Talking to Art Spiegelman is kind of surreal. As our conversation winds from Samuel Beckett to YouTube cat videos, it's easy to forget that Spiegelman is the internationally celebrated artist who pushed the comic onto the literary main stage. Maus, his account of his parents' experiences in the Holocaust, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 – the first comic ever to win the award. During a long-running stint with The New Yorker he illustrated many iconic covers, including the black-on-black image of the two towers after 9/11. More recent works such as In the Shadow of No Towers mark a passion for creating work that is provocative, relevant and alive. In the lead-up to his trip to Australia, we talk to Spiegelman about art, comics, and the things that keep him inspired.

So why comics?
Spiegelman champions the possibilities of the comic as a medium that “deals innately with memory”. Everything appears at once on the page – past, present and future – “like a diary”. “It takes the form of film, where you see things happening in space, and the novel, where you experience the internal life of the character, and combines them,” Spiegelman says. He suggests that comics thus have “a special franchise” in the way they align with our brains: “people don't think in linear ways, but in bursts of text”.

So why do comics struggle so much for cultural legitimacy? “Probably part of it is the word – as soon as something's 'comic', people have a very hard time thinking it might also be serious. We think of Mark Twain, like 'oh, that's not as serious as Dostoyevsky, so it can't be as important'.”

And now? “Part of the change has been the savvy marketing of changing the phrase to graphic novels. I never thought it would work; I never wanted it to work, because I like the word comics.”

Spiegelman says check out: Harvey Kurtzman, founder of MAD comics and Spiegelman's childhood idol; Laocoon, an essay by Gotthold Lessing – “one of the crucial moments of the destroying of the reputation of comics 100 years or so before they were even invented”.

On large-scale tragedy:
Many observe that Spiegelman's greatest work springs from moments of historical and cultural darkness. But he's quick to emphasise the importance of humour in artistic response. “Not trying to be funny, just capturing the humour in life. You don't want to get melancholy. You can't, or you risk a ‘Holo-kitsch’; a reducing of the whole thing.” Maus famously achieves this balance of humour and humanity, but success has problems of its own. Spiegelman laughs ruefully about the “500-pound Maus” he takes with him, “everywhere I go - in my overhead luggage!”

He cites Tadeusz Borowski's This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen as a crucial influence. “It's like as if Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe went to the concentration camps. There's a repressing of emotion, and it lets so much more emotion out; just by describing what you see, or smell, or hear”. Who else does he come back to? “Faulkner, Stein, Beckett”. He speaks of turning to Beckett during the crisis of illness, when other stories (religious, Jewish) held no answers – a theology of the absurd. “In the end I sort of wished my convalescence had been for longer. I had a copy of the complete works I wanted to get through.”

Spiegelman says check out: The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West; Philip K. Dick - “he gets at the centre of the way the world works”.

On the daily stuff (or not):
When asked how he looks at things closer to home, he insists that differences can't be drawn between large and small. “Everything is petty!” he says emphatically. “What's big, what's small? The Holocaust, or a hangnail – it's what occupies us.”

He's fascinated by the pointillists, Georges Seurat in particular; by the way that thousands of little details, meaningless up close, can become a coherent whole. Big and small, it's all a mix. He's also a huge fan of Philip Guston, who abandoned the abstract expressionists in the 60s deciding that art was worthless if you weren't making a story. To Spiegelman, this is right on the money: “there's a purity to his images”.

Spiegelman says check out: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, for the intricacies of the everyday; Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov: “all these snapshots of America, and yet the little details of this one set of relationships”.

Where from here?
The big surprise is how differently comics are seen in the States. “It's hard to remember that we're travelling at different speeds through the same times”, Spiegelman remarks. In America, comics are taught in schools, exhibited in museums, displayed in the front of bookstores. Here in Australia, unless you're actually in a Minotaur store, they tend to sit in the margins. Still, they are now “at the same table as literature”, and no small thanks to Spiegelman himself. Importantly, they are sight-based, and we are “more and more a visual culture”, he says. As other mediums become more rarefied “until they become that thing called ‘art’, which is like some weird kind of extension of the fashion world”, comics have a unique ability to seem current and accessible.

Books and comics work on a single-direction focus, in constant tension with ever-present technologies where “you can be reading something, and checking up on who's thinking about you all over the world, and then get distracted by videos of dancing cats”. But Spiegelman is optimistic about their future. They are important to us, perhaps because, as his friend and fellow comic-book artist Chris Ware puts it, we are all like books: “bigger on the inside, and with a spine”.

Art Spiegelman's WORDLESS! with music by Phillip Johnston, will make its Australian debut at Sydney Opera House’s Graphic Festival on Saturday October 5. Tickets are available here.