Today’s Guest: Peter Kuper, artist, Stop Forgetting to Remember
I think the reason that many people who never read comic books find themselves drawn to graphic novels isn’t because they come in hard cover or because they cost more or because they’re hip at the moment.
I think it’s because we’re more likely to find little pieces of ourselves in the stories, which are often more autobiographical than Spider-Man or Green Lantern could ever be.
At least that’s the thought I kept returning to as I read through Peter Kuper’s latest graphic novel, Stop Forgetting to Remember.
The youthful sexual frustration, the aimlessness, the side comments to no one in particular, the social doubts, the eagerness/anxiety over fatherhood, the pain of maintaining an adult friendship — there were so many things that could have been ripped from my own life that I couldn’t put the book down.
Kuper, whose previous graphic novels include Sticks and Stones, The System, and an adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, is perhaps most widely recognized as the artist behind Mad magazine’s legendary “Spy vs. Spy” these days. And his strip The Virgin was optioned by HBO as well as actor Forrest Whitaker’s production company.
BOB ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: Peter, your book is technically the autobiography of Walter Kurtz, but where does he end and you begin?
PETER KUPER: They sort of segway into one another. I think of it as being an auto-lie-ography. It gave me enough room to when I wanted to change the story and have whatever happen serve the story instead of being stuck with the facts if it were an absolute auto-memoir, but it gets very blurry, and I recognized much of myself in him, and we joined together in our coming of middle age story.
ANDELMAN: What would be an example of a Peter Kuper fact or a Walter exaggeration?
KUPER: Well, I have a friend in Missouri who I meet during the story, and he is another father, and in reality, it’s somebody I knew for a while, and I gave him all the lines that I would have wanted to say but then overlaid his personality on it. I keep the characters narrow so I wouldn’t keep adding on new characters. I might fuse two people together into one. Generally speaking, he and I share a great deal in common, including birthdays.
ANDELMAN: And what about on the family side? You have your parents there early on and then your wife and daughter.
KUPER: It’s all pretty much, all those things sort of line up, and at one point, I was having a fight with my wife, and I had just come back from at my studio working on that section of the book where I was drawing a fight with my wife — it would be Walter’s wife — and I thought, wow, the dialogue is perfect. I got it exactly right. I was having that dual thought while I felt like I was Walter and myself simultaneously with my stand-in wife, Sandra, and my real wife, Betty.
ANDELMAN: And what does your real wife think of being portrayed in the book?
KUPER: She gets final edit on her panels, so there were the occasions where she said, “You made me too fat here.” I said, “I’m trying to demonstrate that there’s a…” Okay, I’ll make you thinner. But overall, she gave me the big thumbs up, as did many of my friends, although I did find in the end I had friends who were angry with me for not putting them in the book and friends who were angry with me for putting them in the book, so I figured I must be doing something right.
ANDELMAN: Now, your wife also had the opportunity to put up a hand at one point when you are in the bedroom and said, “No, no.”
KUPER: That’s the edit on the panels.
ANDELMAN: Okay. Now, did you put that in, or did she suggest that you put that in?
KUPER: No. If it’s in there…. No, she didn’t pressure me per se. It was more like my general knowledge of what would pass with her, and I figured that was the line that she wouldn’t want me to cross, which is, demonstrating various sexual positions.
ANDELMAN: Monday through Sunday.
KUPER: That I can do with… Old girlfriends, it’s a different story, but the one I’m still married to, little different.
ANDELMAN: I see, I see. And what about your daughter? You have a daughter, I assume?
KUPER: I do. There was the difficulty of having what I could show her in the book because it does get into some territory I don’t want her to see. She was nine when I was working on the book, so I could show her sections that she appeared in. She had sort of a general idea of what’s going on there. But curiously, as I was working on the story, certain events took place that I was able to fold into the story, and it helped me figure out parts of it. For example, at one point, I went to kiss her, and she didn’t want me to kiss her goodbye. That was a perfect, emblematic moment in time, and it happened right when I was coming up on that part of the book where I would be looking for something that demonstrated how she’s growing up. That actually happened, also, when I was working on the wordless book, Sticks and Stones, because I was looking for something that would be a connector between a mother and son, and at that moment in time, my daughter was learning how to whistle. I was like, “Ah, there you go, that’ll work perfectly.” So occasionally, these things kind of line up and offer up the next step in the story that you’re trying to figure out.
