Illustrator and author William Steig was once dubbed "the King of Cartoons" by Newsweek magazine. During his professional career, he created more than 1,600 drawings and 117 covers for The New Yorker, completed more than 25 children's books and collected honors including a National Book Award. His work – often centered on anthropomorphic and adventurous animals, tough-talking kids and evolving, neurosis-challenged adults – managed to be humorous as well as touching, thought-provoking and soothing.
"His ability to probe the human psyche, usually in one-panel images, demonstrated what a deft interpreter he was of the human condition, of human emotion," said Nick Clark, chief curator of the Massachusetts-based Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.
Steig, who once told an interviewer that he wasn't a fan of grownups and he didn't feel like one himself, died 10 years ago on Oct. 3, 2003. He was 95. Today's masses might know him best for his picture book Shrek! – the basis for the popular movie series. But his depth and breadth of range have always been notable.
As another illustrator told The Comics Journal after Steig's death, "Steig was one of those artists who had up to six different periods, all of them with great value and interest."
Steig published his first cartoon in The New Yorker in 1930: It featured one inmate telling another, "My son's incorrigible, I can't do a thing with him." His New York Times obituary said Steig's "insouciant cartoons of street-tough kids and squiggly drawings of satyrs, damsels, dogs and drunks delighted and challenged readers" for six decades.
Cartoonist Roz Chast was a teenager in the 1970s when she first noticed Steig's work in her parents' New Yorker. Immediately, she wrote in a story for The Paris Review, she noticed that "his drawings didn’t look like the rest of the cartoons in the magazine. They didn’t have gag lines. There were no boardrooms, no cocktail parties with people saying witty things to one another."
His drawings, she said, seemed to flow effortlessly from his mind to the paper: "Steig gave himself permission to be playful and experimental. One of the many wonderful things about looking at his drawings is their message, especially to his fellow artists: Draw what you love and what interests you. Draw it how you want to draw it. When we are children we do this instinctively. But somewhere in our passage from childhood to adulthood, the ability to be truly and fearlessly creative is often lost."
Steig was among the first cartoonists to feature characters dealing with troublesome syndromes – such as kleptomaniacs – or dealing with such difficult emotions as shame or distress. But, as the Times obituary noted, these "symbolic" cartoons were not quickly embraced: A New Yorker editor noted "that the drawings were very interesting and that someday people would hail him as a genius, but that they were not right for (the magazine)."
But eventually, that aspect of Steig's style would find appreciative audiences. As cartoonist Sam Henderson told The Comics Journal after Steig's death, he alone "created what I call the 'id' genre of cartoons, which portrayed a state of mind or being rather than an ostensibly objective view of a particular action or situation."
Steig would go on to write more than 25 children's books, but he didn't begin crafting these tales until he was in his 60s. These stories, Clark noted, revealed Steig was an incurable romantic who wove stories laced with magic.
"His stories have very powerful human connections that all of us can identify with," Clark said.
Many of Steig's books featured anthropomorphic animals as main characters "that have adventures, take trips, and get kidnapped or are otherwise separated from their families. Somehow, frequently through magic, they find their way home and are met with hugs and kisses. Children love this plotline," wrote Ruth Manna in an author study of Steig published on www.scholastic.com.
Steig's tales "capture the imaginations" of second- through fifth-graders, "who are old enough to appreciate his daffy sense of humor and rich use of language, but young enough to still get drawn into the fantasy adventures," Manna said.
Steig won a Caldecott Medal, awarded annually to the "most distinguished American picture book for children," in 1970 for his third children's book, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. In the story, the title character, a donkey, finds a pebble that grants wishes. The larger story is about a family separated and reunited. (The book was banned in some parts of the U.S. because the police officers in the story were depicted as pigs. Not much was made of the fact that pigs also had other jobs in Sylvester's fictional world.)
Clark said his favorite Steig book is Doctor De Soto, the story of a mouse who is a dentist and a fox who comes in with a toothache. Dr. De Soto has to figure out how to treat the fox without being eaten. An animated short of the book was nominated in 1985 for the Academy Award for best animated short film.
The book, Clark said, is "quintessential Bill." At one point, the fox finds himself thinking about mice as a delicacy he has previously enjoyed with a pinch of salt and a dry white wine."He's not talking down to children," Clark said.
In 1983, Steig shared a National Book Award for children's books in the hardcover picture books category.
Even after his death, Steig continued to be honored. In 2008, the Society of Illustrators granted him a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Clark sees Steig's influence in the works of authors like Mo Willems, whose books feature animals that "deal with various neuroses."
"Bill enabled people to release emotions that were often unspoken. Back in the day, people didn't talk about going into therapy or seeing psychiatrists … and Bill was very willing to acknowledge that he had demons – not that they were too serious – but ones he dealt with," Clark said. But, as author Maurice Sendak once noted, "There is no school of Bill Steig – there is only Steig."
Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."
Image via Flickr Creative Commons/paral_lax