NEW YORK — This fall, Art Spiegelman will receive an honorary National Book Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. He feels honored, and a little worried.
The unexpected pleasure of being cited by the National Book Foundation comes months after the jarring saga of his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Maus” being withdrawn by a Tennessee school board, which found Spiegelman’s graphic novel about the Holocaust inappropriate for the district’s curriculum. Sales for “Maus” and other Spiegelman books surged, but the attention distracted him from other priorities.
“My work schedule just got totally smashed to smithereens,” he said during a recent telephone interview. “I was happy to crawl back into my hideout.”
Now, the 74-year-old Spiegelman anticipates being back out in the world, an admittedly enviable burden that will require him to set aside time and consider his decades-long legacy, one profound and wide-ranging. His influence extends from “Maus,” winner of a special citation from Pulitzer judges in 1992, to his 1970s work in underground comics to his famed New Yorker covers, notably the darkened silhouettes of the Twin Towers that ran two weeks after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“Art Spiegelman has captured the world’s imagination through the comics medium,” David Steinberger, chair of the National Book Foundation’s board of directors, said in a statement released Friday. “His masterful graphic novels tackle and illuminate topics from the Holocaust to the aftermath of 9/11, alongside the personal intimacy of the people, events, and comics that shaped him as an artist. Spiegelman’s groundbreaking work has shown us the limitless possibilities for comics as a literary arts form.”
Born in Stockholm, Spiegelman was a toddler when his family emigrated to the U.S., in the early 1950s. He is descended from Polish Jews and lost dozens of relatives — including his brother Rysio — during the Holocaust, a tragic history which he drew upon for “Maus.” His career as a cartoonist dates back to his teens, when he was contributing art to Smudge and other fanzines and was producing his own publication, “Blasé.”
Spiegelman’s career is, in part, a story of taking an art form associated with kids 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 previously has awarded Toni Morrison, Philip Roth and Robert Caro among others.
“It’s very different from what was happening back in the ’70s, where being a cartoonist essentially meant — unless you were Charles Schulz — that you weren’t in the big leagues of success. It was more like being a tattoo artist,” Spiegelman says.
“But the world is changing. There has been a cultural shift that has made it less pejorative to make comics. You had a moment in the 1950s when comics bannings were happening across America. Comic books were seen as dangerous, and you had this struggle over what kids should be allowed to see. There was a ratings system (the Comics Code) and a lot of it was nonsense. But the genie is long out of the bottle.”
Neil Gaiman will introduce Spiegelman at the Nov. 16 ceremony, presented by the Book Foundation. The American Library Association’s 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 young people’s literature.
In a recent telephone interview, Gaiman said Spiegelman had made an enduring impact on him. He remembered seeing some of Spiegelman’s “Maus” images some 40 years ago and relating them to his own experiences as a relative of Jewish Holocaust survivors.
“It left prints on my soul,” he says of Spiegelman’s work.
They became friends years later, even though Gaiman, who recalls 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 that his admiration and affection for Spiegelman have only deepened, and he was not surprised that Spiegelman had worried that winning the DCAL might disrupt his work schedule.
“That is Art,” he said. “Art, with a capital ‘A,’ is always thinking about art, with a small ‘a.’ He makes things that matter, and I think he knows he makes things that matter, and I think we are ridiculously lucky to have him.”