Peter Kuper’s new graphic novel, ‘Ruins’, is a breakthrough, even though this veteran cartoonist has been publishing books since 1980, producing more titles than I can count.
Having known Peter since first grade, it could be argued that I am not objective enough to write a review of anything he produces. But I have never believed that art has much to do with objectivity. Rather, art is about the insights we gain through subjective experience. So here is what I have learned through knowing Peter Kuper that I think is relevant to a discussion of this book.
Peter Kuper grew up in a very unusual 1970’s suburban household. His mom, Ginger Kuper, was a very artsy lady. She had a desk job at the Cleveland Orchestra and was an amateur potter. The house was full of clay sculpture along with Native American textiles, block prints, plants and nature photographs. One of Peter’s uncles was an illustrator and his work decorated the walls. Another uncle was a Broadway actor. His older sisters were a dancer and a photographer. The family had a subscription to the New Yorker.
Peter’s father was a scientist, but not the kind who is lost in abstract thought. Alan Kuper (known as ‘Buzz’) liked to take walks in the woods. The family went on regular camping trips. Buzz had a subscription to National Geographic and would eventually become president of the local Sierra club. Alan Kuper was also outspoken in opposition to the Vietnam War, took his kids to peace demonstrations, allowed his son to become the first boy I knew to grow his hair long. My sister and I, along with most of our schoolmates, envied the Kuper kids for having “such nice parents”.
Peter picked up his mother’s love of art, but also his father’s love of nature. He had a butterfly collection long before he had a comic book collection and dreamed of being an entomologist before he decided to become an illustrator. From his family he gained a passion for traveling to exotic places that would continue for the rest of his life.
This background is evident in spades in Peter’s new book RUINS. The inside cover is decorated with a pattern of insects, delicately rendered. The main character is an entomologist. Most of the action takes place in the scenic landscape of Oaxaca Mexico. Many pages are dedicated to the migration and life cycle of the monarch butterfly.
It is the story of two Americans searching for their creativity in Oaxaca who run smack into the historic teachers strike of 2007 and the bloody repression that followed. The lead character is an out-of-work entomological illustrator who travels to Mexico in hope that he will start painting again. His wife wants to finish her novel and conceive a child. They meet a disillusioned photojournalist who is drinking himself to death because of things he saw in El Salvador. I won’t spoil the ending, but those who have followed events in Oaxaca can guess what happens.
But what really makes this book stand out is not what it shows but HOW it shows it. The full color drawings are lush and complex, with a lot of deep space. Both the natural beauty and the local culture are lovingly detailed. Peter knows just what the eye wants to see and he delivers, page after page.
Some will find fault that the book does not go into the political situation in Mexico that deeply. They might even accuse Kuper of exoticizing indigenous Mexicans. But Peter never pretends to speak for the locals or to be an expert on their issues. Kuper does not try to go beyond the subjective point of view of his tourist protagonists. I think this is a good and honest decision.
The mission of our generation of cartoonists has been to elevate the comic book medium; to take this “children’s toy” and make art with it. That’s a complicated project because art is a little word that covers a vast territory. It is not only Edvard Munch and Diamanda Galas, but Norman Rockwell, Paul Gaugin, Peter Max and the Beatles. There is more than one type of art. ‘Ruins’ is not an austere modernist exploration of the medium tied to important historic events like Art Spiegelman’s ‘Maus’. It is not an introspective examination of the drudgery of everyday life, like the work of Harvey Pekar, nor is it hard-hitting on-the-ground comics journalism like Joe Sacco’s.
Peter has tried on all of those hats but in ‘Ruins’, he speaks with a voice that is uniquely his own. ‘Ruins’ tells us that nature is endangered but it is also beautiful, that indigenous people are oppressed but their culture is beautiful, that creativity is hard to achieve but its results are beautiful: that life itself is short but also beautiful. Have I said the word beautiful enough times? THIS BOOK IS FUCKING BEAUTIFUL!
It is an affirmation of life in the face of death. It will warm you up in a cold day. ‘Ruins’ is anything but. Buzz and Ginger would be proud of Peter, and so am I.
