by Terry Barr
When I was nine, I took religious confirmation classes in the same Methodist church my mother’s family had belonged to for decades. My ten classmates and I took our instruction every Wednesday afternoon in the junior room, located in the far reaches of the church basement. Dr. Winefortner, our minister, prodded us gently about matters essential to our souls, or at the very least our moral health, and at the culmination of our six-week sessions, we were given a ceremony during high Sunday morning services, where we became official church members. We could now come on our own to morning services, sit where we wanted, and receive our own Revised Standard Edition Bible with our names embossed on it in gold.
Like many kids, I didn’t want to go to confirmation class or really any religious class, especially Sunday school. Like many parents, my mother gave me no choice in the matter. Strangely, though she often asked me what I learned when I came home from regular school, she never asked me after any of these Sunday or Wednesday confirmation lessons what I might have learned about Jesus that day.
Despite this omission and most definitely unlike all the other parents, my mother found a way to get me to go, to get me to make it through these confirmation classes:
She bought me a new comic book each week.
While I couldn’t take the latest copy of Batman or Justice League into confirmation class, it awaited me on the front seat of my mother’s blue Chevrolet after my 45 minute Jesus session on those late fall afternoons.
I have no idea what happened to the Bible with my name on it, but I still possess my first comic book bribe: Detective Comics # 350, “The Monarch of Menace,” its tri-partitioned cover more memorable than any Bible cover font.
Though I sat still and patiently enough to become a member of the church, I was never a whole-hearted joiner. So when my friends tried out for our church choir, and later for church basketball team, even though I loved the sport, I hung back, not even pretending to be interested. I did attend one of these games with my friend Jimbo, and sat next to him on the bench in my street clothes reading the comic book I bought before the game at our local “Stop and Shop” just across the street from the YMCA gym. Our Methodist youth team fought its heart out against Canaan Baptist and defeated those heathen hordes. Jimbo, an unskilled player who cared even less about the team than I did, asked to read my comic book while he was warming the bench. As he turned the pages of Batman’s encounter with Poison Ivy, his father, the coach, grabbed the comic and flung it into my lap.
“Jimbo, focus on the team!”
I felt bad because I had transgressed and caused my friend trouble. But Jimbo forgave me. His stash of comic books at home dwarfed mine.
I also transgressed at the Stop and Shop on another occasion after one of our friends told us about Ace Magazine.
“It’s so much better than Playboy,” he said. It was a funny comment since I had never held, much less seen, a Playboy before. “You can look at them right there in the Stop and Shop,” this friend added, so on my next comic book trip, while my mother waited patiently for me in the car, I wandered over behind the partition and took up an Ace.
A few minutes later, I saw a shadow looming:
“Son,” the store manager said, “you can read the comics or the teen magazines, but you can’t look at these,” and then he took that Ace from my sweaty hands and replaced it on the rack for others to behold.
I thought I had been so careful in finding my prize, but I was learning the ways others distinguished the proper from the improper. Given the relative weight of Batman comics, the Bible, and Ace, I saw that “right” and “wrong” weren’t always the agreed-upon or sanctioned categories that I had been taught.
Years passed and I put away these “childish things.” These comic books. I discovered finer literature—Ray Bradbury, HP Lovecraft, John Fowles, Emily Bronte—and eventually became an English major, and after, earned my MA and Ph.D. in Literature. Fresh out of grad school, I got a tenure-track job at Presbyterian College teaching Modern British-American Novel, World Literature, and Film Studies. Because of the latter area, I was invited to participate in an experimental and interdisciplinary project–Media and Society—with colleagues from the Theater, Religion, and Philosophy Departments.
Our course focused on two Media theorists: Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman. From them, my colleagues espoused such beliefs as “To best communicate complex information, you must present all ideas in logical, linear, sequential form;” or “the medium is the massage;” or “you can’t do philosophy with smoke signals.”
Or, “television, movies, or any visual medium are merely ways to amuse ourselves to death.”
To these colleagues, 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, of course, but to me, who taught film, and to my colleague Mark who joined us to co-teach the class in its second year. Mark was a professor of Art.
Mark and I waged a good battle, but not even Guernica or the film adaptation of Howards End could sway our colleagues into reconsidering their privileged forms and spaces. We fought hard, and while we never conceded, we nevertheless felt like we didn’t belong in the class, in the college, perhaps even in academia.
It was in the evening after another of our failed attempts in this class, that my life changed, or perhaps circled back to a place I once knew. Listening to NPR, I heard critic Alan Cheuse—whom I had once traveled with to meet Robert Penn Warren—review a “graphic novel,” a Holocaust memoir 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.
What did was the story, the complicated history of Holocaust survivors and their children.
When he 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 of the store. It felt odd, and part of me even felt ashamed. What was I doing 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. And what, really, could I know about these works after a two-minute review?
