Friday, November 13, 2009

Diario de Peter Kuper: From World War 3 to Spy vs Spy

Words: Christopher Irving . Pictures: Seth Kushner

“I just say [I’m a] plain ol’ cartoonist. It’s a real conversation starter –‘You’re a what?—A Cartoonist? Cool, that must be fun! ’At least, that is more true these days. “Before people would assume I did Superman or Garfield, then move quickly away. “Now they at least pause before asking if I do Superman or Garfield and moving quickly away.”

Wooden masks line one wall of Peter Kuper’s Upper West Side studio, masks from his other countries, some masks authentic, and others crafted by Peter himself.

It’s a warm day, and the diverse artist has just shortly enjoyed the release of Diaria de Oaxaca, his journal that outlines the two years he lived in the Mexican city with his wife and young daughter. The newest issue of World War 3 Illustrated, a magazine that’s still indy in a mainstream world, also just came back from press. Throughout all of this, he still maintains the art chores on the iconic Spy Vs. Spy for Mad Magazine.

All of these new things are popping, and Kuper’s biggest challenge may just be readjusting to life in America.

“When we finally returned to New York from Mexico, the transition was very difficult,” he admits later in the interview. “On the plus side were the elections and the end of the Bush administration, but that was hand in hand the mess they left and the financial crash. On top of this, both my parents died which had my head spinning. I also went through some artistic shifts from the Mexican experience that I am still sorting through as I try to explore new directions with my work in this difficult economy. Bottom line, transitions are a bitch!”

Kuper’s diverse body of work keeps him from being pushed into a category: his work includes political cartoons, graphic novel adaptations of classic books, fine art, autobio comics, and even children’s books. His time in Mexico, told in a series of essays and illustration in Diario, adds journalism to the mix.

“It covers the two years we spent in Oaxaca, Mexico, a small town way in the south of Mexico,” Peter says. “We went there originally and primarily to expose our daughter to a second language, and to get away from everything after our 2004 ‘elections’, as they were. I was ready for a little time out. Also, when I was ten, my father had a sabbatical and we moved to Israel for a year. It was part of my sense of an important the learning curve for a kid. My wife and I were talking about it for years, and that we’d do it before our daughter was eleven, because it’s so much easier to learn another language before that age.”

“It’s brilliant to know another language,” he then reflects. “It just opens a door on a secret world of communication. I’m only sorry that I don’t know more languages myself.”

Kuper has gained a worldly status, from his sabbatical to Israel as a young boy, to various trips through Southeast Asia and Africa as an adult. The exposure to various cultures, as well as the permanence of his Israel trip, was an inspiration for his daughter’s upbringing.

“I’m still working on my English!” Peter jokes. “Spanish I’m passable, I know some Hebrew. I went back to Israel a few times over the years and what I learned when I was a kid came back to me. When I saw the animated film Waltz with Bashir, which is in Hebrew, I found that listening to it and reading subtitles my forgotten Hebrew was coming back to me.”

What was meant to be a relaxing trip from American culture and politics, from wars on terror to fishily reelected Presidents, into the simpler life of Oaxaca, turned out to be a larger experience than Peter and his wife had ever bargained for:

“We moved down there for what we thought would be a break, and it turned out that the town was in the middle of a political explosion. There was a teacher’s strike that expanded into an international incident when an American journalist was killed a few months after we arrived. There were 4,500 federal troops flown in to quell the strike and the whole city was under siege. That defined the first six months that we were there—so much for escape! Though we had another year and a half in Mexico, and the rest of the time wasn’t as fraught.

“That time period was an incredible opportunity for me to draw everything, and got back in touch with drawing in my sketchbook as I had on previous jaunts around the world before our daughter was born.”

Despite the craziness of the Kupers’ first half-year, it only helped to bolster Peter’s art, and did provide them with the much-needed removal from American society.

“The timing was, in fact, great since the events of the strike allowed me to apply my art in a way I’ve always wanted and our time in Mexico was before the world economic crash,” Peter reflects. “Even given the turmoil, were in our little pre-crash bubble down there and able to worked full-time and send our work back to the US by e-mail.”

