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Peter Kuper is not your usual cartoonist. Best known for his Spy vs. Spy comic strips (originally created by Antonio Prohías), Kuper has a long and eclectic career that ranges from cartoons in underground fanzines, author publications, literary adaptations, to illustrations in mainstream periodicals (such as The New Yorker and Time). Sometimes with an acid mood, sometimes with a certain melancholy, Kuper’s work is filled with a scathing political and social criticism, translated in shocking and caricatureistic drawings, often without the use of dialogues (just to make things easier, you know?).
Kuper was a few weeks back in São Paulo, at the Comic Con Experience – CCXP, as a guest of Marsupial Editora, to promote the brazilian version of Ruins, his most recent work. Winner of the Eisner 2016 Award for Best Graphic Album, Ruins intertwines the story of a couple of american artists who decide to take a sabbatical in Oaxaca, Mexico (Kuper himself did the same years before) and the journey of a monarch butterfly to its sanctuary in Central America.
Kuper was kind enough to spare a few minutes of his time during an autograph session to chat about his career, the themes of his work, and the “pains of labour” behind the production of Ruins.
HQCafé – Mr.Kuper, you have almost 40 years of career as an illustrator in several magazines, and in almost all your works you seem to be a person who has something to say through them, specially about social issues. Do you you think art should always carry a message, a meaning, it should say something, to be relevant?
Kuper – To be relevant? I mean… there are many different messages; everything that everybody does has a message. It can either be a message that says that you are not interested in talking about the world around you, in escaping. Not matter what you do, in a certain way it suggests a perspective, it does have a meaning. I just happen to be one to talk about what I believe is going on in the world around me, in a specifically real way… although, you know, I did this book Sticks and Stones1, that has an allegory, there is this fantastic or mythological element to it.
But sometimes isn´t fantasy a more attractive way to express an idea or to deliver a message, instead of a long text, for example?
Yes. I always trying to find new ways to talk about things that I see, and communicate with other people in a way that may help us to understand our world together if we mean to survive in it. There is an aspect, probably a fear in my work, that if we don´t address the problems we have right now, it will be a problem for all of us in the future.
Talking about fears, one theme that is recurrent in your work is the relationship between humanity and the environment. Psychologist Per Espen Stoknes stated in a recent article that Global Warming is “probably the largest science communication failure in history”, since scientists seem incapable of making people care about this issue. On the other hand, it seems to be a movement in contemporary art towards helping translate this question to the society. Do you think illustration can be a usefull tool to reach out to the public and make people relate to this issue?
Absolutley. I mean, It is my greatest hope that we will do that. But also, I agree with the idea that it´s a problem that people don´t relate to it. One of the things artists could do is to connect those dots and to make people understand something visually that they might not understand just by reading statistics.
In your editorial for World War 3 Illustrated: 1974-20142, you wrote that illustration is a way of recording history. Do you think it is a matter only of recording it or there is a real chance to push a message through it?
It is both things. You can be very proactive, which is, in this moment, the reader looks at it and has a reaction to it. At the same time is recording this moment, so that in the future, that I hope it will become, the next generation can also see this, and see that references back to a time where people were talking about this earlier… it was one of the reasons that my friend and I (Seth Tobocman) started publishing World War 3 Illustrated, that is self-publishing, because there is a lot of information that was out, on the streets, and people were talking about that wasn’t being recorded.
And it is very easy to dismiss history if it doesn´t seem to be evident. So, there´s history being written all the time, and I don´t want it to be written just by somebody else. This is my opportunity to create my own history, and hopefully it will connect to people later. For example, a young person might read a ealier edition of WW3 and think “Oh, I see, saw these things at the time, even though it doesn´t appear in the history books”.
I feel pretty gloomy and dark about the future, because the forces that are destroying profit from that currently. There is a lot of money invested in destroying, there is a lot less money invested in creating. My job is much harder because of that, but is my job, and I see it that way and I felt these sense of urgency for my entire career, to talk about certain things…
But sometimes this urgency is to talk about a perspective I had at a certain age. You know, I did comics about losing my virginity. When I was at a certain age, that was the thing that was important to me to talk about. And sex, my fear of being alone, not getting a girlfriend, whatever… and being a parent! So basically I do current events for myself, but they all relate to wheter of not there is a history that can be read for someone in the future.
Talking about registering history for the future: in your story The Wall (first published in the July 1990 issue of Heavy Metal3), Donald Trump becomes the US President, something unthinkable at the time. Do you think people overlooked certain trends of history that brought us to this moment?
Some people. It is part of the artist´s job to see things that people don´t necessarily see and to express it. But there will be always people that it will see those. For the people who do see it, is a connection. For the people who don´t see there´s always the possibility the might realise it later on.
And for the people who are somehow recording it. it is really strange to look back… I was worried about Donald Trump in 1990…
And you basically predicted his ellection, right? I mean, not just the person himself, but the context of a deeply divided society being manipulated through fear and hate.
I didn´t mean for it to come true as much as it did, but then again, this is what happens when you are looking at these things and trying to speak about them. Later one, one thing that it seems like fantasy later on becomes reality.