Today marks the centennial of the beginning of World War I. For those looking to comics for a quick and easy fix to explain how WWI started, there is indeed a comic for that. But for those looking to take advantage of the medium’s great ability to disseminate a deeper understanding of the conflict’s human impact, there are some exceptional titles available this year. These include anthologies like Above the Dreamless Dead and To End All Wars, as well as re-releases of classics like Charley’s War and It Was a War of the Trenches, to name a few.
Today we’re taking a look at Above the Dreamless Dead (First Second, 2014), an anthology of comics written and drawn to WWI poetry and song. Contributions are made by Peter Kuper, Garth Ennis, Sarah Glidden, Hunt Emerson, Eddie Campbell, and many more.
The space between a human being, their pen, and a piece of paper is a place not for patriotism any more than any other compulsory thought. In a time when you could have been arrested for resisting a war that saw thousands die for every mile of ground gained, poetry gave precious creative room for soldiers and non-combatants alike to process the trauma and stress of a life at war. Counting the years both during and after the conflict (1914-1918), World War I poetry, has grown to become a huge body of literary work. It is within this section of 20th century literature that dozens of comics creators have put together a creative and aesthetically varied collection for Above the Dreamless Dead.
Soldier songs, like those illustrated by British cartoonist Hunt Emerson, satirize and make light of the harsh everyday of the soldier–whereas Eddie Campbell’s piece, illustrating an episode of Patrick MacGill’s “The Great Push”, plunges head-first into the darkest corners of the human soul. Still others transcend the ultimately subjective spectrum of human emotion, and attempt to seek solace in the naturalist truth that regardless of man’s follies, the earth will continue to be as it always has.
Within the larger category of WWI poetry is the subcategory of trench poetry. Noteworthy space is given to the most well-known of these poets, namely Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg and Siegfried Sassoon. Bearing witness to some of the most hellish of situations imaginable, trench poetry takes the reader to another world of blood, mud, and pain, at one both impending and uncertain. The stress induced by the battlefield lent itself well to art, where soldiers could perhaps hold on to their sanity by airing their demons.
In Isaac Rosenberg’s “The Immortals“, adapted here by Peter Kuper, we get a real taste of the fear and paranoia of the gunner who is tasked to shoot at an enemy that seems immune to death. The feeling of this unending hoard of soldiers leads Rosenberg to feel that he is fighting not a massive army, but the same undying soldiers over and over again.
The aesthetic diversity of the art presented in Above the Dreamless Dead is a reminder that WWI poetry is in fact a huge genre–and one that the book doesn’t even illustrated to its fullest, in my opinion. Above the Dreamless Dead focuses mostly on the poets proper of the era, and in doing so missed an opportunity to take a critical look at the growing argument for sexual and racial diversity of World War I poetry.
Focusing on young white men in documenting the First World War is obviously the norm, whether you’re interested in comics, poetry, or history in general. But historian Dr. Santanu Das (King’s College, London) states that our understanding of the war’s poetry is changing as we come to recognize the diversity of the work written at the time and on the subject. “Today, no serious anthologist can ignore the poetry of non-combatants, civilians or women, such as the poetry of Thomas Hardy, or Rudyard Kipling, or Margeret Postgate Cole.” Note that neither Thomas Hardy nor Rudyard Kipling were enlisted, let alone combatants, yet they both appear in this anthology. Margaret Postgate Cole, a wonderful poet, was not, although it is arguable that she was more personally affected by the war as a socialist and activist (her brother was jailed for refusing military orders, after his application for CO status was rejected).
Das continues, “We also must move beyond Europe, because there was war poetry being written in Turkey, India, and Eastern Europe. We cannot just limit ourselves to a narrow, Anglo-centric definition of First World War poetry. We should embed First World War literary memory in a more multiracial framework by investigating, recovering, and translating First World War poetry that’s being written often in non-European languages.” Suffice to say that there is no poetry here from a non-white or non-English-speaking perspective, in addition to there being no women poets.
This criticism could surely be echoed for most graphic interpretations of World War I, but it is a point worth noting from the perspective of our mandate (see Harlem Hellfighters below, for the ONE exception to this rule that we could find!). As 2014 invites us to meditate on the “War to End All Wars” we encourage our readers to keep a lookout for examples, comics or otherwise, of marginalized perspectives/histories of the World War I.
We hope that you pick up and enjoy your own copy of Above the Dreamless Dead, or any of the other WWI titles following!
