Born September 22, 1958 (Cleveland, Ohio)
American artist, author, illustrator
"At this point in one way or another everything I work on seems to have some connection to social or political commentary."
In his comic art, Peter Kuper combines his deeply felt humanism and passion for the underdog with a biting, ironic sense of humor. His career encompasses both the mainstream of the publishing world and the fringes of the comic book underground. Kuper's work has been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, Rolling Stone, The Nation, and The New Yorker; he has drawn cover illustrations for Time and Newsweek; he contributes regularly to MAD magazine; and his comic strips appear in alternative weeklies. Kuper has created both lighthearted and serious fare, but he noted in an interview with Graphic Novelists (GN) that his future will likely include much more work inspired by politics and society. "It has become part of the DNA of what I'm interested in creating," he said. "I've spent enough of my career doing mindless illustrations and at this point I find it very difficult to wrap my mind around anything that doesn't have something to do with responding to what I see going on in the world."
Kuper's career was summed up in a 2005 profile published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, his hometown newspaper. "Peter Kuper is the kind of artist whose personality radiates from his work," Tranberg observed. "Alternately brash, witty, cutting and just plain goofy, he has made a career out of creating incisive images for mass audiences." Kuper's keen eye for detail and strong design sense give his pictures such power that a number of his comics and graphic novels communicate clearly without dialogue. It is for these wordless stories that Kuper is noted among graphic novelists.
New York, New York (1987).
(With Seth Tobocman, others) World War 3 Illustrated: 1980–1988 (1989).
It's Only a Matter of Life and Death (1990).
Peter Kuper's Comics Trips: A Journal of Travels through Africa and Southeast Asia (1992).
Give It Up!: And Other Short Stories (1995).
(With Seth Tobocman, others) World War 3 Illustrated: Confrontational Comics (1995).
The System (1997).
Topsy Turvy: A Collection of Political Comic Strips (2000).
Eye of the Beholder: A Collection of Visual Puzzles (2000).
Mind's Eye: An Eye of the Beholder Collection (2000).
The Metamorphosis (2003).
(With Emily Russell) The Jungle (2004).
Sticks and Stones (2004).
(Illustrator) The Last Cat Book (1984).
(Illustrator) Why Be Different?: A Look Into Judaism (1986).
Also the creator of several comic strips, including Eye of the Beholder, New York Minute, and Spy vs. Spy; and the creator of the comics Bleeding Heart, Richie Bush, and Wild Life.
Aspires to be an artist
Peter Kuper was born on September 22, 1958, in Cleveland, Ohio, and grew up in the suburb of Cleveland Heights. His father, Alan, worked as a professor of electrical engineering; his mother, Virginia, was a secretary. From his middle-class upbringing in the Midwest, Kuper found artistic inspiration in books. He traced his determination to pursue an art career to his reading of Harold andthe Purple Crayon, Crockett Johnson's classic children's book in which the title character, a four-year-old boy, employs his imagination to draw a magical landscape. As he grew, he continued to explore new worlds through reading. "I discovered comics when I was seven," he told GN, "and never stopped loving that medium."
When Kuper's personal world was broadened, he developed an interest in politics and world issues. "An important influence was traveling," he explained to GN. "I lived in Israel for a year when I was ten and have spent an accumulation of years traveling around the globe. All of this has given me a connection to the reality that the world is quite round."
Kuper's sense of the world was also influenced by the times in which he came of age, during the Cold War (1945–91; a long conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union that forced nearly every country in the world to side with the capitalist, democratic United States or the Communist, state-run Soviet Union), when the threat of nuclear annihilation was ever-present. "I saw the movie Fail Safe when I was about eight years old," he noted to GN. "In this movie, the U.S. accidentally bombs Russia and—as a result—Russia gets to counter-bomb one U.S. city to stop a third World War. They choose New York City, and as a result the city's obliterated. Later, of course, I learned about Hiroshima and Nagasaki [two cities in Japan that were devastated by a nuclear bomb by the United States during World War II], and this thing kind of went off in my brain and made me want to address life and death issues." And his interest in these large social and political issues has never left him.