Being in Oaxaca, Peter wasn’t completely removed from American society: he continued to work on Spy Vs. Spy, as well as other illustration jobs that came his way. He also had two books come out – Stop Forgetting to Remember (which was finished early in their move) and children’s book Theo and the Blue Note. At most, he was continuing an on-again, off-again relationship with America and the rest of the world.

“I was also called to do more talks than ever before while I was down in Mexico, so I found myself flying back and forth to the United States and Europe,” Peter admits. “I was invited to Belgium with Scott Macleod and Kevin Huizenga, Angouleme in France and came to NYC to promote my books a few times. I also had a brief residency at the University North Dakota during a writer’s conference, which included being on panels with Salmon Rushdie and Junot Díaz, which was a thrilling experience.”

By getting mental snapshots and personal glimpses of the United States on his occasional trips back, it gave Kuper the unique perspective of a familiar outsider.

“Sometimes it was happy to get a shot of New York City and the American scene, but there were other times when I came back and felt like the 21st century was racing forward, and I wanted to move slower,” he notes. “It was the feeling that everyone has a cell phone, and that everyone has an iPod and society is going to hell in a hand basket. In Oaxaca the pace was just slower, though it wasn’t devoid of modernity. It’s a pretty cosmopolitan town for being from the 16th century. On several of my visits home I felt like things were really escalating towards the crash. Apparently I wasn’t mistaken about that vibe. It was the height of the economic boom and having been away I could especially feel the electricity of people in money frenzy. As a temporary outsider, I was probably seeing more than if I was right in the middle of it.”

Peter Kuper grew up in Cleveland, Ohio in the ‘60s and ‘70s. His life is seen through the eyes of his comics avatar Walter Kurtz, in his autobiography Stop Forgetting to Remember. While Kurtz is an obvious cipher of Kuper, the artist’s intent at using a thinly veiled alter ego has more to do with his philosophy towards this particular life story.

“I thought that was the honest approach,” Peter says of Kurtz’s pinch-hitting for him in his life story. “What I'd done was move the pieces of my life around a bit, and not worry about sticking with a straight-up story. It was interesting to me as a story. My experiences in many ways are universal experiences, so it wasn't as important that it was 'my story'.

“However, having said that, much to my surprise, I got a lot of people saying 'Is it really you?' – I thought I was being obvious it was.”

Kurtz/Kuper face several universal dilemmas in their shared life: difficulty at losing his virginity during the awkward teenage years in Cleveland, experimenting with drugs, dealing with psychotic ex-girlfriends and coping with the Earth-shattering break-up of that “love/hate relationship” that inevitably follows, and even the combination anticipation and dread that comes with fatherhood. Kurtz narrates the memories in a combination of reminiscence smattered with self-criticism: sometimes he sees himself as a wormboy or a scared rabbit.

“There's a French edition coming out now, and I made myself 'Peter Kuper' again through the whole book dropping the pseudonym,” Peter says. “Perhaps it was an error on my part, in the assumption that it would be so obvious that this was my autobiography. Apparently people prefer to be lied to. I should have learned that from the George W. Bush years! Making myself a character freed me up to do other things, like have the whole book be about my character trying to finish this one graphic novel. In truth I did ten books in that same time period, but I thought reducing it to the one, made for a better story. That’s the last time I’ll be honest!”

But back to Peter Kuper, the cartoonist and illustrator: He escaped the confines of Cleveland for New York City in 1977, with the promise of a job in animation. When that didn’t pan out, he became an inker for Harvey Comics’ Richie Rich comic book while going to school; it was the first step towards him becoming a cartoonist, one that was followed by assisting cartoonist Howard Chaykin in 1978.

“I came to New York with very little technical ability,” Peter admits. “I barely drew, but I was really interested in comics and had been a real big fan of the medium. I met Howard when I was twelve, at a comic convention, and he was a nineteen year-old fan artist. He got into the field, and every year I'd cross paths with him at the New York comic convention. When I moved to New York and bumped into him again, he happened to need an assistant and gave me a shot. I needed to get my technical chops together and working for Chaykin at Upstart Studio was a pressure-cooker chance to do that.”

At the time, Chaykin was a rising star in his own right, having recently drawn the Star Wars adaptation for Marvel Comics, as well as building an impressive body of work that ranged from comics to illustration. It turned out to be a two and a half year stint for the young Peter Kuper.