World War I in Comics: A Reading List
Title: Above the Dreamless Dead: World War I in Poetry and Comics Poets: Rupert Brooke, Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, Robert Graves, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Francis Edward Ledwidge, Patrick MacGill, Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Siegried Sassoon, Osbert Sitwell, Charles Sorley, Edward Thomas
Creators: Eddie Campbell, Sarah Glidden, Garth Ennis, Simon Gane, Luke Pearson, Hunt Emerson, Sammy Harkham, Kevin Huizenga, Peter Kuper, Isabel Greenberg, George Pratt, Hannah Berry, Phil Winslade, Stephen R. Bissette, Kathryn & Stuart Immonen, Lilli Carré, Pat Mills, David Hitchcock, Liesbeth de Stercke, Danica Novgorodoff, James Lloyd, Carol Tyler, and Anders Nilson Edited by: Chris Duffy Published: 2014 by First Second Dimensions: 21.7 x 15.9 x 1.7 cm, 144 pages Purchase: Ad Astra Online Store
Title: The Great War Creator: Joe Sacco Published: 2013 by WW Norton Dimensions: 21.8 x 29 x 3 cm, 54 pages Purchase: Ad Astra Online Store
Launched on July 1, 1916, the Battle of the Somme has come to epitomize the madness of the First World War. Almost 20,000 British soldiers were killed and another 40,000 were wounded that first day, and there were more than one million casualties by the time the offensive halted. In The Great War, acclaimed cartoon journalist Joe Sacco depicts the events of that day in an extraordinary, 24-foot- long panorama: from General Douglas Haig and the massive artillery positions behind the trench lines to the legions of soldiers going over the top and getting cut down in no-man s-land, to the tens of thousands of wounded soldiers retreating and the dead being buried en masse. Printed on fine accordion-fold paper and packaged in a deluxe slipcase with a 16-page booklet, The Great War is a landmark in Sacco s illustrious career and allows us to see the War to End All Wars as we’ve never seen it before.”
Title: The Harlem Hellfighters Author: Max Books Illustrator: Caanan White Published: 2014 by Broadway Books Dimensions: 23.5 x 15.5 x 1.6 cm, 272 pages Purchase: Ad Astra Online Store
In 1919, the 369th infantry regiment marched home triumphantly from World War I. They had spent more time in combat than any other American unit, never losing a foot of ground to the enemy, or a man to capture, and winning countless decorations. Though they returned as heroes, this African American unit faced tremendous discrimination, including from their own government.
Title: To End All Wars : The Graphic Anthology of The Great War Creators: Brick, Jonathan Clode, Michael Crouch, Steven Martin, Sean Michael Wilson, John Stuart Clark, Ian Douglas, Petri Hänninen, Bex Burgess, Stuart Richards, Lotte Grünseid, Chris Colley, Lex Wilson, Susan Wallace, Dan Hill, Faye Turner, Joe Gordon, Russell Wall and James Guy, Colm Regan, Andrew Luke, Sean Fahey, Pippa Hennessey, Steve Earles, Gary and Warren Pleece, and Selina Lock. Edited by: John Stuart Clark and Jonathan Clode Published: 2014 by Soaring Penguin Press Dimensions: 26 x 17 x 2.5 cm, 320 pages Purchase: from their blog!
An omnibus of 27 short graphic narratives based on actual events, characters, circumstances, incidents, myths or consequences of the Great War WWI. £2 for every copy of this publication sold will be donated to Medecin Sans Frontieres. Featuring the four theatres of war (land, sea, air and the home front), spanning four continents and drawn from both sides of the conflict, the stories range from 4 to 16 pages, each by a different author and/or illustrator from the world of independent comics.
Title: Charley’s War Author: Pat Mills Illustrator: Joe Colquhoun Published: August, 2014 by Titan Books Dimensions: 26.8 x 20 x 2.4 cm, 320 pages Purchase: Through a few places on Seven Penny Nightmare
Arguably the most well-known WWI comic of all time. From renowned UK comics writer Pat Mills and legendary artist Joe Colquhoun comes a truly classic piece of British comics history, by turns thrilling, humorous and horrifying. From its initial publishing in the 1970s and 80s, it was widely considered to be anti-war.
Title: Line of Fire: Diary of an Unknown Soldier August – September 1914 Illustrated by: Barroux Translated by:Sarah Ardizzone Published: 2014 by Phoenix Yard Books Dimensions: 25 x 18.2 x 1 cm, 96 pages Purchase: Available soon!