Notes varied artistic influences
Kuper's interest in the world around him enabled him to draw influence from different sources, and he just happened to live in the same city as comic artist Harvey Pekar (1939–; see entry). When he was thirteen, Kuper met fellow Clevelander Pekar, who in turn introduced him to R. Crumb (1943–). Pekar and Crumb are among the top comic artists of their time, and their artistic sensibilities greatly impacted on Kuper as he developed his own creative voice. "As far as (other) influences, there are about a million," Kuper noted. They include artists (Norman Rockwell, Saul Steinberg, Lynd Ward, Jack Kirby, Ralph Steadman, and the makers of "the African masks on my wall"); writers (J. D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut, John Steinbeck); artist-writers (Dr. Seuss); photographers (Diane Arbus); filmmakers (Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Altman); and rock musicians and groups (The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Frank Zappa, Pink Floyd, XTC, Naughty by Nature).
Upon graduating from high school in 1976, Kuper studied art for a year at Ohio's Kent State University. Then he was offered employment as an illustrator in a New York City cartoon studio. After heading east, he learned that the job had fallen through, but he decided to remain in the city. He supported himself drawing caricatures as a street artist while taking evening classes at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute.
Establishes a career as an artist
Kuper landed his first job in the comics industry in 1978, as the inker for the comic book Richie Rich, which charts the adventures of the world's wealthiest boy. The quality of his work on the job won Kuper much more work, and by 1982 his illustrations appeared in such prestigious publications as the New York Times. Although his first job opened the door for him to enter his chosen profession, it was an ironic assignment for Kuper given his politics. In subsequent years, Kuper would turn down assignments, no matter how lucrative, if he opposed the point of view expressed in the article needing illustration.
Through the 1980s, Kuper established himself as a comic strip artist, cartoonist, and illustrator while honing his approach to drawing. "The mediums I use," he explained, "vary from scratch-board (a chalk-covered paper that can be inked and scratched away to approximate a woodcut) and stencil where I cut holes in paper and spray-paint, then add watercolor, colored pencil and … sometimes collage." From his experimentation and constant work, Kuper developed a unique style for his illustrations that resembled woodcuts. He noted to GN that "working in my sketchbook while traveling had a big influence. My sketchbook became like a scrap-book with collages of maps and various mixed-media."
Using the clarity and power of his style, Kuper developed a wordless comic strip called Eye of the Beholder. Each Eye of the Beholder strip is a five-panel riddle; in the first four panels, the reader is challenged to determine the strip's point of view, which is revealed in the fifth. "I figured if it had words there would be an editor breathing down my neck every week," Kuper admitted, "so I decided to make it wordless." Typically, much of the strip is pointedly political and humanistic in nature: Tarzan is portrayed as a helpless observer of the destruction of a woodland; a leftover chicken bone becomes a meal for a homeless man; and an African-American janitor scrutinizes Caucasians tanning themselves. The strip ran in the New York Times for six months in the mid-1980s and has the distinction of being the first comic strip ever published in the paper. Eventually, it was syndicated to alternative newspapers. In 2000, samples of the strip were reprinted in Eye of the Beholder: A Collection of Visual Puzzles and Mind's Eye: An Eye of the Beholder Collection.
Politics into Art
At age eleven, Kuper and Seth Tobocman—who had been friends since first grade—published Phanzine, their own magazine. "It included our first feeble attempts at cartooning and interviews with various cartoon-world professionals," Kuper recalled. Years later, in 1979, they established World War 3 Illustrated, a comics publication with content reflecting their politics. Among the issues that they and their writers and artists have explored are life in America's inner cities, duplicity in American politics, drug use and abuse, and homelessness. During the 1980s, World War 3 Illustrated examined the manner in which the policies of President Ronald Reagan, a Republican and a conservative, impacted American society.
