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'Maus' creator reacts to winning comics' Grand Prix prize

By Michael Cavna
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 1, 2011; C06

In a year jampacked with projects, promises and deadlines, cartoonist Art Spiegelman didn't think his 2011 workload could get any heavier. Then he got the call:

Bonjour, this is the Angouleme festival. Would you have any problem accepting our Grand Prix honor?

"I didn't think I could say 'no' without causing an international incident of Bush-like proportions," jokes the Pulitzer-winning creator of "Maus," speaking Monday by phone about becoming only the third American ever to receive the award.

As the Angouleme International Comics Festival's Grand Prix recipient, Spiegelman knows that the gig entails accepting the role of president for the following fest - in other words: Help plan the entire Angouleme 2012.

"Within five-eighths-of-a-second of hearing the news, my wife," New Yorker art director Francoise Mouly, uttered a French expletive, Spiegelman recounts wryly. "She could see immediately what lie ahead."

What lies ahead is being the steering hand for the festival's exhibits and conferences and programs. "I don't know whether you should say 'congratulations' or 'condolences,' " says the artist, noting what a prestigious honor it is - while also remembering how it was when American friend and colleague R. Crumb received the same award for the 2000 festival.

"Crumb didn't want to even meet the press," Spiegelman recalls. "He escaped out a door and went flea-market shopping in the neighborhoods. They vowed never to pick another American.

"I won't be as bad as that," he says, laughing.

(The only other American to receive the Grand Prix is Will Eisner, in 1975. The four-day fest, which debuted four decades ago, now draws roughly 200,000 visitors to southern France.)

Over the weekend, the event's Grand Jury Prize went to American David Mazzucchelli, for his graphic novel "Asterios Polyp." Italy's Manuele Fior won the Golden Prize for comic strip album "Five Thousand Kilometres Per Second."

Other award winners included the Maltese American graphic novelist Joe Sacco, Japan's Naoki Urasawa and Belgium's Brecht Evens.

Spiegelman is weeks away from a deadline on his latest project, "Metamaus," a look back at the landmark Holocaust-memoir graphic-novel work that the cartoonist remains best known for.

"After that, I was going to end this period of great retrospection," Spiegelman says. "This [Angouleme] sort of dents that automatically."

Any career retrospective of Spiegelman must especially include his early underground work, including the '70s comics anthology Arcade: The Comics Revue (co-founded with "Zippy the Pinhead" creator Bill Griffith); Raw, the comics anthology he and his wife launched in 1980; and his widely acclaimed New Yorker magazine cover published shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Spiegelman, though, sounds humble about receiving the Grand Prix now. "It would have made sense 15 years ago," the 62-year-old artist says. "I feel like President Obama and the Peace Prize - the timing's all wrong."

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