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. She has always understood me, perhaps better than I understand myself. She knew that I had comics in my past, and she also knew that I had begun pursuing my father’s Judaism. So that uncomfortable moment passed.
I read both volumes that evening. Yes, reading comics doesn’t take as long as reading traditional print, but it still took me several hours to finish because 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 wanted so badly to talk to someone about these books, about Spiegelman’s life, his creation, his memory. I could talk to my wife, who is a psychotherapist, but she wasn’t interested in reading the books. However, she did listen and she helped me process how to love characters that we wouldn’t ordinarily like in real life. She explained how self-hatred works, because my own self-hatred was rearing up. Not so much a hatred about my neglect of my father and his Jewishness, but my hatred of myself 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, I felt, really dismissing me.
Though I was a professional man with tenure, I couldn’t work up the nerve to go to my colleagues and explain what I had just bought and read. Not then, and not for several years. I kept my copies of Maus hidden on a shelf at home. I kept hidden my wonder and my understanding of Spiegelman’s art: of his rendering the scene of his refusal to sell out to Hollywood or to companies who wanted to manufacture “Maus” dolls or other retail merchandise. I invite you to look at this section in Maus II as Art 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. Literally in these frames, Spiegelman’s workspace rests on the bodies of dead mice. Dead Jews. And then he trudges to his therapist’s office, a man who is a Holocaust survivor, too, and who keep s a portrait of his own cat right on his office table for Art and us to see.
How, I wondered then, and wonder even more strongly today, does one present the Holocaust in a logical, linear, sequential fashion? And yes, I see all the puns: Batman; sequential Art; linear lines of motion or laughter; and I’m sure there are others.
I imagined then my colleagues’ reactions, how they’d scoff or laugh or dismiss Maus and me, and these paralyzed me, kept me from being honest. Kept my love hidden in the symbolic closet so like the real one of my bedroom adolescence where I used to stash both my comics and, hidden underneath them, the nude centerfolds I pilfered from my uncle’s Playboys.
Even today, despite my accomplishments in the classroom and in my own publications, 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 went to church on Sunday morning, and even if they tried to, I did not live in our college town. I lived in Greenville, forty-five minutes away, hiding my identity, my reputation, and the comic books I was beginning to collect again.
Life changes; old colleagues die or move on. Others, knowing my secrets, invite me to co-teach a course on the Holocaust. They ask what texts I want to include on the syllabus, and when I say Art Spiegelman’s Maus, they want to see it; they want to read it, and then, they want to use it in this and in 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.
We have no secrets.
Six years ago, I journeyed to a literature conference to deliver a paper on Jews in the professional wrestling circles of Birmingham, Alabama, where I’m originally from. I selected this conference to submit my work only because Art Spiegelman was the keynote speaker. Protesters came out on the day of his talk to shout about the fact that in Maus, he depicts Polish people as pigs. It didn’t bother Spiegelman, or at least he said it didn’t from his podium.
“When you write your own history of the Holocaust, you can choose to portray people in any way you want, too!” he said.
He reiterated this belief later when he signed my books. We had to meet outside, in back of the hall by a dumpster, because Spiegelman wanted to smoke a cigarette. Strangely, no one followed us out there.
It all felt so secret, so clandestine. So true.
By the side of his signature on my original copies of Maus I and II, he drew himself as a mouse, cigarette in hand. I don’t know if he realized then or later what he had done for me, what memories he had dredged up in me, what stories he had unlocked for me, though I tried in our brief moments together to tell him.
Life is a series of sequential days, day after day. Each day captured by a thought balloon.
Eventually I published these memories in a piece of Creative Nonfiction (“Remembering History” Loud Zoo, 2015), and even more eventually, I published an essay on “Teaching Maus to a Holocaust Class,” in the Modern Language Association’s volume, Teaching the Graphic Novel, edited by Stephen E. Tabachnick.
I wish I could have sent these articles to the demons of my earlier teaching days. I wish I could have revealed in those days to my colleagues what I was reading, why I thought it was important, and why I didn’t care what they thought, especially if their method of approaching contemporary media was to try to hide or forget, demean or diminish, certain forms and a definite past that didn’t fit into their “logical” world.
I wish that I had stood up to them and said, “You are not going to shame me for loving what I love, for being who I am.”
I wish I had not chosen to hide my secret love. My comic books.
I wish they could see my office today, where on my bookshelves I proudly display my comic books and my works about them, for all my students and colleagues to see.
I wish that they could know that, finally, I have nothing to hide.
Terry Barr is the author of Don’t Date Baptists and Other Warnings from My Alabama Mother (Third Lung Press), and the forthcoming collection, We Might As Well Eat: How to Survive Tornados, Alabama Football, and Your Southern Family. His work has appeared in The Bitter Southerner, storySouth, Wraparound South, Full Grown People, Left Hooks, and Vol 1 Brooklyn. He blogs at Medium.com and lives in Greenville, SC, with his family.
Image original: Emily Byers via Creative Commons