"At that time there were few outlets for non-superhero comics and, with Ronald Reagan heading towards the Oval Office, we were anxious to apply our art as a form of rebellion," Kuper told GN. "We didn't start WW3 with a manifesto; we just wanted to create an outlet for our political comix and have the opportunity as editors to publish work by other artists who also were not being seen much beyond local lampposts."
"If we had written a manifesto, it might have said something about creating historical document(s) that let someone from the future know that guys like Ronald Reagan didn't fool all of us. It also may have said, if you are going to make declarations about changing the world, a magazine is a decent place to start. In many ways WW3 represents a microcosm of the kind of society we'd like to see, a place where people from various backgrounds, genders, and abilities can pull together to the benefit of all. It also makes good bathroom reading."
World War 3 Illustrated was still being published in the mid-2000s. Richard Schauffler, writing in the Whole Earth Review, described its content as "powerful black-and-white graphic art and comic strips from the engaged and enraged pens of urban artists." He also observed, "In a world in which fewer and fewer young people seem to read, books like this may be our best hope."
Creates personal stories
Kuper explored many different approaches to comics. His work ranged from deeply personal stories to adaptations of noted authors. In 1992, Kuper published Peter Kuper's Comics Trips: A Journal of Travels Through Africa and Southeast Asia, in which he employs comics, sketches, and photographs to document an eight-month-long journey across the globe. Another personal story, called Stripped, was frankly revealing. In Stripped, Kuper visualizes memories of his life as a teenager, spotlighting his drug use, his efforts to lose his virginity, and his botched romances. For Stripped Kuper drew his adolescent alter-ego as a scared rabbit who is appalled by his sexual inexperience yet petrified by the idea of participating in an erotic encounter. Kuper explained his reasons for creating Stripped to GN, saying "I had a lot of stories I wanted to tell to both get them off my chest and because I thought people would find them entertaining. I also find I get bored doing any one type of thing too long and I wanted to explore the autobio area of writing."
In much of his work, Kuper examines the world around him. In The System, published in 1997, Kuper offers a dialogue-less odyssey across New York City, which he views as an unsightly, squalid American metropolis. At its core is his presentation of the New York subway system, and the range of individuals who employ it to traverse the city. Kuper based a number of his characters on real-life New York subway riders.
Speechless, which Kuper published in 2001, is a coffee-table compilation of his illustrations, comics, and magazine cover art. He also includes previously unpublished work, most of which is of a political-satire nature, and reminiscences about his first-ever comic book purchase, his meeting Harvey Pekar, and his efforts to enter the comic book industry. In its entirety, however, Speechless underscores Kuper's feelings about the catastrophe of homelessness in America, the importance of protecting the environment, and his outrage over attempts to curb artistic freedom.
Regarding the artistic freedom issue, he offers a record of his testimony as an expert witness in a case involving Mike Diana, a Floridian and underground cartoonist who was prosecuted and found guilty of obscenity for the content of Boiled Angel, a self-published comic. Kuper was infuriated not just by the conviction, but by the severity of the penalty. Diana was fined $3,000 and sentenced to three years' probation. He was ordered to submit to psychiatric assessment and perform more than one thousand hours of community service. He was directed not to create any more "obscene" art and informed that he and his residence would be exposed to impromptu police searches. "I didn't care for most of the work in question," Kuper explained, "but when the prosecutor called me in New York to take my deposition I found his notion of deciding what was and wasn't art much more obscene than anything Mike had drawn."
Building on others' work
Although his personal stories were widely praised, Kuper garnered more critical attention for his adaptations of others' work. In 1995, he came out with Give It Up!: And Other Short Stories, illustrated versions of nine stories written by famed Czech author Franz Kafka during the first decades of the twentieth century. Publishers Weekly noted that the stories "function perfectly within the comics format, allowing Kuper to pace the language of Kafka's imposing visions easily against his own vibrant b&w drawings." In 2003, Kuper revisited Kafka with an adaptation of his 1912 short story The Metamorphosis. The Metamorphosis, Kafka's most celebrated work, is the nightmarish tale of a luckless, victimized man named Gregor Samsa, who finds himself transformed into a large cockroach.
