“I always feel like there is a giant mouse chasing me wherever I go,” admits Art Spiegelman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist behind Holocaust memoir, Maus.
First published in 1980, Spiegelman sparked controversy – and debate – by translating the events of the Second World War into a graphic novel, where Jews are famously depicted as mice and Nazis as cats.
The 68-year-old Swedish-born artist is making coffee when we speak about his touring show, Wordless, an exploration of graphic novels through history set to music by jazz composer Phillip Johnston, which arrives at The Barbican tomorrow (Friday).
Ahead of his trip to London, Spiegelman asks if the weather is cold enough to warrant taking a coat, admitting an overt part of his Jewish identity is his extreme anxiety, something he acquired from his incredibly anxious, Holocaust survivor parents, who both feature in Maus.
Before his seminal work was first published, the New York resident recalls that he previewed it at a Holocaust conference to an audience of mostly retired Jews.
“One of them gets up and says: ‘Couldn’t you wait until we were dead to make fun of us?’
“I felt like I was facing an audience of my fathers and explained that although it’s a comic it doesn’t mean that it’s funny and I’m not making fun of you.
“I made a promise then that I had to finish the book, but once it was done I promised never to do the Holocaust again and I have since tried to keep that promise.”
It is only recently that Spiegelman touched on the Holocaust again and asserts: “I’m not a Holocaust expert – I just happen to live through parents who gave me a doctorate in it.”
Speaking about the effect of growing up with two parents who survived such atrocities, he reflects: “I think everybody is defined by their parent’s history.
“My father wasn’t willing to talk to me when I was a kid, but came forth when I was older.
“My mother had it leaking into conversations all the time without any context and obviously it affected me.
“I am a child of a survivor, but they can’t be allowed to define you, because they stop you from being human.”
As the conversation flows on, Spiegelman is keen to discuss the latest book he has been working on, a retrospective of his close friend, Jewish artist Si Lewen.
Explaining his work is a “remastered version of his original drawings,” Si Lewen’s Parade: An Artist Odyssey, it trails the life of Lewen, a refugee from Nazi Germany, who arrived in New York in 1935 and died recently aged 98.
“This is the first time I have returned to the topic of the Holocaust and it is for a number of complex reasons.
“I vowed after Maus not to touch it, when every offer came along to make a movie that I could imagine, but I never had any desire for that.”
Still, he concedes: “I am very grateful to Maus because it has allowed for my other follies, like Wordless and beyond, which keeps me thinking, breathing and experimenting.”
Speaking of his latest show, which he describes as “intellectual Vaudeville”, Spiegelman says: “It’s the most fantastic thing we have ever done and why we keep going out of our way to perform it.”
He adds: “I’ve never seen anything like it before. It’s a hybrid medium that doesn’t translate into anything else, a lecture about words and pictures and how they fight with each other and how they supplement each other and what happens when you remove one of those elements in a more and more visual culture.”
Wordless! featuring Art Spiegelman and Phillip Johnston takes place on 11 November, 7.30pm at The Barbican, Silk Street. Details: www.barbican.org.uk