“I was in art school at the same time, so I'd go to art school during the day, then run over to the studio, and work evenings and on the weekends. In that studio were also Walter Simonson, Jim Starlin was there, Val Mayerik, James Sherman and Frank Miller came in when he was starting on Daredevil – I got to see working artists, and Howard was a super workaholic, so I learned that when I got out of school, it wasn't like 'now I can relax.' I discovered that working for myself meant working at a higher velocity than school. That was really great, because there were no surprises in terms of what being a working cartoonist was about. It was an important learning experience.”

While learning the craft and discipline of comics at Upstart, Kuper formed his own tastes outside of the studio. The facts that Upstart was experimenting within the form of superhero comics and that Chaykin was, according to Kuper, “always doing something in the mainstream that was, relatively speaking, alternative” probably made it easier for the budding artist to transition to underground comics.

“My interests were shifting around the middle of my being there,” Peter says. “I had been into superheroes in my teens, but had grown tired of them. I was nonetheless reading all the comics everyone in the studio were doing, and that was having some impact. Towards the end of art school though, I discovered a whole new set of artists that interested me, particularly Saul Steinberg, German Expressionism, Ralph Steadman - and rejected most of the styles I had grown up reading in mainstream comics. Already for a long time the underground comics, especially Crumb, had been what appealed to me any way, both stylistically and in their subject matter.

“Though working at Upstart I was immersed in the mainstream field, I was moving away from those kinds of comics. I was starting to get illustration work even when I was in art school. Fortunately at the end of school I started working for the New York Times, and that was not the type of work anybody in the Upstart studio was doing. I started doing linoleum prints and collage, working in forms that weren't anything like mainstream comics. Even as I rejected superheroes as something I might want to draw I still enjoyed many aspects of what Chaykin, Simonson and Frank Miller were doing with the form.

“But the muscle-bound superhero style I moved away from completely and nothing I aspired to do. It was clear to me that I wouldn't be doing anything new by regurgitating my superhero sources. Even though Jack Kirby is still an influence on my work, and I still get charged up looking at his work, I don't want to do those kinds of comics.”

The artist that emerged from a stint at Upstart and four years at Pratt Institute was an underground cartoonist who employed thick lines and even linoleum block prints for his illustrations. Peter was also gaining freelance illustration gigs with mainstream publications, a more prestigious field than superhero comics.

“I grew up reading thousands of super hero comics and I was looking for the next step, and underground comics were that, and then I wanted influences outside of comics. I'm still exploring, if for no other reason than out of boredom. The water's rising I want to jump to the next higher rock. If I stand in one place too long I get bored and need something new to refresh me.”

Around the time of his leaving Upstart, Peter Kuper and his partner Seth Tobocman founded World War 3 Illustrated, their vehicle for underground political cartoons and commentary. WW3 is gearing up for its thirtieth anniversary in 2010.

“It's a mini-miracle—our secret may be the punk aesthetic of anti-success,” Peter reflects. “Not that that was a goal! But we were always interested in keeping it going more than worrying about it becoming a huge money making enterprise. It turns out that if you do too well with a cooperative, there are issues of money and who's doing better than whom. Since no one is getting paid, and it all comes out of pocket, being editor just means you do extra heavy lifting and more bottle washing, and that has kept a pretty even keel. If you can get something out of it, it is the magazine itself, and being involved with it is a great association. I'm really proud to have the long-term connection to something like that that people have come to know around the world.”

According to the World War 3 website, the titled war in question refers to “the ongoing wars our so-called leaders have been waging all our lives around the world and on our very own doorsteps. WW3 also illuminates the war we wage on each other and sometimes the one taking place in our own brains.” Since its inception, World War 3 has survived four Presidents (three Republican, one Democrat), the so-called end of the Cold War, and the emergence on the “War on Terror”. A look at the magazine’s complete run is a document of the social-political environment and the shaping of American and world history. After all this change, it remains a relatively unchanged magazine, though:

“The magazine has gotten some color, and the paper quality has gone up a bit, and there has been some design tweaking,” Peter states. “When we've made more money, we've always put it straight into having a better production. From the editing stand point, these days I can send out a call to people from a complete range to students to as big as you can get in illustration and comics, and get them to contribute. That's really nice and an opportunity to publish artists whose work I love.