In 2004, Kuper published an adaptation (written with Emily Russell) of Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle; he originally had drawn The Jungle more than a decade earlier, for a briefly revived Classics Illustrated comic book series. Regarding his choice to illustrate Kafka and Sinclair, Kuper explained, "I liked the idea of working with someone else's text, but not have to get their approval on my choices, so dead writers are perfect!"
Arguably, The Jungle is Kuper's most ambitious project. The novel, first published in serial form in 1905, is Sinclair's impassioned account of Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian immigrant who settles in Chicago. He and his family aspire to attain the American Dream, but instead he finds only corruption, racism, and poverty as he is used and abused while toiling in the city's meatpacking industry. Without sacrificing the essence of Sinclair's point of view, Kuper and Russell condense the original, 400-page story into a 48-page graphic novel. "… inevitably, much of the narrative is lost," wrote Publishers Weekly. "Kuper replaces it, however, with unmatched pictorial drama.… (He) uses an innovative full-color stencil technique with the immediacy of graffiti to give Sinclair's story new life." The reviewer dubbed the adaptation "a classic in its own right."
In addition to adapting classic stories into graphic novels, Kuper worked on a different kind of adaptation. In 1997, he began drawing and writing Spy vs. Spy, the long-running MAD magazine comic strip. For this work, Kuper invented new stories for established characters. When first approached to take over the strip, he almost declined. "Doing someone else's characters was not in my plans," Kuper noted to GN. But he decided to give it a try. "As it has turned out, it has been great to connect with the MAD audience—it is also talking to the ten-year-old in me who grew up reading MAD."
[Image not available for copyright reasons]
Kuper continued to create new Spy vs. Spy strips each month into the 2000s.
Politics continues to influence his work
Kuper kept up his prolific output of his varied projects. In 2004, Kuper published Sticks and Stones, a graphic novel whose scenario is consistent with his politics. Sticks and Stones is the tale of a power-mad stone giant who coerces those around him into obeying his every command—including constructing a stone castle for his pleasure. Upon encountering a quiet community that is completely constructed in wood, he schemes to occupy it and pilfer its natural resources. A wooden boy and a stone woman unite to organize a rebellion against the giant.
Kuper also created more directly satirical political comics. In contrast to his early-career job inking Richie Rich, Kuper created Richie Bush, a mini-comic takeoff in which he satirizes the administration of President George W. Bush (1946–). "Recently, my ownRichie Bush was seized by customs for being piracy (of the character of Richie Rich) and … the CBLDF (Comic Book Legal Defense Fund) came through with help and the books were released," Kuper noted to GN. "I took their seizure as an attempt to squelch the content."
Regarding art, politics, and personal expression in the United States in the 2000s, Kuper observed, "There is definitely an atmosphere of our government wanting to muffle opposition and encourage the same from the private sector. A woman was recently expelled from her flight for wearing an anti-Bush t-shirt. The same thing happened at all Bush rallies pre-election. I am very concerned that this is the tip of the censorship iceberg that could expand to all areas of art and protest."
Kuper, long a resident of New York, lives in Manhattan with his wife, Betty Russell, a magazine publisher, and their daughter, Emily, born in 1996. Although very busy with his own creations, Kuper took the time to share his knowledge of the comics industry with students, teaching courses about alternative comics and illustration at New York's School of Visual Arts and a course titled "Art and Activism" at New York's Parsons School of Design.
For More Information
"Give It Up!: And Other Short Stories." Publishers Weekly (June 5, 1995).
"The Jungle." Publishers Weekly (December 13, 2004).
Schauffler, Richard. "World War 3 Illustrated." Whole Earth Review (Summer 1990).
Tranberg, Dan. "Art Matters: Kuper's Rogue Wit Cuts to the Quick of Global Politics." Cleveland Plain Dealer (January 7, 2005).
Peter Kuper.http://www.peterkuper.com/ (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Peter Kuper on October 13, 2005.