Echoes of the Past: The Legacies of 1950s Comics Censorship in the Maus Controversy

Those interested in comics history are already well versed in the story of elected officials from Tennessee raising concerns about the pernicious influence of these publications on young readers. I refer, of course, to the 1954 Senate Subcommittee hearing on Juvenile Delinquency, where Senator Estes Kefauver (D-TN), used the spectacle of televised hearings to lambast the entire industry. Notably, many of these same concerns have resurfaced in recent weeks in the form of school board debates about the use of Art Spiegelman’s Maus as part of the eighth grade history curriculum in Kefauver’s home state. The geographical connections between the two spectacles, however, is hardly the only similarity. Indeed, a close reading of the transcripts of both events reveals several strikingly similar exchanges about comics and their place in American society. 

As has been widely reported in recent weeks, the McMinn County School Board in eastern Tennessee recently voted to remove Art Spiegelman’s Maus from the eighth grade history curriculum. Despite the fact that the book has received almost universal acclaim from the academic community, including educators in the county who had worked to construct the module in which it would be used, the board voted 10-0 to replace Maus “with an alternative method of teaching the Holocaust.” An exchange early in the meeting suggested that one board member had perhaps read specific words and viewed selected panels from the graphic novel but failed to understand the message of the work.  Spiegelman’s book, recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and used in classrooms throughout the nation, was mistakenly described as written “on a third grade reading level” and, more pointedly, received criticism for “promoting this kind of stuff.” What exactly is the “stuff” that Maus allegedly promotes? “People hanging,” “killing kids,” as well as “inappropriate language” and nudity. Arguing that Maus promotes murder is akin to suggesting that John Lewis’s March encourages segregation or George Takei’s They Called Us Enemy endorses racism. This tactic of willfully equating content with support has a long history and is only one of many ways in which the recent McMinn County School Board meeting contained echoes of 1950s comics censorship.

By the early 1950s, comic books had faced challenges throughout the country and been subject to public book burnings in several states. Comics became an easy scapegoat for American social and cultural insecurities in the early Cold War era, and as a result, the federal government appeared willing to intervene. During the subcommittee’s hearings in New York City, Dr. Fredric Wertham testified that comics contributed significantly to juvenile crime, brutality and violence, deviant sexuality, and promiscuity among young readers. He argued that readers internalized the messages of comics, and that these stories guided them into the world of juvenile delinquency. Continuing his attack with the leading questions of the senators in attendance, he asserted that comics promoted racism and claimed that “Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic book industry.” Pointedly, he cited a specific story (“The Whipping” from EC Comics’s Shock Suspenstories 14) “in which a derogatory term for Puerto Ricans…is repeated 12 times in one story. This greasy so and so, this dirty so and so…What is the point of this story? The point of the story is that then somebody gets beaten to death. The only error is that the man who must get beaten to death is not a man; it is a girl.” Such a description would easily lead one to ask why the comic endorsed racism and murder. The intentional mischaracterization of a comic’s story seen in Wertham’s example was repeated at the recent school board meeting in McMinn County. 

The story referenced in the 1954 hearings did not promote racism and murder. Quite the opposite was true, if only one took the time to read and reflect on the story. Thus, it did not take long for EC publisher William Gaines to seize on this example in his testimony that followed Wertham’s presentation. Reminding his inquisitors that he had just been accused of publishing stories that “preached racial intolerance,” Gaines stated that quite the opposite was true. “This is one of a series of stories,” he explained, “designed to show the evils of race prejudice and mob violence, in this case against Mexican Catholics. Previous stories in this same magazine have dealt with antisemitism, anti-Negro feelings, evils of dope addiction, and development of juvenile delinquents.” Here Gaines makes clear that describing story details without an explanation of the plot served as an effective way to slander his work. One can only wonder how Art Spiegelman might have responded to a description of his work as promoting killing and nudity.    