One winter morning, Barroux was walking down a street in Paris when he made an incredible discovery: the real diary of a soldier from the First World War. Barroux rescued the diary from a rubbish heap and illustrated the soldier’s words. We don’t know who the soldier is or what became of him. We just have his words, and in his own words and Barroux’s extraordinary pictures
Title: Tardi’s WWI: It Was The War Of The Trenches/Goddamn This War! Illustrated by: Barroux Translated by:Sarah Ardizzone Published: 2014 by Phoenix Yard Books Dimensions: 25 x 18.2 x 1 cm, 96 pages Purchase: Available soon!
Jacques Tardi is responsible for two acknowledged graphic novel masterpieces about World War I: It Was the War of the Trenches and Goddamn This War! To honor the 100th anniversary in 2014 of WWI, Fantagraphics has now released a two-volume boxed set collecting these two perennial classics. The first book, It Was the War of the Trenches, focuses on the day to day of the grunts in the trenches, bringing that existence alive as no one has before or since with some of his most stunning artwork. His second WWI masterwork, Goddamn This War!, is told with a sustained sense of outrage, pitch-black gallows humor, and impeccably scrupulous historical exactitude, in masterful full color.
Title: Trenches Creator: Scott Mills Published: 2002 by Top Shelf Productions Dimensions: 21.1 x 17.5 x 1 cm, 176 pages Purchase: Ad Astra Online Store When Lloyd and David Allenby arrive in the trenches of the Western Front, they have no idea of the misery and violence that awaits them. Can an aloof Major be the father figure and guiding force in their desperate battle for survival? Or will the estranged brothers be swallowed up before they can come to terms with each other, trapped in the clutches of the Great War? Trenches is about the beautiful stories that come out of dark times.
Title: The Ghosts of Passchendaele Creator: Ivan Petrus For more info: Check out his website!
Launched in 2014, this is the third book of a graphic novel trilogy by Ivan Petrus featuring Belgian, British and French soldiers and their true stories from the First World War. Painted in bold, dark, muddy colours, his art powerfully invokes the iconic post-war Passchendaele landscape. Petrus said: “My first graphic novel was about Nieuport, my second about Furnes and Pervyse, so the battle of Ypres in 1917 at Passchendaele was the next logical step. It was an iconic battle for the British and Anzacs troops. Plus, 1917 was the wettest year imaginable. Passchendaele is all about courage and fighting spirit – in deep mud.”
“Clearly New York was a dangerous place where terrible things could happen, but also a place that could turn ordinary people into superheroes.”
Kuper’s recently published work is building on the available literature making an argument for “graphic biographies” – not for people, but for places. Cities. Something attracts us to these massive collections of social activity that take on a life and personality all their own, and actually change us in the process. Radical artist (and former New Yorker) Eric Drooker postulates in the beginning of the book that people move to NYC as much to find careers and connections as they come to find themselves. Drawn to New York is a dedication to that power.
The book is a mash-up of a few different categories of work. There’s an intimacy in the quick sketches that are clearly drawn in the moment, on the subway, in cafes, (which conversely make you feel as close as you can be to that original scene, while also conveying that this book is really allowing you to peruse someone’s private journal/sketchbook –which is just the best thing in the world). As you peruse these pages, your eyes taking in a mesmerizing quantity of geometric shapes (so many right angles, so many windows!), a section of sketches will be punctuated with a longer piece of sequential art that tells a short story. As you read, the work more or less gets better and better; I can only assume this is because it is ordered chronologically, but I’m not sure.
The power of Kuper as a “New York artist” really shines in his highly-detailed stencil comics (made with multiple layers of stencils and spray paint), like the collection of New Yorker facial expressions, or his 2am trip to the top of the Brooklyn Bridge, or his commentaries on gentrification and crime.
Beyond the actual aesthetic of his work, the variety of perspective here is pretty broad, and is perhaps a part of Kuper himself being a New Yorker and an outsider (he’s originally from Cleveland–which oddly enough, has its own amazing graphic biography by Harvey Pekar.) His work goes from feeling like a love letter to an observation by an anthropologist of a place that is completely his “other”.
