villains much easier, and I had to be on the side of the mice, even though I owned two precious cats.
I gushed about Maus to my wife. She wasn’t interested in reading the books, but as a practicing psychotherapist, she helped me process how to love characters that I wouldn’t ordinarily like in real life. She explained how self-hatred works, because my own was rearing up. Not so much a hatred about my neglect of my father and his Jewishness, but for ceding ground to colleagues who, intentionally or not, were undermining and dismissing genres and mediums I loved and had invested my life and work in.
Who were really dismissing me.
Though I was a professional man with tenure, I couldn’t work up the nerve to explain to my colleagues what I had just bought and read I kept Maus hidden at home—along with my wonder and my understanding of Spiegelman’s art, his scene rendering, his refusal to sell out to Hollywood and to companies who wanted to manufacture “Maus” dolls and merchandise.
In a section of Maus II, as Spiegelman sits at his drawing board with his mouse mask on, growing more diminished as he realizes that even if he doesn’t sign on to a movie version, he has still made a name for himself on the back of his parents’ suffering, their persecution and escape from Auschwitz. In these frames, Spiegelman’s workspace literally rests on the corpses of mice—dead Jews. And then he trudges to his therapist’s office, who is also a Holocaust survivor, and right on his office table he keeps a portrait of his cat for Spiegelman and us to see.
How, I wondered then, even more strongly today, does one present the Holocaust in a logical, linear, sequential fashion?
I imagined then how my colleagues would scoff or laugh, and this paralyzed me. Even today, despite my accomplishments I am ashamed that I never confronted their snobbery and chauvinism. Of course, I was also hiding my turn toward Judaism then, too, because this was Presbyterian College, and in that time, faculty had to be members of a Christian church. No one at the college particularly checked to see if you attended, and even if they tried to, I lived in Greenville, forty-five minutes away, hiding my identity, my reputation, and the comic books I was beginning to collect again.
Six years ago, I journeyed to a literature conference to deliver a paper. I selected this conference only because Art Spiegelman was the keynote speaker. Protesters came out on the day to shout about how in Maus, he depicts Polish people as pigs. Spiegelman’s response:
“When you write your own history of the Holocaust, you can choose to portray people in any way you want, too!”
He reiterated this belief later when he signed my books. We had in back of the hall by a dumpster, because Spiegelman wanted to smoke a cigarette. No one followed us out there.
By the side of his signature on my original copies of Maus I and II, he drew himself as a mouse, cigarette in hand.
Old colleagues eventually die or move on and as they do, the rigidity in form and content they insisted on is replaced by a sense of freedom to draw on our lives, our sense of the world, and the conflicts that shaped us. We tenure faculty of every religion and no religion now. When I am invited to teach a course on the Holocaust, I’m asked what texts I want to include on the syllabus. When I say Art Spiegelman’s Maus, they want to see it, read it, and then, they want to use it in this and other courses they teach.
As I move into my final years of teaching, I offer not only Holocaust Literature courses, but also courses in Graphic Novel, where along with Maus, I assign Fun Home, Persepolis, The Watchmen, Ghost World, It’s A Bird, and Blankets.
And Understanding Comics.
Other colleagues assign these and the comics they love, too.
I wish that I had stood up to the demons of my earlier teaching days and said, “You are not going to shame me for loving what I love, for being who I am.”
They could see my office today, where I proudly display my comic books and my works about them, for all to see.
Finally, I have nothing to hide.
What demons have stood in the way of your passions? Did you overcome them? Tell us in the comments.
Image credit: Cover of Maus I by Art Spiegelman (image has been cropped) Purchase Maus I and other titles by Art Spiegelman by clicking here.
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