“There's a lot about the process that remains the same, and we haven't altered the process dramatically over the years. Maybe the biggest thing is that we don't have huge meetings for each issue, as we once did. We work via the Internet, e-mailing ideas back and forth which makes it slot into my life between other things more easily. We figured out how to break down the responsibilities and share them so we don't get burnt out. If too much work falls on too few people it is easy to burn out on a long-term project like this.”

The most impressive aspect of World War 3 is the fact that Kuper, Tobocman, and staff have all kept it honest: it is, in the strictest sense, a not for profit publication that has managed to stay around through the decline of the magazine. Due to its longevity, WW3 is beginning to profit from its ability to influence the younger up-and-coming generation.

“It's really interesting because there are people who grew up reading it. The last issue had an editor Kevin Pyle, who's a fantastic cartoonist; he grew up in Kansas and came across a copy there. He said it was like a call from New York, and a lifeline and was one of the reasons he moved to the city.

“It’s part of what we're trying to do, we're trying to send out this message in a bottle that connects people and gives them a sense that there is a vast group of people who share these sentiments of concern about what is going on in the world.

“For many of the people involved in this magazine, World War 3 was their first opportunity to get published and start in the field, and get some feedback from other artists. World War 3 helped launch many of our careers.”

Almost thirty years from that first issue rolling off the presses, Peter has gained a perspective on his place in the grand scheme of comics:

“When I started in comics I thought what a rip-off it was that there was the Beat Generation, the hippie movement with the Underground Comix scene, but they were gone by the time my generation showed up. I’m finding in retrospect that what we’ve done with World War 3 was to create a group like that of our own. As an artist, you're mostly isolated and World War 3 was a way of breaking through some of that isolation, so that even before the piece went to print, you had other artists giving feedback on your work.”

“I'm pretty lucky because a lot of the illustration jobs I did were really close to my heart, as far as the subject matter goes,” Peter observes later in our interview. “I directed my work that way and I got known for doing that kind of political subject matter, and those were the calls I'd get. It was fantastic, doing work on topics I could sink my teeth into.

“I removed the part where I compartmentalized my art. Before I would work in (the magazine I co-founded) World War 3 Illustrated, doing political comics I that was separate from my illustration work. After some years I managed to push those worlds together, both stylistically with stencil comics and content wise with by only taking jobs that were on political subjects. The illustrations I did in magazines and newspapers like the New York Times were dealing with political topics that could sit in World War 3.”

Peter Kuper isn’t just a traditional pen-and-ink cartoonist: he’s a mixed-media maniac, often passing up traditional pen and ink for illustrative techniques that involve everything from scratchboard to linoleum prints to spray-painted stencils.

“It was a leap from doing them as illustrations,” Peter says of the stencils. “My life long pal, Seth Tobocman turned me on them. I was looking at an illustration he did this way and it rang my bell. It was apparently a very loud bell, because that was in 1988 and here, to this day, I’m still doing stencils. At this point, I feel like I want to move away from spray paint because of its toxic nature. The irony of doing pieces on degrading environment using aerosol sprays is too much.”
A cardboard box is set out of a window in his studio, cans of spray paint and paper stencils laying within. Kuper’s process involves a pencil drawing, cutting a very fine stencil out of a Xerox, and then a little mastery with cans of spray paint.

“I spray them with enamel spray paint, not an airbrush, so I can pick up one can, put it down, and then spray another fast,” he says.

“I do it a page at a time. I usually spray a base in red and black. I spray the red paint first and then spray the black on top of it which gives a glow of the red under the black. Occasionally I do more than one stencil per piece, but not that often. I'm experimenting now with rolling or brushing on acrylic paint with a stencil. I want to move towards painting a little more, and bring new things into my work.”

Kuper applied his stencil approach to an adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s seminal novel The Jungle, which was a look at the inhumane working conditions of Chicago’s meatpacking plants. The grime of the factories come to life through spattered black paint, giving the artwork an imposing and claustrophobic vibe. According to Peter in his art book Speechless:

The company, First Publishing, was shortly driven to bankruptcy by mismanagement, and I had to retain a lawyer to be paid my page rate. I never received any royalties, and The Jungle, a tale of worker’s oppression, became the last book the company ever published.