Towards the end his work has gotten pretty sophisticated, with pieces of comics journalism coming in about major NYC events, like his strip, “The Wall”. This piece, and every other, seems set in its conveyance that this great city is great for the same reasons it is so unstable: it is constantly in movement.
Or in Kuper’s words:
“This city is change. That’s its glory – it’s a perpetually unfinished canvas, offering up possibility to each successive wave of artists.”
A showcase of city and artist, with an interesting interplay between the two. That is, Peter Kuper is now, undeniably, a “New York artist”… the city shaped him. And in return, Kuper continues to pay tribute by making art that adds to the city’s ever-evolving mythos.
For more information about Peter Kuper, check out Peter’s book page in the PM Press store site.
Full Book Information:
Title: “Drawn to New York: An Illustrated Chronicle of Three Decades in New York City” Artist: Peter Kuper Introduction: Eric Drooker Published: May 2013 by PM Press Format: Hardcover only at this time Size: 10.5 by 8 Page count: 208 Pages Subjects: Art-Illustration, History-New York City, Regional-New York City List Price: $29.95
World War 3 is America’s longest-running radical comics anthology. While I’ve never reviewed an issue for Ad Astra, a lot of radical comic artists (including those I’ve featured here) have graced their pages. This issue took on the idea of “the other” – when ideas and people are perceived as alien, even opposite or in conflict with the given norm.
Issue #44 includes:
“Alien Europe” by Ganzeer – An exploration of cultural differences across time and space. This appears to be based on a lecture, or perhaps just a thought process of the author, but he shows how all culture is, in short, a homogenization of converging cultures.
“Single Lens Reflex” by Sandy Jimenez – Autobiographical piece about gentrification, photography, and class dynamics in artistic interpretation. That description makes it sound stuffy and academic, but it is extremely personal and heartfelt. I think this is an amazing story that is told very well. Sandy Jimenez has a great understanding of memoir narrative–looking back on a feeling that he had over a period of years and identifying how it developed, how he came to understand and overcome it, and what remains. A gem – one of my favourite contributions to the issue.
“Kemba Smith” by Sabrina Jones and Marc Mauer – part of a larger book called Race to Incarcerate: A Graphic Retelling about the U.S. prison system (available as of April 2013 from The New Press). “Kemba Smith” tells the story of a 24 year old college student with no previous record, who was sentenced to 24 years in prison for her connection to her drug-dealing boyfriend.
“Charest, Dehors! Inside Quebec, Out in the Streets” – by Jesse Staniforth and Dan Buller. Great personal account of the massive student protests in Quebec – a story that we’ve yet to fully unravel and appreciate in the rest of Canada/North America in general. Great illustrations from Dan Buller, mostly from photographs from the protests, accompanied with reproductions of some of the protest/street art that appeared over the course of the action.
“Baddawi” – A comic memoir by Palestinian American comic artist Leila Abdul Razzaq, who has illustrated her family history from Israel’s 1948 ethnic cleansing campaign, to her father living as a child in a refugee camp, to her own modern-day self. Making her debut in this issue of WW3, Razzaq focuses on her family, showing how her grandmother survived Al Naqba at the age of 17, and how her father became the most successful marble tycoon of their family’s refugee camp.
Further notes: Razzaq’s style is very simple. My first impression was that it reminded me of Satrapi’s Persepolis for its simple line work and good use of contrast. But on further inspection I see some interesting and original details–garments with designs that are distinctly Palestinian, imagery of invading soldiers coming out of the ocean. I think Razzaq probably faced/faces the challenge of having content in her stories that is so powerful, it can overshadow or overpower her artwork. It’s a good challenge, and I can’t wait to see how her work develops and evolves with her storytelling.
“A Real Hero” by Tom Keough – A personal memory of the artist and two friends sticking up for a man who was getting beaten to death by a group of men in the street.
“One Rainy Night” – Peter Kuper’s enactment of a conversation with a once-rich and beautiful woman. This one-page piece is part of a larger body of work entitled, Drawn to New York: An Illustrated Chronicle of Three Decades in New York City.
“One City, One People, One Planet” – The legendary Seth Tobocman makes some inspiring observations about the human response to Hurricane Sandy.
“Nap Before Noon” by Barrack Rima – translated from Arabic and read right-to-left, tells the story of the authors first trek into Europe as an immigrant.