ART Spiegelman, Pulitzer prize-winning artist, chuckles when I put it to him that his greatest works, certainly his most memorable, are produced when he is at his darkest, when the world is at its most violent. He booms down the line from his New York studio: "Argh, when I am happy I don't feel like working. But when something occurs that is unsettling then I have to work it out through the drawings and comics."
We are talking mere moments after the British parliament has rejected military involvement in Syria, and just hours before the US government's formal response. It is a heightened time of political posturing, intertwined with the horrors of chemical warfare. But Spiegelman, one of the most celebrated artists in his genre of graphic novels, says that so far at least, the Syrian situation has not forced him into such a deep burrow of introspection.
Middle East politics and suffering might have been a sensitive subject to have raised with the son of two Holocaust survivors, but then Spiegelman has never shied away from current affairs - railing against George Bush's intervention in Iraq, social injustices or contrary views about the state of Israel. This is the figure who, after all, overcame international outrage over his 1993 Valentine's Day cover for The New Yorker depicting a Hasidic man kissing a black woman - drawn as tension was still raw about vicious race riots at Crown Heights, Brooklyn. That was one that got published; many others have been viewed by editors as too exploitative, too extreme, too provocative.
The Arab Spring, he tells me, "and the unlikely aftermath that something peaceful would have sprung forward", is something he might investigate in the future.
More immediately, Spiegelman says he is obsessed with words rather than "one of many nightmares on the planet", and coming to grips with a "terrifying" 20-hour flight to Australia next month.
He is putting the finishing touches on a collaboration with Australian-New Yorker jazz musician Phillip Johnston for a one-off performance at the Sydney Opera House - complete with a six-piece jazz orchestra - looking at the concept of pictures and words, the "wordless" genre, and how the relationship between the two has played out and shaped his own much-lauded artistic career.
"It will yank you from left brain and right brain and back and get you to see stuff in a different way," he says.
Certainly Spiegelman's personal history has been littered with grim and terrifying events, yet he has recorded those experiences with the lightest of artistic mediums - through comics and cartoons - but all the while with a signature undertone of gravitas. One only has to look at In the Shadow of No Towers, a deceptively simple but devastatingly effective New Yorker cover after the 9/11 disaster to appreciate his intense empathy with loss.
Spiegelman grew up in a Jewish household in Queens, New York, having relocated to the US from Sweden after World War II. His older brother Rysio had died during the war, poisoned by an aunt to avoid the horrors of the death camps. His mother Anja committed suicide only months after Spiegelman had recovered from his own nervous breakdown and the relationship with his Jewish father, Vladek, was fraught.
Spiegelman used his cartoonist's skills to depict that relationship with his father and explore his father's Holocaust revelations for a comic book. This ended up being his seminal work, Maus. In it, Spiegelman adopted a distancing technique of using animals as humans, identifying the Nazis as cats, the Poles as pigs and the Jews as mice. He says: "Maus is a graphic novel, one has been anointed as a platonic example of what that is, although I always thought I was making a comic book, but it's better than that."
Spiegelman explains how he felt it was legitimate to explore the use of cartoons in a sombre format because of the art form known as the wordless novel, which was popular in the early part of the 20th century about the time of the silent movies but is little known now outside of Germany.
One of the wordless artists, American artist Lynd Ward, had an expressionist style that Spiegelman referenced heavily when drawing his mother's suicide in Prisoner on the Hell Planet in the 1970s. Spiegelman's dark and grisly recount of the suicide aftermath included the chilling finale: "Congratulations, you've committed the perfect crime ... You murdered me, Mommy, and left me here to take the rap."
In spite of the emotive words used, Spiegelman is fascinated by the artists who didn't use such written drama to punctuate the drawings. "The fact that there are very interesting, complex and intensely beautiful works that eschewed the word part of the word picture to make the story is very interesting to me," he says. "It's like an art of limitation: why wouldn't you use words if you could? These stories are done in pantomime art stream in much the same way as silent movies."
Spiegelman says it was Ward's influence that encouraged him to juxtapose the comic form with streams of deep contemplation. "Ward's seriousness was very important to me, because it allowed me to do what I was doing with some kind of model somewhere of how one might feel and do one's work."
Flemish artist Frans Masereel was another exponent, perhaps one of the first at the turn of the 20th century, who often used woodcuts as wordless pages of illustration - critically reviewed and enthusiastically received by Nobel laureate Thomas Mann, no less. Such acclaim was crucial, Spiegelman says, since it also gave him the confidence to pursue comics beyond the frivolous, funny or lighthearted.
"Comics, always looked down upon for most of my lifetime, have been made reputable," Spiegelman says. "That respectability came from these books, one picture a page. They were just storytelling drawings but they never got tainted with that brush, the one that goes, 'Oh, it's for dopes.'
"This work I am doing for Sydney has grown out of a long and fascinating interest in the obscure genre of wordless novels done in the early part of last century. I recognised a long time ago I was very connected to the medium with comics."
He adds quickly: "I am not making a political statement, although almost all of these wordless novelists tend to be politically motivated. Masereel is a pacifist, anarchist socialist who was in World War I and politically wound up; Ward was the son of one of the founding US civil liberties groups and was on US communist black lists, so there are a lot of pointed political works taking place that deal with class struggle, war, war profiteering and the teeming city and its problems.
"That informs the work and so it informs my work to a degree as well, but here for Sydney I am interested in how words and pictures act on the page."
In his presentation, Spiegelman will show the development of public perceptions to cartooning, particularly in the recent use of pictures and words in everyday computer use. Cartooning is no longer considered lowbrow or a form that needs a joke to break the ice. Spiegelman explains that in the Middle Ages and in popular lower culture, words and pictures naturally sat together but then different hierarchies developed.
"Eventually, illustrated books were looked at as deluxe objects you might have had in your house as some amazing illustrated edition, but in the most part illustrations were thought of as some training facility to throw away once you could decode words," he says. "And you outgrew these childish things. Yet things that come to your brain, to the visual part of it, are very strong and now we are looking at this place where they smash together all the time.
"I love this art form. I love it more than movies, more than music, and I love what happens when words and pictures come together. I try to understand how intense my reaction to the artform is. I dig into burrows, pull out things and make it clear to understand."
Spiegelman says a new work he will show in Sydney is called Shaping Thought. He indicates it will be light in tone to take some pressure off the dark material he will be talking about elsewhere. "It's not tragic," he says of the new work, noting it is "pacy and all visual".
Spiegelman for his entire career has railed against people who perceive cartoons as irreverent or insufficiently intellectual. "It was one of my pet peeves: appearing to be funny when I wanted to be taken seriously, as if they are exclusive of one another," he says.
What, then, of that "comics for dopes" reference? Spiegelman's voice deepens: "It wasn't that comics were for dopes. But it is just that people thought they were for dopes."
Art Spiegelman's Wordless, with music by Phillip Johnston, is at Sydney Opera House on October 5.