Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Peter Kuper Stops Forgetting to Remember

Peter Kuper is already respected as an artist for work like his graphic novelization of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” his wordless mediation on conflict Sticks and Stones, his underground political zine with friend Seth Tobocman, Bomb Shelter, and his Spy v. Spy in Mad Magazine. With today’s release of Stop Forgetting to Remember: The Autobiography of Walter Kurtz, he becomes his own subject, joining the ranks of R. Crumb and Harvey Pekar. Through his alter-ego, Walter Kurtz, Kuper explores his life from his awkward childhood development, his artistic inspiration and bad relationships, right up through his own daughter’s adolescence.

As Kurtz tells one clueless potential publisher, he is making the point that, “As we age, we forget or distance outselves from our past behavior… Especially after we have kids.” It’s a poignant, funny, and self-deprecating work of note. I was able to catch up with Kuper by e-mail this week to talk about Stop Forgetting to Remember and his past and future work.

What’s your sense of the origin of graphic novels as autobiography?

Robert Crumb certainly showed the way for the tell-all autobio work. No turn left unstoned. He showed things I hadn’t realized cartoon characters were allowed to do, and I thank him for it. Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad had shown Crumb the door and he and his generation walk right through.

When you first got into cartooning, did you see the possibilities of the format, or did you just want to make comics?

Since the age of about eleven I have been absurdly enthusiastic about comics. My friend Seth Tobocman and I did our first zine back then beating the drum for comics. I had started to see underground comics at that point so I was aware that there was even more to the form than superhero adventures and Richie Rich. Both of which I read and loved, by the way. All and all I loved the medium and felt it was the best and most expansive art form around. Still do.

Who are your main influences?

It is such a long list I’m sure to miss some important names, but here’s the tip of the iceberg: Charlie Chaplin, R. Crumb, Jack Kirby. George Grosz, Alfred Hitchcock, Lynd Ward, John Steinbeck, Kurt Vonnegut, Dr Seuss, Will Eisner, Walt Disney, James Thurber, Ralph Steadman, Saul Steinberg and on and on.

Do you approach Spy vs. Spy differently than, say, a graphic adaptation of Kafka? Do you have a different mindset for the work for hire versus the more personal work?

Well, it isn’t so much the work for hire part as the subject matter and who it’s aimed for. When I do Spy, I try to remember my 12-year-old self and get in touch with my inner child/terrorist. I think about Kennedy and Kruschev, Simp and Gimp and Itchy and Scratchy. With Kafka it’s a trip to German expressionist Czech woodcutting territory. Kafka’s words are so rich they suggest lots of wild visuals and unconventional ways to tell the story. Doing Kafka is like going into a trance, while with Spy, I’m dodging bullets.

Was it a challenge to create the storyline for Sticks and Stones without dialogue? Why did you approach it that way?

I have always found wordless comics to be an appealing approach to telling a story. Without words, the pictures become language uncluttered with word balloons and defy expectations of what a comic can look like... The more I work without words, the easier it is to do. At this point I’ve done so many comics like Eye Of The Beholder (a weekly strip I did for a decade), The System, stories that appeared in Speechless and over a decade of Spy Vs Spy, I’ve become pretty fluent in that language

Do you still produce Bomb Shelter?

Bomb Shelter is the stand in name for World War 3 Illustrated, which Seth and I founded in art school in 1979. We are working on the 27th issue at this very moment.

Do you have plans to keep producing Richie Bush cartoons?

I don’t, but perhaps I’ll do a departing story for old time sake to bookend the other stories. The animation I did remains on the web at richiebush.com

In your more political work, is it hard to resist the easy jokes? It seems like the “Bush is dumb” jokes are too seductive for a lot of people to resist, and then they wind up not looking any deeper into the issues.

I don’t think it’s fair to target Bush just for his simian appearance and inability to read his lines, even as he lies us into war. I’m generally more concerned with what the people like Rove and Cheney are doing since they seem to be the active destroyers, while Bush is a silver spoon front man who looks as surprised as we are he’s president.

How similar are Peter Kuper and Walter Kurtz?

Completely different. Kurtz is a self-centered, obsessive whiner, whereas I am self-centered and obsessive, but whine less.

How constant is that battle to keep from distancing yourself from your past behavior? It seems that would be an exhausting task.

I don’t think we even notice when it happens. It’s a slow process and then one day you wake up on Father Knows Best. The struggle to stop it from happening is complicated since there are plenty of things worth forgetting. I moved to Mexico last year to stop forgetting how important travel was to my life. Moving (along my wife and daughter) was such a headache—but worth it to keep this dying part of my past behavior alive.

The kids seem to provide instant perspective during the more difficult times in the book. Do your kids ever influence your perspective in your work?

My daughter has a huge influence on my life experience which bleeds into all my work. I did a children’s book Theo and The Blue Note, last fall and have a few new ideas I may yet do that come from being around a child.

The 9/11 metaphor, where Kurtz’s daughter draws her own picture over the devastation of the towers is beautiful. Is there a true life story behind that?

In the weeks following 9/11, I was shattered like everyone else. At the end of the day I’d get home from work and take a deep breath and swallow my tension to avoid having my daughter experience that state (she was 5 at the time). I found entering her world of make believe and toys free from harsh reality to be a tremendous relief from my anxiety. I just tried to translate that feeing visually in my book.

Do you expect you’ll pick up where this novel left off at some point?

Yes, pretty much immediately. I have already mapped out much of the story. It begins in NYC and follows Kurtz to Mexico with the side stories covering many, many wild past travels. All I have to do now is finish a second year in Mexico, so I know how the story ends!

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