New York This fall, Art Spiegelman will receive a National Honorary Book Award for his outstanding contribution to American literature. He feels proud and a little anxious.
The unexpected pleasure cited by the National Book Foundation comes months after the Tennessee school board pulled the contradictory saga of Pulitzer Prize-winning film “Maus,” which found Spiegelman’s graphic novel about the Holocaust inappropriate for the district’s curriculum. Sales of Mouse and other Spiegelman books soared, but attention was distracted from other priorities.
“My work schedule has been completely shattered to bits,” he said during a recent phone interview. “I was happy to crawl back into my lair.”
Now, 74-year-old Spiegelman expects to return to the world, an enviable burden that will surely require him to take the time and consider his decades-long legacy, one that is deep and broad. His influence extends from “Maus,” the Pulitzer Judges’ special citation in 1992, to his 1970s work in Underground comics to the covers of the famous New Yorker, particularly the dark silhouettes of the Twin Towers two weeks after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. .
“Art Spiegelmann has captured the world’s imagination through the medium of comedy,” David Steinberger, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the National Book Foundation, said in a statement released Friday. “His brilliant graphic novels address and shed light on themes from the Holocaust to post-9/11, along with the personal intimacy of the people, events, and comics that shaped him as an artist. Spiegelman’s groundbreaking work has shown us the limitless potential of comics as a literary art form.”
Spiegelman, born in Stockholm, was a young child when his family immigrated to the United States in the early 1950s. He is of Polish Jewish descent and lost dozens of relatives – including his brother Recio – during the Holocaust, a tragic history that he capitalized on in the movie Moss. His career as a cartoonist dates back to his teens, when he was contributing art to Smudge and other fans and was producing his own publication, “Blasé”.
Spiegelman’s career is, in part, a story of taking an art form associated with children and reshaping it for adults, which he calls “an investigation into the language and nature of comics.” He is the first cartoonist to win the DCAL Medal from the National Writers Foundation, which has previously awarded Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, Robert Caro, and others.
“It’s very different from the ’70s, where being a cartoonist—unless you were Charles Schulz—meaning you weren’t in the big leagues for success. It was like being a tattoo artist,” Spiegelmann says.
“But the world is changing. There was a cultural shift that made comics production less contemptuous. You had a moment in the 1950s when comics were banned across America. Comic books were seen as dangerous, and you had this struggle about what to Let the kids see it. There was a rating system (comics code) and a lot of it was nonsense. But the genie was out of the bottle a long time ago.”
Neil Gaiman will present Spiegelman at the November 16 Gala, presented by the Writers Foundation. The Executive Director of the American Library Association, Tracy D. Hall, will receive the Distinguished Service Award to the American Literary Community, and winners will be announced in five competitive categories, from fiction to youth literature.
In a recent phone interview, Gaimann said Spiegelmann has had a lasting impact on him. He remembered seeing some of Spiegelmann’s “mouse” photos about 40 years ago and relating them to his own experiences as a relative of Jewish Holocaust survivors.
“It left imprints on my soul,” he says of Spiegelman’s work.
They became friends years later, although Gaiman, who remembers turning down the opportunity to meet David Bowie and Elvis Costello among others, had an unofficial rule not to meet his heroes. But he said his admiration and affection for Spiegelman had only deepened, and he wasn’t surprised by Spiegelman’s concern that winning the DCAL title might disrupt his work schedule.
“This is art,” he said. “Art, with an uppercase ‘A’, always thinks of art, with a lowercase ‘A’. He makes important things, and I think he knows he makes important things, and I think we are very lucky to have him.”
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