02/15/2013 05:47 EST | Updated 04/17/2013 05:12 EDT

Art Spiegelman's boundary-stretching comic art in Vancouver

Art Spiegelman's dark, powerful and boundary-smashing comic artwork is the subject of a major new exhibition in Vancouver.

Spanning the pioneering graphic artist's diverse, decades-long career, the Vancouver Art Gallery's CO-MIX: A Retrospective of Comics, Graphics and Scraps is the first retrospective devoted to the Swedish-born American.

The show brings Spiegelman back to the VAG, where he served as a curator as well as a featured artist for the 2008 exhibit Krazy: The Delirious World of Anime, Comics, Video Games and Art.

"It was such a wonderful opportunity to work with a man who has such insight into the history of comics and insight into his own work, which doesn't always go hand in hand," said VAG curator Bruce Grenville.

"I couldn't believe it when he said there was a possibility for a retrospective and that we could bring it here."

CO-MIX features more than 400 preparatory drawings, sketches, studies and panels, from fanzines Spiegelman created in his teens through his pioneering underground comics of the 1970s to his acclaimed later work, including children's books. And there are excerpts of his landmark, Pulitzer Prize-winning opus Maus, based on his father's experiences as a Holocaust survivor.

Over the years, Spiegelman has published influential work for very different settings.

He's had success in the commercial world through his long association with Topps (where he created his satirical Wacky Packages and gross-out Garbage Pail Kids trading card series). He's created controversial and political editorial covers and comic strips for publications ranging from The New Yorker to Playboy. He's also won acclaim for his autobiographical creations, such as Prisoner on the Hell Planet, a response to his mother's suicide.

The New York-based artist has long explored the boundaries of his art.

"What happens when you move as far away from narrative as you can? At what point does it stop being a comic and just start being a graphic? These were concerns for me," he told reporters in Vancouver on Thursday at a media preview of CO-MIX.

Studying modern artists and writers (such as Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce) as an adult helped him approach his cartooning in a different way, he added.

He explained the unusual approach he took in a set of panels on display in Vancouver.

"It has almost no movement — it's a completely still comic that only has one movement in time, which is a ball bouncing outside a window," he said.

"Everything else is an uncoupling of the words and pictures to make something else happen, to make you move around the room that the protagonist is in, in a certain way. It just doesn't use the same operating system [as other comics]. It's just not what comics do."

The piece was subsequently republished in Marvel's Comix Books series and, with a laugh, Spiegelman recalled his favourite criticism of it.

"In the letters column, someone said: 'I liked most of the pieces and Spiegelman's piece was OK, but it didn't go anywhere.' And it's true. It didn't go anywhere except way off the page and into a dialogue about high and low art when it wasn't part of the conversation."

CO-MIX: A Retrospective of Comics, Graphics and Scraps opens Saturday and continues through June 9 at the Vancouver Art Gallery. The international exhibit, which originally debuted in France and has also been shown in Germany, will then travel to New York's Jewish Museum.