Peter next applied his stencil style to the iconic Spy vs. Spy. Started by a Cuban refugee, Antonio Prohias in 1961, the strip follows a black and white spy killing one another through unlikely and ingenious ways. Imagine Rube Goldberg machines in the hands of the world super powers’ top agents, mixed in with Looney Tunes slapstick.

“I did it in stencils when they asked me to try out for the job figuring they wouldn’t go for it,” Kuper says of the 1996 try-out. “I didn’t want to try to mimic the style of Prohias’, I thought that ‘If I’m going to do this, I’ll do something that’s different. I thought they’d thank me for my kooky approach, bid me adieu and I’d go on my merry way.’ When they said, ‘You got the job’, I thought I’d probably just do it for a year. I’m in my thirteenth year of Spy vs. Spy.”

He went starker in 2003 with yet another adaptation, this one of Franz Kafka’s classic short story The Metamorphosis. Through use of scratchboard and vertigo-inducing panel shapes and sizes, The Metamorphosis catches the dark and foreboding aspects of the story in sequential form.

The impressive facet of Kuper’s work is that, despite the numerous approaches, it is still distinctly his, whether it’s a stenciled or lino-cut comic, or an old window pane with paintings on each sheet of aged glass.

“With my career, I went from doing line drawings to lino prints to scratchboard to using the stencil approach, and back to pen and ink.,” Kuper observes. “I was doing collage in my sketchbook while travelling around on my other trips in Africa and Southeast Asia, like gluing down maps and that got integrated into my illustration work.

“I wasn't trying to create a style; it was an organic process. The beauty of working in a sketchbook is never thinking about style. If it comes out being a style where people then say 'I recognize your work'. That, to me, is fine, but it has to be organic. That I can work in any medium, but because of my sensibilities, it's going to come out looking like something I did is nice. If I'm painting, stenciling, or carving wood, I hope all has the feel of being part of a whole.”

At the end of the day, though, Peter Kuper is still readjusting to life back in New York City, sorting through the experience in Oaxaca and the artistic freedom found between two covers of a well-worn sketchbook:

“Part of the digesting from Mexico is having spent all this time drawing in my sketchbook, I want to transfer some of what I've been doing there into my work. I think the next comic I do will be pen and ink with watercolor, which is something more akin to my sketchbooks. As far as illustrations go, I haven't really looked for illustration work since I've gotten back. I was propelled by what was going on in the Bush administration to draw about the subject matter, but now there are fewer outlets for political art. And, I'm just a little bit burnt out on the subject matter. I have drawers filled with stencil art on that history, and I'm now interested in what other kind of work I can do, not devoid of politics, but something I might want to have on my wall. Just staring at the problems and horrors of the world can get pretty depressing to look at!”
Armed with his new influences, he still takes time to look back at his older ones, in the form of comic strip pioneers of the early 20th century.

“There are so many other comics that I do return to,” Kuper points out. “I'm continuously rediscovering how much I love early turn-of-the-century strips, like Windsor McCay's work and Lyonel Feininger. There's so much information in their work I want that influence to wash over me as often as possible.

“Thanks to my time in Mexico I’ve gotten a new infusion of artistic influences, from looking at Diego Rivera, and other muralists. Though I wasn't intending to copy them stylistically my sketchbook pages became more and more like murals with a cross section of different images built up to form a single spread. I think that is very much a result of the environment. The simultaneity you find there of past and present history.”

However Peter Kuper may reinvent himself, and whatever extra approaches he adapts in the near future, he keeps sight of his intentions as an independent cartoonist.

“Throughout my career I’ve tried to defy what people—especially non-comic readers, presumed about the form,” Peter says. “By removing things like word balloons and panel borders, or doing comics in stencils, I hoped that people would discover that their presumptions were wrong. This seemed to work especially with wordless comics like The System and Eye of the Beholder (that was the first regular strip to appear in The New York Times ran in alternative papers for ten years) and also happily landed me the Spy vs. Spy gig.

“I’m also interested in exploring comics as a language. I like the idea that I can go to other countries hand them a wordless book and say 'There you go, my Russian friend, enjoy!'
“In general, there are so many aspects to comics that I'm interested in exploring…I just keep on finding new areas and going 'That'd be cool, I want to try that.' As a medium, it's so wide open that there’ll never be enough time for me to explore all the things that are possible, but I’ll die trying!”

See more of Peter Kuper's work at his official site.

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