As it’s probably painfully obvious after recapping over five years of “Palmer’s Picks” columns from Wizard magazine, a lot has changed in the comics industry since the 1990s. This profile of Peter Kuper from ’97 is a pretty good example of this.
My intro paragraph for this column makes the point that while Kuper’s magazine artwork was ever-present, the audience of Wizard wouldn’t know his comic book work. While I don’t think that notion has really changed today—a good number of Marvel/DC readers are still fairly myopic in their buying habits—the lines between what is and isn’t mainstream have really blurred. There are so many more avenues for comics outside of the typical monthly format, so it’s possible for a cartoonist to carve out a following without ever having a mainstream comic series, and I think it would be entirely appropriate for someone writing about comics today to not have to explain why you might not have heard of a certain creator.
The intervening years have been kind to Kuper. His work in the ’90s seemed tailor-made for the bookstore market. The only problem was that those venues really didn’t exist back then. Thankfully, the rest of the world has caught up to Kuper’s work and he’s released a good number of graphic novels in the last twenty years, including a recent adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness. And the “Spy vs. Spy” run that he started shortly before this column first saw print is still going strong in the pages of Mad Magazine.
By Tom Palmer Jr.
Chances are you’ve never heard of Peter Kuper. You’ve probably seen his work all over the place, though. Confused? Well, with freelance art credits including covers for Newsweek and Time and illustrations for Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly and The New Yorker, you’d have to be blind not to have seen Kuper’s artwork.
Despite an impressive portfolio, Kuper remains relatively unknown to the general comic-reading public, even though he’s been in the business for over 17 years. “I sort of fall between the cracks,” Kuper claims. “I don’t mean that in as horrible a way as it sounds, but because I’ve done different things and I play around with my style, it’s been a slow process developing broader recognition from comics fandom. I feel like that visibility factor and the audience factor is something that is going to naturally occur with time and it’s not something I have to worry about. I’m content to develop an audience over a longer period of time. Hopefully they’ll go back and look at some of my older work and make that stuff more visible.”
Fans who choose to delve into Kuper’s past have a lot of work to select from. Kuper currently has seven different graphic novels in print from four different publishers. His comics run the gamut from politically charged fiction (The System) to confessional autobiography (Stripped) to literary adaptations (Give It Up!, a collection of Franz Kafka short stories) and even travel journals (ComicsTrips). With so many comic credits, it’s hard for Kuper to pick favorites. “At the given time, what I’m working on is the thing that I prefer, so it changes. I do a lot of different things simply to keep myself engaged in what I’m doing. And sometimes I just want to try out different styles.”
By juggling his time between meeting regular deadlines for illustration jobs and comics work, Kuper has naturally merged the two disciplines. “I initially put comics on one side and my illustration in another compartment, but over the years I found that it was difficult to compartmentalize like that. The two have merged together so that they’re really inseparable. A lot of the themes blend together and everything’s sort of been mixed up happily together.”
Specifically, Kuper approaches his illustration jobs as if he’s depicting a specific moment that can be captured in a single-panel comic (sometimes he even does wordless comics for his freelance work). And his illustration work has also freed him up to try new techniques with his comic work. “I started working with stencils in my illustrations because that lended itself to single images and strong graphics, but I thought I could also use them in comics. When I did that, it really blurred the line between the two. I also found that because of my illustration background, I liked to do wordless comics because it let the image do a lot of the talking. The symbolic thinking that I have in a lot of my conceptual art I started applying to my comics.”
In fact, Kuper probably has the biggest chance to reach a wider audience with his wordless comics, like The System (which was published by Vertigo/DC), Eye of the Beholder (a weekly comic strip showing city life through the point-of-view of different people and objects that aren’t revealed until the last panel) and Mad Magazine‘s revitalized “Spy vs. Spy” cartoon strip. By removing word balloons and focusing on images, Kuper has distilled comics to their most basic property: a means to tell stories. All of Kuper’s comics are excellent (even the ones with words), but his silent strips are brilliant in their execution. They seem so simple on the surface, but they hold a wealth of information and meaning.
Wordless comics hold a special power for Kuper. “They let you communicate with people who don’t even speak the same language as you do. Comics wrap around so many different symbols and I love the possibility of exploring the use of an image as language. Removing a word balloon from a panel removes one more preconception that people have about what comics are. I want to play with comics and leap through the preconceptions of what comics are.”
Since comics are such an underappreciated artform and Kuper has a pretty successful career as a magazine illustrator, why does he still come back to comics? The answer is simple. “I just think comics is the best artform. Hands down, I find it has the most interesting possibilities for applying everything that I do. And I don’t have to pass my ideas by anybody. With my own comics, there’s no process of going through a sketch and having it turned down or played with by an editor. I feel that freedom is invaluable all by itself.”
For an artist with a career as varied as Kuper’s, you’d think that he’s explored everything of interest to him. However, Kuper isn’t content to just sit back and rest. “As far as subject matters go, nothing pops into my head that I haven’t put my toe in. But I do expect to explore animation in the next year.” His cartoon plans are top-secret right now, but keep your eyes peeled for Kuper in all the places you’d least expect to see him.
Tom Palmer Jr. also feels freedom is invaluable. He’s getting naked right now…
FYI: Eye of the Beholder, Give It Up! and Other Short Stories and ComicsTrips are all available from NBM Publishing (
185 Madison Ave. Suite 1504, New York, NY 10016). Stripped, New York, New York and the series Wild Life and Bleeding Heart are available from Fantagraphics Books (7563 Lake City Way NE, Seattle, WA 98115, or call 1-800-657-1100). The System was published as a three-issue mini-series from Vertigo and is also available as a graphic novel. Kuper also edits the long-running comics anthology World War III Illustrated (available on finer magazine racks and in two Fantagraphics collections) and self-syndicates the weekly Eye of the Beholder strip (which originally began in The New York Times). And be sure to pick up a copy of Mad Magazine to see Kuper’s take on “Spy vs. Spy.”
Peter Kuper’s Recommended Reading
“As for as comic series go, I read Chris Ware‘s Acme Novelty Library and Dan Clowes‘ Eightball. But I also follow individual artists like Eric Drooker, Seth Tobocman, James Romberger and Ben Katchor. I also look at filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock and a lot of turn-of-the-century comic strip artists like Lyonel Feininger, George Herriman and E.C. Seger. I try to look at things outside of comics, since there’s a tendency to be too self-referential—I’ve been guilty of it sometimes! I get more out of going to the museum and seeing what other people are doing.”
Sheba – A comic starring a mummified cat with no arms or legs? What will they think of next? Sheba by Walter S. Crane IV may sound totally ridiculous at first, but definitely give this one a try. With snappy dialogue and intricate art, Crane is able to pull the whole thing off and produce a genuinely interesting comic. This comic’s got more historical and religious in-jokes than you can shake an obelisk at. Write to Sick Mind Press,
P.O. Box 602, N. Cambridge, MA 02140 for more information, or send e-mail to [email protected].