The 'Maus' That Roared
Knoxville’s Nirvana Comics steps up to support a blocked graphic novel, and the world responds.
by jesse fox mayshark • January 31, 2022
panels from 'Maus,' by art spiegelman. (courtesy of pantheon books)
When Rich Davis saw the news online last week that the McMinn County school board had removed the graphic novel Maus from its middle school English curriculum, he was incensed.
A viral philanthropic effort will purchase thousands of copies of Maus for Tennessee families.
“My first reaction was anger,” Davis said in an interview on Sunday. “I was very upset and very disappointed.”
As the owner of Nirvana Comics in West Knoxville and a comic book author himself, Davis was more than familiar with Maus. He considers the cartoonist Art Spiegelman’s narrative of his parents’ experiences in the Holocaust a major work of literature. The book, which in 1992 became the only graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize, depicts its Jewish characters as mice and Nazis as cats.
“Without hyperbole, Maus is one of the most influential and impactful books I have ever read,” Davis said. “I've read it dozens of times over the years, and I still can't read it without crying. It's that emotionally powerful.”
So after absorbing the headlines, he wondered what he could do about it. He knew Nirvana Comics had 10 copies of the book in stock, and his first instinct was to set up a lending program to make them available to McMinn County students. He talked to his partners in the store, Jasmine and Grant Mitchell, who were fully supportive.
But over the weekend, what began as a small effort promoted on local social media quickly turned into a GoFundMe campaign to buy and distribute copies of the book. By Sunday evening, it had raised more than $77,000 from more than 2,400 donors, far above its initial $20,000 goal.
“I can't tell you how just awe-inspiring this is to see so many people contribute,” said Davis, who watched donations pour in from around the country and across the globe as the fundraiser went viral. “It opens it up and allows us to do a lot of really good things.”
It also led to media attention. Davis has given interviews to MSNBC and the Jerusalem Post, among others.
The funding will enable the store to buy thousands of copies of Maus, which will be provided to families who request them — with priority given to those in McMinn County, which is about 50 miles southwest of Knoxville, and the surrounding region. Davis said he is working with Penguin Random House, the book’s publisher, to set up bulk purchases.
‘You Can’t Sugarcoat This’
The McMinn County Board of Education voted to remove Maus from its English language arts curriculum at its Jan. 10 meeting. Board members objected to a handful of curse words and one glimpse of bare breasts in the book.
But it wasn’t until the liberal website Tennessee Holler reported the action last week that the broader world took notice. It quickly became a cause célèbre for Jewish groups and free-speech advocates and was covered by media from Nashville to London to Israel. In an interview about the removal with The New York Times, Spiegelman said, “This is disturbing imagery (in the book). But you know what? It’s disturbing history.”
Accusations of latent anti-semitism and Holocaust denial were widespread. The popular fantasy author Neil Gaiman tweeted, “There's only one kind of people who would vote to ban Maus, whatever they are calling themselves these days.”
Davis said that he thinks objections to the book are rooted in an overly protective approach to teaching children about the world.
“I think that they're harming their children by censoring their access to things like Maus,” he said. “I just don't think that they're preparing them for the world as it is. They're trying to create this kid-proof image of our world that's just not accurate.”
He said teaching about horrific historical events like the Holocaust is the best protection against them recurring.
“The Holocaust is probably the worst atrocity committed by modern humans,” Davis said. “You can’t sugarcoat this, you can’t pull punches. Because if you do that, then you’re lying to your children about what it was.”
And he said he thinks comic books and graphic novels are a particularly effective way of reaching kids, especially those who may struggle with reading. (Maus is on the most widely used middle-school curriculum in Knox County Schools.)
Books Under Scrutiny
The McMinn County action was one of two news stories last week about Tennessee schools removing reading content from curriculums. In Williamson County, south of Nashville, a school system committee reviewed 31 books that were the subject of complaints by the conservative activist group Moms for Liberty.
The committee allowed most of the challenged books to remain, but opted to remove Walk Two Moons, a Newbery Award-winning young adult novel by Sharon Creech, and recommended instructional adjustments for a handful of others.
The actions come amidst a national conservative push to scrutinize school curriculums for signs of political or cultural bias and objectionable material. The Tennessean over the weekend tallied current state legislative proposals to ban undefined “obscene materials” from school libraries and to ban textbooks and materials that would "promote, normalize, support or address lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) issues or lifestyles."
Davis, who is also writer and creator of the popular independent comic series Cult of Dracula and Rise of Dracula, said he is still waiting on pricing information from Maus’s publisher to know how many copies of the hardcover edition Nirvana will be able to distribute. He had initially estimated that $20,000 would buy 1,000 copies.
“We want to always go with local (families) first, because we’re a member of this community and want to support it,” he said. “But with this amount of funding coming in, we're going to be able to fulfill every request we've received so far, with plenty of room to do more.”
He said that as someone who believes “that fundamentally people are good,” he has been heartened by the response to the store’s effort.
“It just shows me how many good people out there value free speech, free expression of art, and education,” Davis said. “Just seeing how many people responded to this in a small town in Tennessee that 99 percent of these people had probably never heard of.”
He added, “People stepped up from all over the world to volunteer. As a Tennessean that's really cool because that's kind of our state motto, that's what we do, we volunteer. We see a problem, we ask what we can do to help. So there’s a lot of Vols all over the world.”