Just before the 2016 US Presidencial Election, The New Yorker published a cartoon of yours with Uncle Sam getting an egg in the face…
Yes, one of Uncle Sam and a “Rube Goldberg Machine”4.
Like in this cartoon, It seems that the message that “the system is broken” is a common theme in your work, whether you are talking about the political system, environment or the life in the big cities. That somehow these complicated systems we created don´t function anymore.
(For a matter of honesty, I should add that I spent the next seconds mumbling incoherent things. Fortunately, Kuper was polite enough to wait for me to formulate my next question)
Don´t you think it is interesting that this same chaotic situation you describe is paradoxally also a source of inspiration for artists?
Yeah, it is always like that, during bad times there is always a lot of thinks to draw. But I really wanna also include in my work some kind of hope… I mean, I feel most of my job is to point out what is wrong, but I also wanna offer something beyond that. And sometimes only I can offer is: “where´s the situation, we should do something about it, collectively”. And just for starters identifiy the problem, cast a light on it is part of it, not let be in the shadows or ignore it. That´s is one way.
But once you expose it, then ithe much complicate thing is: “where do we go from here?” And that is something I also have considered in my work.
In light of that, your most recent work, “Ruins”, looks more – and I´m struggling with this word – “mature”, in a way?
Yeah, it is very complicated… I think I took everthing that I have learned over the years and put in that book.
Yes, it mentions environment issues, civil unrest, immigration, police violence, sex, but also the struggles of becoming a parent. And not spoilering anything, it also ends with a silver lining, right?
Yes, in this case one of the ultimate points of the story is: sometimes you can get what want, you just don´t get in the way you think you would gonna get it necessarily. It may not be the perfect answer, but it is an answer that you can live with. Kind of “life does go on”. Ans sometimes, in the case of the couple of the story, they struggling, and they both succeed, but not in the ways they expected.
Ruins is autobiographic in a way? Are there questions in there that you also had to face at some point?
It was a combination of things. I was drawing upon of things I knew of other people, creating characters based on a combination of people that I know, and stories that I know, and I was putting it all together. But I´m also very interested in insects and butterflys, and I used to raise monarchs when I was in New Mexico, and I went to the monarch´s santuary that I draw about in Ruins. that whole aspect was fascinating to me, and also allowed to me about the environmental circunstances that insects are subject to that are parallel to the same issues that humans are subject to, and so there is a lot of metaphors in there, and allegories and parallels to current events, and you could even say I did Metamorphosis 5and you got Gregor Samsa struggling as an insect, so Kafka is in there too.
It´s all the many things I gathered over the years and I was able to pull together in one work.
So it´s almost like an anthology?
Yeah. Like they say, I put everthing in there, including the kitchen sink.
Ruins has a very complex structure, you have four storylines (Samantha´s and George´s sabatical; the monarch´s saga; the story written by Samantha; and highlights of the history of Mexico), that dialogue with each other…
I try to, at least.
How did you manage to organize all these storylines and ideas in one, cohesive, story?
I thought about it for about five years, and it took me three years to finish the work. With that amount of time, I´d like to think that I could pull that of. And I kept thinking about it all the time. At different points I thought I couldn´t do the book, because it was to big, it would take to much time and there was no way I could afford finnancialy to do it, because it took so long. That part was a bit of a miracle because I managed to get it done… it sort of pushed its way out. It was like having a baby…
So was it like Samantha´s dreaming of literally giving birth to a book at the beginning of Ruins?
That´s even where that idea came from. It was like this notion of giving birth to a book… is it good enough? Is it the right time? I had all these questions while I was working on the book, and in fact pretty much almost the entire time that I was on it I was filled with doubt. Every day I had a question wheter the world needed this book, wheter I could put this off and make it as good as I wanted it be, wheter my ideas and my abilities are up to each others levels. So every day I put two lines on the paper and I thought one of them was wrong.
That´s part of the struggle and the joy in a process like that, because at the end of every day there was sort of this sense of success, that I got trought another day, and I think this is life in a nutshell.
Do you think this is a good metaphor for being a father? Like the best father you manage to be every day?
1. Sticks and Stones is a wordless story of a stone giant, used as an allegory for the Bush Era. The book was originally published in 2004 by Broadway Books. The brazilian version in portuguese was released in 2016 by Companhia das Letras.
2. World War 3 Illustrated is an american fanzine created by Peter Kuper and Steh Tobocman in 1979. Some of the magazine´s material was collected in World War 3 Illustrated: 1979-2014, published in 2014 by PM Press. Its most recent edition, Climate Chaos, was released in November 2016.
3. The Wall was published again in a color version on the anthology Drawn to New York, published in 2013 by PM Press.
4. Rube Goldberg was an US cartoonist and engineer from the beginning of the 20th century. His cartoons usually depict highly complex machines which are used for very simple purposes (like opening a door or throwing an egg on Uncle Sam´s face).
5. The Metamorphosis, a comic book adaptation of Franz Kafka´s book, was first published in 2004 by Crown Publications. The brazilian version was released in portuguese by Conrad Editora.