ANDELMAN: How old is your daughter now?
KUPER: She’s ten.
ANDELMAN: Oh, okay, so this doesn’t go back that far.
KUPER: No, no, I was working on it right up until the time that we… Well, I was working on it even down here in Mexico, where I’m speaking to you from.
ANDELMAN: Okay. Well, this is where I was confused. How long did this book take you to produce?
KUPER: The earliest stories in there I did as far back as 13 years ago, and I had started on different parts of this at different points in time, but I certainly didn’t work on it non-stop for 13 years. I worked on it very, like my hard drive to finish the book took about a year and a half, but I had been working on sections of it over the years, and then as it came together, then I used parts of different stories that I had done before that all folded into a bigger picture.
ANDELMAN: I wanted to get a sense of that, because I finished reading the book, and I thought, this must have been done over a period of years. It seemed like early on that the narrator is more present than he is later in the book.
KUPER: Uh-huh. It’s a story within a story, so I’m working on the graphic novel itself, and these jump-backs in the past, a lot of them were actually about as I was coming up on parenthood. There’s kind of a line in the book where I go from not being a parent to having a kid, and in that first part of the book, there is a lot more of that memory and going back and looking at the past experiences trying to lose my virginity, various drug experiences, and bad old relationships. That slows down after I have the child. I’m not doing as much reflecting on my whole life there as dealing with having a child.
ANDELMAN: And it also seemed, in terms of the art, it seemed a little less frenetic as things wore on. It was fascinating in the early part of the book, that pre-marriage, pre-child part where there was so much going on. It seems like there was so much packed into all the panels, but part of that, of course, is the drug use relationship and…
KUPER: I was addled at the time.
ANDELMAN: Yeah. And the pursuit of sex because you’re saying one thing, you’re thinking another thing, and a third thing is happening. It was really interesting. Do you feel any hesitation at revealing so much of yourself?
KUPER: Absolutely. That’s part of why I have an alter-ego there. It’s for deniability purposes. Some of it is that once you kind of put your toe in the water, I mean at least in my experience, progressively it kind of started opening new doors, and that would lead to something else that was another step in being revealing. Once I kind of got far enough in there, then I felt less inhibited about doing that. I just find that I’m sort of trying to get at some kind of truth, whatever that is, and that the more I do something where I feel like, oh, this is so embarrassing and do I really want to go here, I think the odds are pretty good that I’m in the right territory for stumbling upon something that has some value to it.
And what’s also kind of curious is that when people have seen these stories, things that I think of as being most private and embarrassing and I was the only person this happened to, are the ones that invariably turn out to be universals, where many people say, “Oh yeah, that’s exactly what happened to me. Yeah, I lied about saying I wasn’t a virgin any more,” or a million things. But that’s part of the idea, getting at this kind of truth that I feel there is so much covered up and not talked about that it’s a way that you can make stories like this have some actual import, be useful beyond just doing it for myself.
ANDELMAN: What can I say about it without giving it away, the section with Walter, your alter-ego, and Vickie and Keith? That came to a conclusion that I did not see coming. I don’t want to give that away, because I really think people should read that and not see that coming, but if that was even close to reality, that was an extremely close…
KUPER: Close encounter of the third kind.
ANDELMAN: Close encounter, yeah. I mean, that was different. Did that one give you any pause in terms of sharing that? You could have skipped over that part had you chosen to.