This was not the only similarity between the two cases, however. Far from it, in fact, as the McMinn County board followed several other tactics of attacking comics in their recent hearing. Another issue that appears in both cases is the question of how comics affect the ethical compass of those who read them. In his 1954 testimony, Wertham states that “comic books primarily, and that is the greatest harm they do, cause a great deal of ethical confusion.” In Wertham’s view, virtually all genres of comic books eroded the moral fiber of young Americans: crime, romance, adventure, and even superheroes (including Superman, who is singled out by name). This same refrain appears in the recent discussions of Maus in Tennessee.  A member of the McMinn board directly states that “we are talking about teaching ethics to our kids.” He then mentions the suicide of Spiegelman’s mother and the profanity-laced interactions between Art and his father, Vladek, and asserts that “we don’t need this stuff to teach kids history.  We can teach them history and we can teach them graphic history. We can tell them exactly what happened, but we don’t need all the nakedness and all the other stuff.” This argument that history can be cleansed for popular consumption is particularly distressing, yet it appears in several places during the discussion. Board members repeatedly suggest that there must certainly be another book, which is never named, that can be used as a substitute. Thus, the “values of the school system” would not be a casualty of history instruction on the Holocaust and Second World War. It seems that the board aspires to find a book to teach eight graders in the school district about the Holocaust without the killing and nudity. 

These exchanges that occurred almost seventy years apart share another commonality among those anxious to control what children read: a complete disregard for expert testimony that challenged their views. While there was a massive groundswell of popular support for censoring comics in the early 1950s, the academic evidence linking these publications to juvenile delinquency was spotty at best. As we have already seen, the most prominent critical voice was Dr. Fredric Wertham, who had spent most of the decade leading up to the hearing attacking comics. His book, Seduction of the Innocent, outlined a detailed case against comics based on his close analysis of these publications and his years of interviewing young people in his clinic. Yet even at the height of his fame, there were vocal opponents making clear that correlating the rise of juvenile delinquency with an increase in comic book sales did not prove causation. Frederic Thrasher, a sociologist at New York University, argued in a 1949 article that “the current alarm over the evil effect of comic books rests upon nothing more substantial than the opinion and conjecture of a number of psychiatrists, lawyers, and judges.”1 He also noted “the major weakness of Wertham’s position is that it is not supported by research data.” Thus, some of Wertham’s peers sounded the alarm about his findings, yet they swam against the tide of popular opinion. While the Senate Subcommittee had access to these writings, and indeed summarized them in their final report, there is no sign they seriously considered Thrasher’s critique.

The recent McMinn County school board hearing was by no means an echo chamber despite the unanimity of the final decision. Several educators attended the meeting and explained to the board members the rationale for their use of Maus in the classroom. One educator explained “there is nothing pretty about the Holocaust and for me this was a great way to depict a horrific time in history. Mr. Spiegelman did his very best to depict his mother passing away and we are almost 80 years away. It’s hard for this generation, these kids don’t even know 9/11, they were not even born. For me this was his way to convey the message.” This brief quote speaks to the impact of the images used in Maus and the power of the Spiegelman family’s personal story. Notably, this educator went on to remind the board that “the problem is that we are 80 years removed from the Holocaust itself. [...] I would hate to rob our kids of this opportunity.” It is worth mentioning that the teachers of McMinn County are far from unusual in their recognition of Maus as a valuable text for use in the classroom. Maus is used as a resource in many secondary schools throughout the country, and many prominent organizations explicitly endorse its use in the classroom. Among those supporting the use of Maus as part of history instruction in the secondary schools are: the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; the American Jewish Committee; the Anti-Defamation League; and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, among many others. Needless to say that neither the experiences of teachers in the classroom, nor the endorsement of district administrators, professional historians, museums, or American Jewish organizations had any influence on the view of board members.  

