The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Censors love to target comics such as ‘Maus.’ Here’s why.

They level social critiques in an accessible way

Two books of the graphic novel “Maus” by the American cartoonist Art Spiegelman are pictured in this illustration in Pasadena, Calif., on Jan. 27, 2022. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

In a unanimous vote on Jan. 10, Tennessee’s McMinn County Board of Education voted to ban the use of the graphic novel “Maus” in its eighth-grade classrooms. The board removed Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust memoir, which depicts Jewish victims of the Holocaust as mice and Nazi perpetrators as cats, on the grounds that it promoted the use of obscene language and included scenes of nudity.

As noted by other writers and analysts, the district’s decision to ban “Maus” is part of broader conservative efforts to control classroom curriculum and “ban” certain books and topics of discussion. But putting “Maus” at the center of these conversations sparks another set of debates, one born of the comics medium itself.

Censorship has a long history when it comes to the comics industry, with 20th-century critics of comics claiming to protect young readers by censoring comics on the basis of language and imagery. Yet, buzzwords like “obscenity,” “nudity” and “decency” distract from a more sinister argument driving the censorship of comics: that progressive, accessible storytelling is somehow dangerous in the hands of young readers.

The modern comics industry has roots in the late 1930s, with “Action Comics #1” and the “Superman” series propelling its growth. The 1938 issue that featured the original Man of Steel sparked a copycat craze that launched some of the most memorable characters. Wonder Woman, Captain America and Batman were born of the same era. From 1938 to 1945, these superheroes dominated the comics scene, defining what enthusiasts now refer to as the comics’ “Golden Age.”

By 1954, science fiction, crime and horror comics had taken over as the industry’s most popular publications, replacing the superhero genre, which declined in popularity after the end of World War II. Some crime and horror stories focused on shocking audiences with the unthinkable, using fantasy to sell issues to readers. But science fiction comics also extended beyond pulp story lines, using effective communication strategies in the form of social protest comics to highlight liberal calls for change.

For example, the 1952 “Shock SuspenStories” series featured a number of these protest comics, also known as “preachies,” specifically designed to make readers think about the consequences of hate and prejudice. The series included stories that featured Black men tried and executed for crimes they did not commit, stories of Black soldiers being denied burial rights in local cemeteries after World War II and stories of White, non-Jewish characters terrorizing their Jewish neighbors. The hope was that the “shocking” nature of these story lines, which intentionally reflected contemporary social issues, would inspire real-world change.

Seemingly because of new comics’ popularity, in the 1950s, parents and school administrators blamed them for the degradation of the youths and a rise in what they, and the anti-comics psychiatrist Frederic Wertham, broadly referred to as “juvenile delinquency.” After a federal hearing and pressure from the public, the comics industry developed a set of 41 guidelines that would govern the publication of new issues, imposing self-regulation before the state interfered. The Comics Code Authority (CCA) operated as the central censorship body that enforced what guidelines called “sound, wholesome entertainment.” This regulatory body could sink any issue of a book of comics that did not receive code approval.

General Standards Part C Guideline No. 1 banned “profanity, obscenity, smut, [and] vulgarity.” Guidelines under the label “Costumes” banned “nudity in any form,” along with “indecent or undue exposure.” There would be no sex or homosexuality. There would be no violence. There would be no criminal activity. There would be no drug use, no scenes of torture and no story of evil triumphing over the forces of good.

There also would be no Black protagonists. For example, the CCA refused to approve the sci-fi comic “Judgment Day!” in 1956. The comic featured a helmeted astronaut encountering a society of orange and blue robots with intense segregation practices, despite the robots all being made with identical parts. In the final scenes of the issue, in which one robot asks whether there is any hope for their society to move past segregation, the astronaut assures them that they will undoubtedly learn to live together just as the citizens of Earth had. He later returns to his rocket and removes his helmet, revealing to the reader that he is Black.

CCA administrators denied approval of the striking anti-segregationist story, subsequently stopping its continued publication. When asked why, administrators replied: “You can’t have a Negro.” “Where in the Code does it say that I can’t depict a Negro?” asked “Judgment Day!” editor Al Feldstein.

The administrator replied again: “I say you can’t have a Negro.”

As this incident demonstrated, once a comic could be censored for language and imagery, it could be censored for any language or image, including ones that depicted a Black man in a position of power or that preached a message of justice or equality. So was the official, and unofficial, letter of the censorship rules.

This was especially significant considering the readership of the comics: youths. Comic-book consumers did not need a degree in history, sociology, psychology or political science to understand the critique of segregation in “Judgment Day!” All they required was access to the comic.

Perhaps that accessibility is what made CCA administrators so nervous; if students saw past the pulp and the fiction, they might begin to dig at the uncomfortable truths embedded in history. They might move beyond “sound” and “wholesome” categories. They might begin to think and learn.

Indeed, this is why “Maus” has been so significant. It has made the history of the Holocaust accessible to more people, a particularly powerful ability, given how few Holocaust survivors are left to share their stories. Its first book release in 1986 and subsequent completion in 1991 were met with resounding success, disseminating the memoir among the mainstream public as well as among lovers of classic comics. It gained critical acclaim, untouched by the CCA guidelines that technically were still in effect.

The CCA had not operated with any measured effectiveness since 1971, meaning that “Maus” and other releases of the 1980s, such as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s massively popular series “Watchmen,” could bring the harsh realities of the world into the realm of pulp publications. This new wave of comics, and “Maus” specifically, could tug at the darkest threads of history in a way that invited all readers in, not to traumatize them or encourage violence, but to educate them.

The CCA officially disbanded in 2011, long after its stranglehold on the comics industry had ended. But its impact has, apparently, remained. McMinn County has not banned the teaching of the Holocaust — although board members did toy dangerously with the idea of cutting the unit entirely from the curriculum. The district has, instead, cast its decision in the same language of decency, calling for the censored, “sound” and “wholesome” history that “Maus” is not. The board’s decision adheres to a set of codes nearly 70 years removed from the event, calling back to a moment in which “decency” was about more than language or nudity, no matter what the rules claimed.