Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters
The National Book Foundation, presenter of the National Book Awards, today announced that it will award Art Spiegelman with the 2022 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters (DCAL). Best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel, Maus, a two-volume genre-bending retelling of his parents’ survival as Polish Jews during the Holocaust, Spiegelman’s deeply personal body of work includes Breakdowns, The Wild Party, In the Shadow of No Towers, a collection of three of his sketchbooks entitled Be a Nose!, and MetaMaus, a companion to The Complete Maus. Spiegelman is the first comic artist to receive the DCAL medal, which will be presented to him by author Neil Gaiman at the National Book Awards Ceremony on November 16, 2022.
Spiegelman was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, made an Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, awarded the Grand Prix at the Angoulême International Comics Festival, and was the first comic artist to receive the Edward MacDowell Medal. He was inducted into the Will Eisner Comic Industry Hall of Fame, the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame, and was named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2005. Spiegelman’s comic art has been exhibited at museums around the world, including the Centre Pompidou in Paris, Museum Ludwig in Cologne, the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Jewish Museum in New York City, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
“Art Spiegelman has captured the world’s imagination through the comics medium,” said David Steinberger, Chair of the Board of Directors of the National Book Foundation. “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, and the Foundation is proud to honor his legacy.”
Born in Sweden in 1948, Spiegelman immigrated with his parents to the US in 1951. He began drawing professionally as a teenager, learning cartooning in high school, and studied art and philosophy at Harpur College (now the State University of New York at Binghamton). Spiegelman became a prominent voice of the underground comix movement of the 1960s and 70s, during which time he began to experiment with autobiographical comics. In 1975, he co-founded the comics anthology, Arcade, and in 1980, he co-founded the avant-garde comics magazine RAW with his wife, Françoise Mouly. He taught courses on the history and the aesthetics of comics at the School of Visual Arts in New York from 1979 to 1986, and his work has been published in numerous newspapers and magazines, including The New Yorker, where he was a staff artist and writer between 1993 and 2003.
“Art Spiegelman’s tremendous body of work, as well as his anthologizing, community building, and advocacy for comics literacy for readers of all ages have secured comics as an irreplaceable literary form,” said Ruth Dickey, Executive Director of the National Book Foundation. “His carefully researched Maus blends family memoir with world history and political commentary, and shines a light on the complexity of intergenerational trauma. The graphic novel is a frequent target of censorship, and remains essential reading not just to understand our history but our present as well. We are honored to celebrate Spiegelman’s work as an artist and an advocate with the Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.”
Spiegelman is the thirty-fifth recipient of the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, which was created in 1988 to recognize a lifetime of literary achievement. Previous recipients include Walter Mosley, Edmund White, Isabel Allende, Annie Proulx, Robert A. Caro, John Ashbery, Judy Blume, Don DeLillo, Joan Didion, E.L. Doctorow, Maxine Hong Kingston, Stephen King, Ursula K. Le Guin, Elmore Leonard, Norman Mailer, Toni Morrison, Adrienne Rich, and most recently, Karen Tei Yamashita. Nominations for the DCAL medal are made by former National Book Award Winners, Finalists, judges, and other writers and literary professionals from around the country. The final selection is made by the National Book Foundation’s Board of Directors. Recipients of the Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters receive $10,000 and a solid brass medal.
Art Spiegelman is best known for his masterful graphic novel, Maus, a two-volume Holocaust narrative that portrays Jews as mice and Nazis as cats, telling the story of his parents’ survival as Polish Jews in the Nazi death camps and of their troubled lives in America after the war. In 1992, Spiegelman won a special Pulitzer Prize for the completion of Maus, which, at the time, didn’t fit into any of the Prize’s standard categories. In 2009, Maus was chosen by the Young Adult Library Association as one of its recommended titles for all students. And in 2020, the New York Public Library voted Maus one of the 125 most important books of the last 125 years.
Having rejected his parents’ aspirations for him to become a dentist, Art Spiegelman studied cartooning at New York’s High School of Art and Design and began drawing professionally at age sixteen. He went on to study art and philosophy at Harpur College (now SUNY Binghamton) before being expelled in 1968. He received an honorary Doctorate of Letters from the university in 1995. His comics are best known for their shifting graphic styles, their formal complexity, and often controversial content.