Another striking similarity is the lack of knowledge of the two reviewing bodies regarding the actual content that they were studying. The questioning of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee makes rather clear that they were largely unfamiliar with the comics being discussed, despite the fact that many had been submitted as exhibits for the proceedings. References to specific titles, creators, and stories are rare. Kefauver claims in one exchange with Gaines that while he has “looked through these stories,” he could not “find any moral of better race relations” in them. There is even less doubt about the lack of familiarity of the McMinn County School Board with Maus. While the board members seem generally aware of the book’s focus on the Holocaust (and one claims to have “read through all of it”), they never refer to the book by its title. There is little, if any, reference to characters or important plot points. Even more striking, at least one board member states “I have not seen the book and read the whole book,” yet he felt confident in removing it from the curriculum based on “reviews” he had consulted. Perhaps just as disturbing is the claim made by another board member that Maus has been “banned many places in Europe because of how critical it is against the heinous acts that were done. So, it can be vetted either direction about the picture that it paints.” This claim suggests that since other (unnamed) places not in the United States have removed the work, this justifies enacting limitations for the schools of Tennessee. (Why anyone would ban Maus for “how critical it is against the heinous acts” of the Holocaust is never explained.) While publishers in Poland did not release a Polish translation until 2001, most notably for the critical portrayal of Poles during the war, and Russia did remove Maus from shelves in 2015 ostensibly due to its use of the swastika on the cover, neither of these seem in any way relevant to the McMinn County discussion.

Another tactic common to both of these episodes was to attack the reputation of the creators who had produced the comics under examination. In 1954, the focus was on the profiteering of publishers at the expense of the morals and well-being of America’s youth. Gaines, in particular, faced scrutiny from Senator Kefauver for the size of his monthly profits, multiple publishing companies, and the millions of copies he printed. Wertham’s criticisms are also subtle, and they often came in the form of backhanded compliments. He stated that he personally knew many comic book writers and that “there are many decent people among them.” He added that “they would much rather be doing something else than do what they are doing.” Thus, comics are presented in an exploitative and even sinister light. In 2022, one of the McMinn County school board members described Spiegelman as the “guy…[that] used to do the graphics for Playboy.” This, it seems, is a disqualifying offense, as the board member continued, “you can look at his history, and we’re letting him do graphics in books for students in elementary school. If I had a child in the eighth grade, this ain’t happening.” It hardly seems worth noting that Maus was not slated to be used “in elementary school” to begin with.

This would all be troubling enough if the attack on comics was limited solely to Spiegelman’s work, yet the Maus incident is the tip of the iceberg. While the media has extensively covered the McMinn County decision over the past few weeks, the removal of other comics from libraries and schools has received less attention. In 2014, the South Carolina legislature targeted Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home when the College of Charleston included it on a list of summer reading titles for incoming students. A legislator who led the charge to trim the college’s budget in response to the decision specifically stated that the college was “promoting the gay and lesbian lifestyle.” Indeed, Fun Home has been on the top ten list of most banned and challenged books multiple times in recent years. The American Library Association’s list of the top 100 banned and challenged books in the past decade (2010-2019) lists several graphic novels, with Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants, Raina Telgemeier’s Drama, and Jeff Smith’s Bone all in the top 20. Takei’s They Called Us Enemy was also briefly banned in Pennsylvania last fall. In the past few months, Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer has been challenged in Rhode Island, Florida, Texas and Virginia, as critics have equated a personal tale of trauma and self-discovery with pornography. Employing the same tactics that comics censors have used for decades, authorities in many communities have sought to limit access by criticizing the author, citing community standards, equating content with message, and remarking on the dangers of ethical and moral confusion. The recent Maus controversy, then, might best be understood as the most high profile example of a much larger and concerning trend to remove books, especially comics, from public view across the United States.    

In closing, it seems appropriate to return to the article by Wertham critic Frederic Thrasher, whose work is as timely today as it was in the late 1940s. “The danger inherent in the present controversy,” he opines in reference to widespread condemnation of comics at the time, “...is that having set up a satisfactory ‘whipping boy’ in comic magazines, we fail to face and accept our responsibility as parents and as citizens for providing our children with more healthful family and community living, a more constructive developmental experience.” Removing Maus – or any graphic novel – from the curriculum is an easy course of action, and perhaps in some communities, a popular one. Yet as Thrasher suggests, our shared duties to help children learn about themselves, the past, the world around them, and their responsibilities as human beings is an enormous challenge that requires more than simple solutions. Removing books from schools, curricula, and libraries is rarely, if ever, the right answer if our goal is to raise thoughtful, critical, and engaged citizens.

  1. Frederic Thrasher, “The Comics and Delinquency: Cause or Scapegoat?,” The Journal of Educational Sociology 23, no. 4 (December 1949): 195-205.