During October artists and illustrators hone their craft by committing to posting one inked work a day with the hashtag #Inktober. Illustrator Peter Kuper is no stranger to drawing every day.
Kuper’s latest illustrated work runs 256 pages, a gripping story that explores the shadows and lights of Mexico past and present. His regular monthly gig fills one magazine page, an ongoing battle between two cartoon characters trying to destroy one another.
In each case, though, writer and illustrator Peter Kuper is stretching the boundaries of illustration, in terms of its visual impact as well as its ability to tell a story, no matter how long or short it may be.
“There’s a certain cinematic nature to illustration and comics,” Kuper told BookTrib. In the case of his voluminous tale Ruins (SelfMadeHero, 2015), “there are a lot of sections that are wordless, which means that as a reader, you’re connecting the dots, and there’s a real back-and-forth dialogue that’s going on between the reader and the creator.”
Ruins is the latest in a number of highly celebrated long-form stories that Kuper has written and illustrated, a collection that includes The System, Sticks and Stones, and even an illustrated adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.
Ruins is based on Kuper’s own life. “My wife and daughter and I moved to Mexico in 2006,” he said. “I felt like when we arrived in Mexico, we’d gone from being in a black-and-white environment into the full color environment. It was like the scene from The Wizard of Oz when you step through the door.
“People paint their houses pink next to a blue house next to a yellow house,” he said. “Everything just seems to be in such full color. That had a huge influence on my color sense. I think the environment affected my work very much, the way you see [artwork] in Mexican murals, which is this kind of combination of storytelling and illustration and one thing sort of forming into the next. That got into my work, and it got into my sketchbooks. It was such a huge influence that I’m still to this day trying to digest what I took in from there.”
Creating what would eventually become Ruins was a long and arduous job that took years to complete. It involved planning, creating thumbnails of each page, drawing a 250-page rough sketch of the book, followed by versions of different sized. After that comes inking and the placement of word balloons for English and foreign versions.
“It’s such a daunting process that I’m not sure why anybody does it sometimes,” he said. “It’s so much work. But apparently I can do it, because this is my 20th book.”
When he’s not creating graphic novels, or teaching at the School for Visual Arts in New York City or Harvard University, Kuper has another regular job. Since 1997, he’s written and drawn the classic “Spy vs. Spy” comic strip (in which two identical characters wearing opposite colors continuously try in vain to destroy each other) for Mad Magazine.
At first, Kuper was reluctant to take the assignment. “But I thought I would give it a shot because I was a super Mad fan,” he said. “When I did, I discovered what an influence Antonio Prohias, the creator of ‘Spy vs. Spy,’ had on my work in leading me towards doing wordless comics, which I have done quite a number of.” Kuper said he was interested in “how much you can tell with images that could transcend language barriers. That’s what ‘Spy vs. Spy’ is.
“It’s also about something that’s eternal, which is our tendency to destroy ourselves, war, and the ‘no-win’ nature of that story,” he said. “It’s also the Roadrunner cartoon without the roadrunner. It’s Wile E. Coyote. The roadrunner always wins, so there’s no roadrunner in ‘Spy vs. Spy.’
“I find that with ‘Spy vs. Spy,’ it’s kind of a never-ending challenge and source of inspiration because there are always very new ways to figure out how to destroy ourselves.”
The humor of “Spy vs. Spy” aside, Kuper hopes that the medium of illustration continues to grow. “The stigma that comics has had for most of its life as being a medium for children is always fascinating to me,” he said. “The idea that if somebody didn’t get it, they assume that it’s because it’s too stupid to get. Maybe it’s because it’s more sophisticated than that.
“That even applies to cartooning,” he said. “To express complex ideas with simple images really requires a lot of distilling to arrive at. I know I’m sometimes fooled by the idea that complex drawing implies more complex thinking, when in fact a really reduced cartoon like Charlie Brown is a very complicated, distilled, beautiful rendition of something that carries a tremendous amount of emotional information.”