Personal Visions

PETER KUPER'S ARTWORK is everywhere. The earnest 37-year-old cartoonist has been relating his graphic tales of urban life to an increasingly large audience since his move to New York City from Cleveland in 1977. This month's release of an Eye of the Beholder comic strip compilation marks his third book release in a little over a year, a year in which Kuper's highly publicized, wordless three-part comic series The System was released, and in which he was voted "Hot Cartoonist of 1995" by Rolling Stone magazine.

I'd arranged to meet Kuper at the 1996 San Diego Comic Convention, but I hadn't considered how difficult it might be to track down a particular person while avoiding the various costumed Trekkies and long lines of fan-boys attempting to get autographs from Spandex-clad knockoff super-heroines.

On the second day, I finally located the soft-spoken Kuper. But interviewing him was a task further complicated by the fact he was scheduled to be at three different publishers' booths at various times throughout the con.

Each publisher is responsible for bringing a separate body of Kuper's work to press. Mainstream giant DC Comics' Vertigo Verité published The System. From a company traditionally known for producing Batman and Superman, and more recently the popular Sandman series, this book, with its spray paint-and-stencil art style and a colliding ensemble cast of big-city denizens, shows a shift in what creators and larger publishers are now offering to the public.

Fantagraphics, one of the larger alternative publishers, has been responsible for printing many of Kuper's autobiographical stories in Wildlife and Bleeding Heart, and in anthologies such as Stripped. NBM is responsible for publishing Kafka: Give it up!, a collection of Kuper's interpretations of Franz Kafka stories, and the new Eye of the Beholder collection.

Although the most high-profile comics in America are still the garish super-hero books found in the spinning racks at 7-Eleven, talking-animal strips and cute, family-oriented fare dominating the not-so-funny pages, there are encouraging signs alternative comics are gaining some of the audience and respectability they deserve.Maus, Art Speigelman's story of his father's struggle to survive the concentration camps of World War II, recently won the Pulitzer Prize. Terry Zwigoff's film documentary Crumb, tracing the life and family of the bizarre and amazing artist Robert Crumb, received much critical acclaim, and Understanding Comics, a critical look at the comics medium, can be found in mainstream bookstores along with many other graphic novels. In 1990, the Museum of Modern Art in New York even mounted a show titled High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture, which attempted to show the cross-fertilization among the various stratas of art, including comics, advertising, graffiti, and caricature.

Kuper, also a freelance illustrator, is one of a growing number of cartoonists who consistently juggle the issues of artistic expression and commercial viability, breaking through many of the doors traditionally closed to cartoonists. Eye of the Beholder (which appears regularly in the Tucson Weekly, among other papers) was the first comic strip to run regularly in The New York Times, and his work can be found in comics specialty shops and in mainstream bookstores, something that would have been unheard of just a few years ago.

Kuper and his "alternative" comics contemporaries share with their underground predecessors a belief in comics as a vital and expressive art form, each bringing his own ideas of personal expression to a medium whose artists have traditionally been neither artistically respected nor monetarily rewarded. These comics--some outlandish and grotesque, others quietly restrained--are aimed at adults. They feature compelling stories of politics and interpersonal relationships, tales of urban life, perverse fantasies, and the joys and humiliations of everyday life. They are, in short, subjects one might expect to find in any other viable art form.

Kuper's own cartoon world is left-leaning, often paranoid and cynical, full of grand political conspiracies, and excruciatingly candid autobiographical admissions. His bold, iconic drawings of crooked power players and downtrodden-yet-hopeful city dwellers are executed using techniques designed to keep the process and the result interesting to the restless artist.

Cartoonist Jules Feiffer makes a comparison to jazz in his introduction to the Kafka book, saying, "...this book is a series of riffs, visual improvisations on short takes by the old master. It becomes a diverting, even daring, high-wire act, where Kafka's stoic Euro-alienation meets and merges with Kuper's thoroughly American rock and roll alienation...Like Bird doing 'Embraceable You," it may not be Gershwin, but it's art."

High praise for a man who began his career inking Richie Rich for Harvey comics. But Kuper has developed a style and tone that give depth to his diverse and impressive body of work.

I spoke with him about his career.

TW: You've lived in New York since you were 18, and the city figures prominently in your artwork and your politics. What kind of influence has New York had on you?

PK: Well, there are so many influences that New York is going to have on you. There is a real strong sense of mortality here, there's so much homelessness, and there's so much humanity, people just shoved together, that there's this quality of entropy, things rising up and falling down at the same time. There's so much shoulder to shoulder with it, that when you read something in the paper talking about aid that's been cut to some group, in New York you see the effect of that really quickly. So that sort of cause-and-effect of politics is much stronger here, which I think I'd have less of a sense of living in the suburbs. That's a factor, but on the positive side, there's a lot of creative energy here, and a lot of possibility of interaction between artists and there's so many people doing so many different things, that I think that's what makes everybody move so fast. For instance, I'll be working on something it's not necessarily that much more exciting than what 10 other people are doing here, whereas if I were in a smaller pond, I'd probably be a little more satisfied with my output. Instead of saying okay I got that done, now what else am I going to do?

