Ever since the publication of Art Spiegelman's Maus, a memoir about his father's experience during the Holocaust and as a survivor, graphic novels have been taken seriously as literature. Maus won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 - the first comic to do so - sold more than a million copies, was translated into 18 languages, and Spiegelman was hailed as the father of graphic novels.
"I've been demanding a blood test for that statement ever since I first heard it," quips Spiegelman, 68, with his characteristic dry humour.
That statement partly inspired his new stage show, Wordless!, which reaches the UK for the first time today at the Barbican. Alongside the jazz compositions of Phillip Johnston, Spiegelman's show tells the history of wordless narrative, the earliest forms of graphic novels and comics, some of which inspired him long before Maus came to fruition. It's also a chance to see Spiegelman's new silent strip, Shaping Thought, drawn especially for the show.
When Spiegelman was three years old, his parents emigrated from Stockholm to New York, where he's based today. At the vocational High School of Art and Design, in Manhattan, where he learned graphic design and drew cartoons, his talent was spotted by a newspaper editor who offered to syndicate his strip if Spiegelman could provide another two weeks' worth. The student raced home to get started. But it wasn't to be.
"By the third day, I was dragging my feet, and on the fifth day I was like, this would be a fate worse than death! I will be drawing this for the rest of my life!" he recalls. "So I never got back to him. That moment made me realise that my life was going to be in comics, but it would just be based on the way I'd drawn what I want." And so, an underground cartoonist was born.
Today, comics have all the cool cred, but when Spiegelman was honing his craft, they were shunned. In those underground days, he says, "if you were going to go to a singles bar you were much better off to say you were a plumber than to say you make comic books. Now I meet young comic artists who think that it's as cool as being in a band to be a cartoonist, whereas I grew up with it being a sign of opprobrium. There was no real status connected to this and now there genuinely is."
Wordless! sees Spiegelman explore the battle between words and pictures - comics versus more prestigious graphic novels, and the little-known history of the medium. It's these early, wordless novels, published in between the war years, that fascinate Spiegelman for their plaudits from heavy-hitting critics such as Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse and Walter Benjamin in Germany, where comics were derided. The difference? They contained pictures but no verbal language.
"I was trying to figure out why this was getting really laudatory reviews and attention. They all thought this was an amazing thing but they would never have said that about any comic book or strip," he explains. "My avocation has really been as a comics' Talmudist."
When he created Maus, bringing the comic to the mainstream was furthest from Spiegelman's mind. For a start it was a book about the Holocaust, based on interviews with his father, Vladek, a Polish Jew, about his experiences at Auschwitz-Birkenau and then Dachau, which was not a subject writers tackled. As Theodor Dorno famously said: "There could be no poetry after Auschwitz." Then there was the comic book format to consider, and the fact that all the characters are depicted as animals - Jews are mice, Nazis are cats, Americans are dogs and Poles are pigs. When his agent sent it to publishers, all the greats from Penguin to Knopf turned it down. Pantheon finally took the risk.
"One can look back on it and think of it as a premeditated stunt," says Spiegelman. "They think comics are junk, eh? Well, I'll take something that's impossible to portray in any medium without criticism! I'll just do it in comic form to prove that comics are capable! It didn't grow that way at all. But what ended up happening was 'Gee, it's a comic book and it deals with the Holocaust, which is almost something that is untalkaboutable' - or at least it was when I started Maus."
He adds: "Now every year there's a best Holocaust film in the Oscars, it seems. But in the day it was just not part of popular culture."
Ask Spiegelman if he ever anticipated its success and he says, wryly: "Frankly I was imagining it as posthumous and I was really pissed off when I found out I was only minutes ahead of my time rather than decades."
In fact, not only did the success surprise him, but it was overwhelming. He wasn't sure if he would be able to complete its second part, Maus II.
"Talk about mixed blessings," he says. "I know you're not allowed to complain about the soot inside your Lexus, but I didn't take well to the demands that were made of me once it was entered into the world. I was still in the middle of the work between book one and book two, and the praise was paralysing."
The beginning of Maus II depicts the pressure. "I was lying on the couch staring at a stain 12 hours a day and trying to figure out how to climb out of this mess. Finally my wife insisted that I trade the couch with a stain on it for a shrink's couch and eventually the person I found was really helpful. But I realised that I'm insanely privileged and it just makes it worse when I'm not grateful; it just makes the self-loathing deeper. I see that things have happened because of Maus and I'm grateful for them for myself and for the way the dialogue of what comics can be has opened up."
Spiegelman has had more than his share of personal tragedy. His parents, then living in Poland, had a son, Rysio, who was sent, aged six, to an aunt to escape the gas chambers. The aunt poisoned Rysio and two other young relatives, because she feared the Nazis would find them. Art never met his brother. Most of his extended family were lost to the Holocaust (of his 85 relatives alive before the Second World War, just 13 survived). In 1968 his studies were cut short by a breakdown that led to a stint in a mental institution. Shortly afterwards, his mother committed suicide.
None of Spiegelman's immediate relatives were artists or writers, but he did discover whilst working on his 2011 book MetaMaus that his mother had a brother who was a sign painter. He'd lived in Krakow, but his girlfriend was in Warsaw, and the result was his suicide. A month ago Spiegelman discovered, on his father's side, an uncle who was a Yiddish newspaper editor. But his influences he credits in Wordless!: the early Mad comics, and woodcut artists Lynd Ward and Frans Masereel's wordless novels of the early 20th century that he discovered between the ages of 18 and 20. Ward's engravings "were part of what came to mind when I was trying to find the vocabulary doing the sequence within Maus about my mother's suicide."
More recently he became interested in artist Si Lewen, a Polish Jewish refugee who escaped to Berlin with his parents as a baby, grew up experiencing the interwar antisemitism there, and started painting aged six.
After fleeing to France, Lewen reached America in 1935 when the war started, where he joined an elite force of German language speakers, the Ritchie Boys, many of whom were Jewish, used for propaganda and intelligence purposes.
He was one of the first soldiers to arrive within 24 hours of Buchenwald concentration camp's liberation. His resulting book, The Parade, about the horrors of war, was reworked by Spiegelman and published last month.
"Maus has given me the freedom to make work that doesn't have to be popular. And I wasn't trying to make Maus a bestseller. The word graphic novel was never in my head; it was more like a very long comic book that could need a bookmark and asks to be reread," says Spiegelman. But whatever he creates will also forever be in the shadow of his famous work.
"I do live with a fairly large creative block that I drag around with me and is always followed by a giant mouse that is shadowing me.
"It's like trying to stay out of the way of this thing that was not made to make the world a better place and educate people, but to authentically express something. It's had such a large impact not just on the world, but on me; for a while I was trying to work under a pseudonym, and that didn't feel comfortable either, and so I just go through periods when I'm blocked and periods when I'm getting as close as I can to something worth doing."