I learned something new this morning as I caught up on what happened during the hours in which I slept. It’s my habit to go to the front page of my Google app and read suggested stories. They’re typically offered based on subjects Google has noticed I’ve read. I’ve been reading Maus, thanks to the enhanced publicity of Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel being banned for 8th graders in McMinn County, Tennessee. Maus is a brilliant work of art based on Art Spiegelman’s father’s experiences in The Holocaust. Because I’ve also been reading up on Art Spiegelman, this morning, Google recommended an article from Cracked.com about another one of Spiegelman’s very popular artistic projects from the 80s. It turns out that Art Spiegelman’s work was controversial, and even banned, when I was a 13 year old kid, too.
I’m ashamed to admit that prior to a couple of weeks ago, I hadn’t even heard of Maus, although it won a Pulitzer Prize, and the first six chapters were released in 1986, when I was fourteen years old. Although I loved Mad Magazine when I was growing up, and Spiegelman was reportedly influenced by Mad, I didn’t read comic books as a rule. Wikipedia tells me that Spiegelman began working on Maus in 1978, and the comics originally appeared in a comic anthology magazine called Raw, which featured alternative comics for adults. Spiegelman was co-editor of Raw, where work by avant-garde artists who were previously unknown was showcased.
In 1985, when I was thirteen and in the 8th grade, Spiegelman heard that Steven Spielberg was making a movie about Jewish mice who escaped persecution in Eastern Europe. Believing that Spielberg’s film An American Tail, was inspired by Maus, which had been appearing in segments in issues of Raw, Spiegelman searched for a publisher who would make the first chapters of Maus available so that his work would not be unfairly compared to Spielberg’s. The first six chapters of Spiegelman’s masterpiece were published in 1986, comprising the first volume of Maus. The unfinished work earned rave reviews from The New York Times, and Spiegelman spent the next five years finishing the book. Incidentally, I have yet to see An American Tail, although I am a fan of the song, “Somewhere Out There”, which was sung by Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram, and appeared on the film’s soundtrack. It’s one of my favorite duets to sing on SingSnap. 😉
Maus took a total of thirteen years to finish and, having spent the last few days reading it, I concur with so many others that it really is wonderful work. But Spiegelman did also have bills to pay as he was designing his masterpiece. So what did he do in those days to make ends meet as he worked on creating Maus? Well, besides teaching at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, Spiegelman created a relic from my youth that I remember all too well. Inspired, in part, by the very homely dolls, the Cabbage Patch Kids, which were incredibly popular in the 1980s, Spiegelman and a couple of other guys named Mark Newgarden and John Pound, created trading cards called Garbage Pail Kids.
Garbage Pail Kids first appeared in 1985– again, when I was at the age that the Tennessee eighth graders are at now– and, you guessed it, they caused quite a ruckus. In fact, they were banned in some places. Why were they banned? Well, mainly it was because they were gross, and adults in the 80s were a lot stuffier than they are today. I mean, kids of my era were allowed to do a lot more. We could run amok and be gone for hours every day with no fears that someone would call CPS. We could ride gloriously free of helmets on bikes, and without seatbelts in cars. And there was no such thing as the World Wide Web, so we never had to worry about some of the less savory things that kids today can be exposed to online. BUT– many parents and educators had a HUGE problem with the tasteless Garbage Pail Kids. God forbid kids of the 80s see vulgar comic depictions of a kids doing gross things! We might all turn into hoodlums!
The trading cards each featured a Garbage Pail kid that had something grotesque and funny “wrong” with it. The characters bore a striking resemblance to the Cabbage Patch Kids, which led to a successful lawsuit. Still, the cards were so popular that they led to a 1987 feature film called The Garbage Pail Kids Movie. There was also a TV series developed based on the characters, but it never aired, due to the extreme controversy surrounding the cards. The article I read on Cracked mentions that the cards made a comeback in the 2000s, but by the time they were back on the market, most people had forgotten about them. And people of the 2000s were much less shocked by comic depictions of kids who looked gross or were doing nasty or vulgar things.