Spiegelman became part of the underground comix subculture of the 60s and 70s, and was a creative consultant for Topps Gum Co. from 1965-1987, where he created Wacky Packages, Garbage Pail Kids, and other novelty items. In 1975-1976, he co-founded Arcade, a quarterly “Comix Revue” with Bill Griffith, presenting some of the most sophisticated underground work being produced in that decade. And in 1980, Spiegelman co-founded RAW, the acclaimed international avant-garde comics magazine that originally serialized Maus, with his wife, Françoise Mouly. He and Mouly also co-edited Little Lit, a series of comics anthologies for children published by HarperCollins, and the anthology The Toon Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics published by Harry N. Abrams.
Spiegelman taught courses on the history and aesthetics of comics at the School for Visual Arts in New York from 1979-1986, and in 2007 he was a Heyman Fellow of the Humanities at Columbia University, where he taught a Masters of the Comics seminar. In his lectures, Spiegelman takes his audiences on a chronological tour of the evolution of comics, all the while explaining the value of this medium and why it cannot be ignored. He believes that “comics echo the way the brain works. People think in iconographic images, not in holograms, and people think in bursts of language, not in paragraphs.”
Spiegelman’s 1978 anthology, Breakdowns, was published by Pantheon in 2008 with an autobiographical comix-format introduction almost as long as the book itself, entitled “Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!.” McSweeney’s has published a collection of three of his sketchbooks entitled Be a Nose!. His work has been published in many periodicals, including The New Yorker, where he was a staff artist and writer from 1993-2003.
In 2004, he completed a two-year cycle of broadsheet-sized color comics pages titled In the Shadow of No Towers, about the 9/11 attacks, first published in a number of European newspapers and magazines including Die Zeit and The London Review of Books. A book version of these highly political works, published by Pantheon in the US, appeared on many national bestseller lists, and was selected by the New York Times Book Review as one of the 100 Notable Books of 2004. In 2011, Pantheon published MetaMaus, a companion to The Complete Maus. It is the story of why he wrote Maus, why he chose mice, cats, frogs, and pigs, and how he got his father to open up (the book is built around conversations with comics scholar, Hillary Chute, and includes transcripts of Art’s own interviews with his father; it is not a graphic novel, but it is populated with illustrations, photos, and other images). MetaMaus won the 2011 National Jewish Book Award for Biography, Autobiography, and Memoir.
In 2005, Art Spiegelman was named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. That same year, a major exhibition of his work was arranged by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, as part of the “15 Masters of 20th Century Comics” exhibition. In 2006, he was inducted into the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame, and in 2007 was made an Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France. In 2008, he played himself on an episode of “The Simpsons.” In 2011, Art Spiegelman won the Grand Prix at the Angoulême International Comics Festival, marking only the third time an American had received the honor. He was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2015, and in 2018 he received the Edward MacDowell Medal, the first-ever given in comic art.
Neil Gaiman is the author of numerous New York Times bestsellers including The Sandman series of graphic novels, Neverwhere, American Gods, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane. He is credited with being one of the creators of modern comics, as well as an author whose work crosses genres and reaches audiences of all ages. His fiction has received a Newbery Medal, Carnegie Medal, and Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy, and Will Eisner Awards. He is a creator of works of prose, poetry, film, journalism, comics, song lyrics, and drama.
In 2017 UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, appointed Gaiman as a global Goodwill Ambassador. Originally from England, he now divides his time between Scotland, where Good Omens and Anansi Boys are filmed, and the United States, where he is a Professor in the Arts at Bard College. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Image: Art Spiegelman. (Photo credit Nadja Spiegelman)
Every fall, in conjunction with the conferring of The National Book Awards in Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, Translated Literature, and Young People’s Literature, the Board of Directors of the Foundation also presents a Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. The recipient is a person who has enriched our literary heritage over a life of service, or a corpus of work. Recipients of the Award receive $10,000.