On Pulitzer Prizes and Comic Books

Mention the Pulitzer Prize, and you’ll conjure images of a weathered novelist, scowling over the rim of his snifter. If the Pulitzer laureates at GW are any indication, however, a comic book sketch is a more accurate image.

In the span of two weeks, the GW English Department has hosted Michael Chabon and Art Spiegelman, two literary icons better known for their associations with comic books and graphic novels than for artistic pretensions. Spiegelman won a Pulitzer Prize Special Award for Maus, a memoir presented as a graphic novel. Chabon won his for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a novel set during the Golden Age of comic books. Both use comics to explore the struggles of Jewish characters.

Chabon is a true geek, judging by the references he dropped into his March 23rd interview with Professor Faye Moskowitz. His knowledge extends from the basics of geekdom––mylar sleeves and Dick Grayson––to the details of Captain America Issue 1, with cover art depicting the Captain slugging Hitler. He knows that Jacob Kurtzberg is the real name of Jack Kirby, creator of Captain America and other heroes. He remembers The Simpsons episode where Grandpa Simpson almost assassinates Hitler, and he likes the work of Ursula K. Le Guin. Anyone who uses weblog tags as a metaphor for stereotyping is okay by me. I don’t think he would mind being known as a geek, so long as that label was accompanied by “Jewish-American author,” “Pulitzer Prize-winner,” and others.

In the spirit of Maus and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, I’d like to recommend a graphic novel that has made mainstream headlines recently, and has long been revered by fans of comics and science fiction. In early March, Warner Bros. released Watchmen, a Zack Snyder film based on the 1986-1987 graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. The film might have gotten mediocre reviews, but I assure you that the novel is an exemplar of the form. Read Watchmen for its detailed illustrations, its cliche-defying plot, and its complex characters. At the very least, you should read it to find out why it was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 best novels of all time.

Watchmen, like any outstanding work, is better experienced than summarized. Suffice to say, it does not focus on violence, though it does feature murder; it does not focus on damsels in distress, though there is romance; there are no sidekicks, though there are subplots; there is no convenient battle of good vs. evil, though there is good and there is evil (maybe). Watchmen might not make you a devotee of graphic novels––its the first and only one I’ve ever read––but it can appeal to everyone if you approach it with an open mind.

I hope you will ignore its singular, restrictive label, or embrace its many disparate labels. I hope you’ll give Watchmen a chance. If you are brave enough to read about Jewish comic book authors, Yiddish settlements in Alaska, or view drawings of mice and cats representing Jews and Germans, you surely have the chutzpah to try conspiracy theories, cynical comedians, and a naked blue man.

P.S. My Michael Chabon photos are online.

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