NEW YORK (AP) — This fall, Art Spiegelman will receive an honorary National Book Award for his outstanding contribution to American letters. He feels honored and a little worried.
The unexpected delight of being cited by the National Book Foundation comes months after the jarring saga of its Pulitzer Prize-winning “Maus” was pulled by a Tennessee school board, which found Spiegelman’s graphic novel on the Holocaust inappropriate for the district curriculum. Sales of “Maus” and other Spiegelman books surged, but attention diverted him from other priorities.
“My work schedule has just been totally shattered,” he said in a recent phone interview. “I was happy to go back to my hiding place.”
Now, 74-year-old Spiegelman plans to be back in the world, an admittedly enviable burden that will require him to set aside time and consider his decades-long, deep and far-reaching legacy. His influence ranges from “Maus,” winner of a Pulitzer Judges Special Citation in 1992, to his 1970s work in underground comics to his famous New Yorker covers, including the shadowy silhouettes of the Twin Towers that have ran two weeks after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
“Art Spiegelman has captured the imagination of the world through the medium of comics,” David Steinberger, chairman of the board of the National Book Foundation, said in a statement released Friday. “His masterful graphic novels tackle and illuminate topics ranging from the Holocaust to the aftermath of 9/11, alongside the personal intimacy of the people, events and comics that have shaped him as an artist. The work Spiegelman’s groundbreaking work showed us the limitless possibilities of comics as a form of literary art.”
Born in Stockholm, Spiegelman was a toddler when his family emigrated to the United States in the early 1950s. He is descended from Polish Jews and lost dozens of relatives – including his brother Rysio – during the Holocaust, a tragic story from which he was inspired for “Maus”. His career as a cartoonist dates back to his teens, when he contributed to Smudge and other fanzines and produced 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, what he calls “investigating the language and nature of comics.” He is the first cartoonist to win the DCAL Medal from the National Book Foundation, which has previously awarded Toni Morrison, Philip Roth and Robert Caro among others.
“It’s very different from what was happening in the 70s, where being a cartoonist basically meant – unless you were Charles Schulz – you weren’t in the big leagues of success. It was more like being tattoo artist,” Spiegelman said. said.
“But the world is changing. There was a cultural shift that made creating comics less pejorative. You had a moment in the 1950s when comic book bans were happening across America. Comics were considered dangerous, and you had this fight over what kids should be allowed to see. There was a rating system (the Comics Code) and a lot of things didn’t make sense. But genius has been out of the bottle for a long time.
Neil Gaiman will introduce Spiegelman at the Nov. 16 ceremony, presented by the Book Foundation. American Library Association executive director Tracie D. Hall will receive an award for outstanding service to the American literary community, and winners will be announced in five competitive categories, from fiction to children’s literature.
In a recent phone interview, Gaiman said Spiegelman had a lasting impact on him. He recalls seeing some of Spiegelman’s “Maus” images about 40 years ago and relating them to his own experiences as a parent 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 chance 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 only deepened, and he was not surprised that Spiegelman worried that winning the DCAL would disrupt his work schedule.
“It’s Art,” he said. “Art, with a capital ‘A’, is always thinking about art, with a lowercase ‘a’. He does things that matter, and I think he knows he does things that matter, and I think we’re ridiculously lucky to have him.”