TW: You've created a huge body of work in the last 15 years or so, and your artwork has changed considerably in that time, hasn't it?

PK: Yeah, the subject matter hasn't changed too much, but I've definitely been fooling around with a lot of different styles, if out of nothing else, boredom.

TW: How did you wind up with the style you're doing now?

I was looking for something with an X-factor to it. I didn't know how it was going to turn out exactly, so there was a little surprising element to it. I still am sort of drawn to scratch board because of the graphic nature of it, the sort of potency that it has, even with scratch board, scratching around, the end product is a little bit surprising. That's a lot of it, trying to find ways to convey the subject matter I'm doing in a form I find engaging.

TW: What artists have influenced you?

PK: Artists like George Grosz or Frans Massereel. A lot of the German expressionists in general. The anxiousness of that time period parallels our time, what's going on now, and 10 years ago Reagan, the cold war. Massereel did these woodcut wordless stories from the early '20s, and they weren't exactly linear, but you could follow them page by page. They've reprinted a lot of them, so they're around.

In comics, artists like Robert Crumb, Will Eisner and Jack Kirby... Alfred Hitchcock too.

TW: It seems like your work is becoming less specific than it used to be, and more iconic...

PK: Well certainly doing wordless stuff has that quality, but I don't mean for it to get unspecific. I like the idea of being able to communicate in a broad way to a lot of people, but I also think that so many of the things I'm dealing with are things that the specifics are less important. For instance, the specifics of a particular politician, that stuff changes all the time. What goes on is the human condition, and the roots of those things, greed, lust, envy and a lot of those points. If you're looking at Shakespeare, he's dealing with some of the same topics that we deal with today. The human condition keeps going on and stays pretty germane to our experiences. But of course there is a lot of specific updating. For instance, in The System, many of those story lines were just based on news items I read and then sort of synthesized into one story.

TW: That's a pretty complex synthesis going on there with all the diverse characters, and telling all these stories with pure visuals. What's your creative process like?

PK: Well, that idea for The System was bubbling in my thoughts for about eight years and started out as a much simpler thought, which was looking at people on a single subway car, and wondering as I got on, who they were, where they were going, would any of us affect one another again? And I thought of following these different characters, and having them interact, but that was a little too narrow, too New York-centric, just having it be one subway car. There were a lot of things I wanted to cover that were broader. So then I started keeping my eye on news items I thought might fit, and I kind of lined up all the possible things and then looked at all of them and then decided which one would fit, or I would have an encounter that would add another dimension. For instance, I threw in a missing person, and that just came out of reading an article in the paper about some woman who was missing. It turned out she was there and could have gone home, but she chose not to, and she wound up dead, but she wasn't necessarily missing, as far as she was concerned. So I threw things in as I went along, and then I added in all the corporate stuff that was buzzing around all the time, and has been in my thoughts, so I wanted to comment on that. Even Times Square. In the most unlikely scenario, Walt Disney has bought in on Times Square, and is doing this renovation and is sort of Disney-izing Times Square and it's becoming much more like a mall. All these things that I've been thinking about, some of them seem almost a bit over the top, but I couldn't possibly come up with anything that would be more strange than what's actually going on.

TW: Do you consider yourself stronger as an artist or as a writer?

PK: Comics certainly requires both, but most cartoonists I've talked to think they're stronger in one area. I'd say the drawing, but it depends on the subject matter I've taken on. Sometimes I can take a reasonably good story and finesse it a lot into being a much better thing as I'm drawing, but I really see the two as interlocked, especially having grown up reading comics since I was maybe seven. I saw so many crummy stories with dazzling art that it just, after a while, wore off completely. I lean towards having the story be the thing, and the art will follow, but I've focused so much time on my drawings that I'm forever trying to pull off an entire story with my writing, as it goes along. You're always trying to see what you can do to make it clearer without reducing it to the lowest common denominator. I'm always trying make it visually interesting enough so someone who really knows the work will get a lot out of it but also so it doesn't lose the non-comic reader. I've spent years trying to go after that mysterious audience that's not the people going to comic shops but just adults who have an interest in a variety of things and would really like comics, but they perceive them as being something for kids.

TW: Your book on Kafka is part of a growing trend of adapting literature in comics. R. Crumb just did one on Kafka, Paul Auster's City of Glass was recently adapted by David Mazzucchelli and Barry Gifford's Perdita Durango was adapted with scratchboard art by Scott Gillis. Are you encouraged by these cross-genre projects?