I do remember Garbage Pail Kids, but I never collected them. By the time the movie came out, I was fifteen years old, and totally into my horse. I recall that teachers didn’t like them because they were “distracting”. In fact, I seem to remember that they were so controversial that in 1989, The Cosby Show did an episode loosely based on them, calling them “The Gross Out Gang”. The episode was about youngest child, Rudy, being caught watching a gory horror movie about gross kids that her parents didn’t approve of. Rudy tells her parents that they need to revisit the rules she is forced to abide by, which spawns a fun episode that shows what happens when little girls don’t abide by their parents’ wise counsel.
Bill Cosby was practically a god in the 80s, and his show was considered “family friendly” entertainment and “must see TV” on Thursday nights. In those days, there were a lot fewer channels to watch, so a lot of people watched Cosby, not realizing that he was a lot grosser than Garbage Pail Kids or “The Gross Out Gang” could ever be. Ah, but we were so innocent back then. It was much easier for people like Cosby to hide their sins. News didn’t travel as fast, and not everyone had a camera.
It kind of blows my mind that a genius like Art Spiegelman was behind Garbage Pail Kids. But then, I guess in their own way, Garbage Pail Kids were yet another element of Spiegelman’s genius. They were hugely popular, and they no doubt made it possible for Spiegelman to make his mark on the world in a profound way by creating Maus. Isn’t it interesting that Bill Cosby, who is also a genius, but has done some really terrible things to women, was considered “family friendly” to parents of my childhood, but Art Spiegelman, who as far as I know, has never actually harmed anyone, keeps putting out stuff that gets banned? I mean, Cosby has most recently been “canceled” by a lot of people, but he was allowed to influence young people for decades! I remember seeing him on Fat Albert, and The Electric Company, and when he did “Picture Pages”, which I think were featured on Captain Kangaroo and later on Nickelodeon’s Pinwheel.
The older I get, the more I think a lot of people have their priorities messed up. I see that the people of McMinn County were heavily in favor of re-electing Donald Trump for president, who has said some things that are definitely not appropriate for kids to hear or read. Why is it that the good people of McMinn don’t have a problem with an admitted pussy grabber in the White House, but they can’t bear the idea of thirteen year old kids seeing a cartoon depiction of suicide or nudity, or reading the word “shit” and “God damn” a few times. I just read the part of Maus in which the word “God damn” was used. It was definitely not used inappropriately, given the context of the situation in the book. Art was furious at his father for destroying his mother’s priceless diaries after he’d had a “bad day”. Since his mother committed suicide in 1968, it made perfect sense that Art would have been outraged enough to curse at his father. And believe me, 13 year olds have heard that particular profanity,— and much worse— a lot. I think the issue is, McMinn County simply doesn’t want its children to be exposed to the truths of the terrible sins perpetrated by supposed white Christians in the not too distant past.
I read in the minutes of the school board meeting in which Maus was removed, one of the points made for removing the book was that students today could be disciplined for using the curse words in the book. However, I would really hope that the adults in these kids’ lives teach them that there are times and places for “objectionable language”. I don’t think thirteen year olds are so innocent that they can’t be taught that the word “God damn”, uttered by a very angry person regarding the Holocaust, during which people were systematically MURDERED, is necessarily inappropriate. Curse words, like it or not, have their uses. I would rather someone curse than commit an act of violence, for instance. I rarely ever heard Bill Cosby curse in his comedy routines and television shows, but he surely did do violent things to women. And Donald Trump–the beloved and heavily supported former POTUS in McMinn County– has both said objectionable words and committed violent acts against women– including his first wife, Ivana, whom he presumably had some regard for at the time, I would hope.
Anyway, I am heartened that people have been outraged that Maus was banned in Tennessee. I’m glad to see that it’s back on the bestseller list, and people like me are buying copies of it and reading it. As I mentioned before, McMinn County is actually inadvertently educating people with its ridiculous condemnation of Art Spiegelman’s great book. Banned books are usually the best ones to read. I’ll bet those old Garbage Pail Kids collections are also going to sell like hotcakes, too. Americans are funny that way.