PK: I just got Perdita Durango and it's just beautiful, and it's that transition that's encouraging because as there starts to be more work like that, you can start to have a section for it in bookstores. But, frankly, I'm not looking for that. I want Kafka to be in Kafka and not have comics all lumped together like they are. It might be less difficult to find them, I suppose, if they're in a graphic novel section. But the Kafka books are definitely under Kafka most of the time in bookstores, but occasionally it ends up next to a Superman graphic novel, which seems nutty to me, but that's just how bookstores market these things. I know a variety of people who never read comics at all were picking it up, and saying it was interesting because they recognize Kafka, and so they get into it. And invariably the comment I hear most is, "But, it's not comics," because they're seeing comics as just Batman or Superman. So if you use those same circumstances that apply to adult material, it can't be comics; it's a little frusterating and curious to see. I always tell people that comics is exactly like music. It's not one thing, you can't say, oh well you know music, it's rap or it's classical and it's not one of those things, it's all of them, it's jazz, it's heavy metal, and I always saw alternative comics as being jazz. The idea of there being a parallel there, and that's what I use to make people understand. People who make that presumption, when you frame it that way, it tends to make more sense to them, "Oh yeah, I wouldn't make that presumption about music, would I? So why am I doing it with comics?"

TW: Do you see yourself working with contemporary authors on something like the Kafka book?

PK: Yeah, absolutely. I like the idea of working with a dead author more just because it's gives you more leeway to work with the material. I do have the tendency when I'm working with something to want to take it over and do what I want with it, and it's so much work, that to be hindered too much by somebody else's vision could be a problem. On the other hand, that could be the beauty of it too, sort of a fusion between two people's visions. And I certainly would be open to that possibility. I've done a fair number of those kinds of crisscrossings, with other people's writing, and I think it's a nice jump-off point sometimes, and I spend most of my energy on the image and on how to do that.

TW: What impelled you to adapt Kafka?

PK: It just seems in some ways so modern, I can really apply a lot of my feelings for things that are going on now. Sadly, some of it's just the same old thing and some of it's just your basic human condition stuff, but reading his work seems so modern to me in a lot of ways, that was one of the things I was drawn to.

TW: The book has a modern voice, but I think it stays true to the Kafka stories. You seem attracted to the dark side of big cities.

PK: I hope my work also has hope for the condition of things, too, and it's not just bummed out about it, not just rolling around in the misery. I want it to at least express my enthusiasm for the urban environment.

TW: And you have to keep your sense of humor about things, especially when you're dealing with politics.

PK: Yeah, you don't want to read the newspaper too long. It starts to pervert your thinking. And I don't want people to look at my work and think it's just like reading the paper and to be bummed out--especially the less artistically versed people who'll look at it and see the more surface, depressing imagery, the fact that I'm talking about these things. But I'm always rethinking my desire to express what's positive, too. And that's why I find myself turning towards more humorous things in the strip, where I'm just laughing at a lot of these things, because I also want to express these facets of my experience. Sometimes I think I'm probably going to wind up doing some pretty upbeat things, because I think that's another thing art can do, without getting too saccharine.

TW: If you're dealing with reality, there's good and bad. It's a wide spectrum.

PK: Exactly. That's part of why I move around with subject matter. For instance, I did a travel book. It's a travelogue of a trip my wife and I took for eight months in Africa. There were so many incredible things, and there were so many upbeat things happening. I wanted to convey the foibles of travel, but so much of the experiences were just amazing and interesting, and I want all that in it.

TW: That was a great story, and I thought the visual style was interesting, because it seemed really different than the...

PK: It was just straight-up drawing. Just sketching in my sketchbooks. That 's what that whole book is. I'm trying to be a bit of an historian, and put down the broad range of my experiences. Something someone could look up 50 years from now and see an individual's experience, a reference point.

TW: Do you have any fine-art aspirations?

PK: I've had some gallery shows. But they were disappointing. There's this attitude that one form of artwork is better than the other, and that's a kind of elitism that's just as easily prostitutional. I mean there are these artists dancing around pretending things, but it comes to the same end--they're still paid for their work. But there's this elitist language and tone, but it's just their way of protecting what they do.

TW: You teach cartooning at the New York School of Visual Arts. What kind of things do you teach in your classes?

PK: I teach one night a week, during the regular school year. I end up doing a ridiculous amount of lecturing, and then once we've passed the first couple of classes, they have to do a black-and-white, one-page strip for each class, and then we wind up going over that material. And if it's a large enough class, then that fills a lot of time, using each piece as an example of what's working and what's not. And then I throw in film; we'll watch one section of a film, to see how they've done the storytelling or the timing, and get people to think in cinematic terms. When you're doing sequential art work, you have to think in logical steps and how much time has passed between shots. I try to get people every time they go to the movies to watch how the storytelling goes. And you see crappy storytelling in movies, too. If you look at a storyboard for a movie, it's a comic book, in one form or another. You have to think about where the camera-eye moves, and where on the page you're geared to look, one place or another. But you can get at things and tell stories in comics without a budget and without film, from idea to final project. You are the director, the star, the producer, and all of these things must work together. I think comics is really the hardest art form. The timing, panels, page layout, storytelling, penciling, inking, lettering. And nothing makes you do it. There's no financial incentive.

TW: So what's next? What are you working on now?

PK: Currently, I'm trying to get Vertigo to publish a book about my travels in New Guinea in 1995. And in April The System will be collected in a single book.

TW: How does it feel to suddenly be such a success?

PK: You know, I'm an over-decade success in the blink of 10 years. TW

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