KUPER: Yeah, absolutely. Lots of pause, lots of shaking, nervousness, like what’s going to happen, why have I done this? I generally think that the artist has no idea, and you see explanations for why people do things and that they’re explanations, but they don’t necessarily cover it all. And there’s a lot of things that I’ve done with the stories or certain stories that I’m telling that I’m not wholly sure why I’m letting loose on something. On the other hand, there’s a lot of great guideposts and people who’ve been influences, like R. Crumb, who sort of represents the “let it all hang out and take your chances with that.” And you know, relative to some of the things that he talks about, I’m just putting my toe in the water. But it was this kind of, I have these stories that I’m interested in telling, and they have so many different facets to them that I just thought, “That would just make such a good story. Why would I not want to tell it?” And now when the book comes out, then I’ll see what the payoff actually is, as I’m chased down the street by a crowd.
ANDELMAN: I was going to ask you about Crumb, because I was thinking that when he does these stories, it’s just him in the stories. There is no alter-ego directly. So I was going to ask you about that. Why do the alter-ego thing? And I noticed that even your press picture is half Walter, half you. I love that.
KUPER: Right. Like I said, well, deniability being the first one, but the second one was, there was something about not having it be specifically me where I felt like I had a certain degree of freedom to step away from myself and look at myself as a character, first of all. But also look at the stories and experiences and make them work best as a story and not have the reality impinge on how I would do that. If I wanted to make alterations, there was just a certain degree of freedom in that. If I said it was straight up me and it was an autobiography, then I could go the James Frey route and do A Million Little Pieces and make it up as I go along and call it a memoir, or I could just sort of say, “I’m going to make up where I want to,” you don’t know where the line begins and ends, and there was a lot of freedom in that. But the fact is, the real details are much more interesting than anything I can make up, and so for the most part, I can do what happened, because that gives it a certain richness. What do they say, God or the devil’s in the details, and that was certainly true in making these stories.
ANDELMAN: One of the big turning points in the book, aside from when you finally get laid, is 9/11. You apparently are not a big George Bush supporter I think is a general concept I can share with the people reading this or listening.
KUPER: It would be fair to say that, yes.
ANDELMAN: Does that go back to day one of the administration, or was there something particular that turned you off?
KUPER: I think it pre-dates the administration. I felt like George Bush, coming up on the election was a dangerous character, and I found it interesting that people thought, “Oh, well, he’s kind of dumb, and chances are fairly good that it’ll be kind of a slide-by administration.” And I already thought, “He seems potentially dangerous.” Certainly, Cheney seemed extremely dangerous with all his connections to Halliburton and all that, but yeah, it’s been a great source of concern and an incredible amount of good material having him as President, unfortunately.
ANDELMAN: Are you surprised by how much it influenced the kind of the second, well, maybe the last third or half of the book? I mean, there’s not that much political influence when you are a young man, nor is there just when you are actually a young person, but it really had an impact on the rest of the book, though.
KUPER: Yeah, that’s true. I mean, there were some references when Reagan is coming in. I’m lying there with my girlfriend and worrying about whether we’ll sleep together and whether she sees me as confident as she once did, and will Reagan be elected? That’s like the trifecta of concerns.
It’s a combination of things. Of course, getting older and being a parent, politics is less and less abstract. What politicians do and the impact it’s going to have on my life gets clearer and clearer as time goes by, but everything that was going on with the Bush administration and then, of course, 9/11 and all the events that passed in, the Iraq war and Katrina…. My intent with the book was also to be somewhat of a historical document, that it was going to cover 1995 to 2005 and that in reading that book, you could get an idea of what that time period was like. I tried to put that into the book, and of course, something like 9/11 living in New York City, that was a huge impact. The title of the book, Stop Forgetting to Remember, was in part about capturing how an event like 9/11 creates a frame of mind that can pass and be easily forgotten. My mental state and a lot of people’s mental state back then was ; “We’re just very close to the end now.” I didn’t want to buy a two-year membership on my Web site, because I figured, “Why spend the money now? I’ll just get a one-year membership, because I’ll be dead in a year.” Those kind of feelings and how they affected your day-to-day actions, then after a few years, having that immediate fear not be part of your thought process, it’s hard to remembering how that motivated you.
It is so easy to forget these different mental states from different time periods, from our youth, from when there’s a moment in time like 9/11, and so I was trying to capture that information and also parenting as part of that is the idea that you get so much information that you are having at the time of the experience, and then it sort of fades away, and you just sort of barely remember the poopy diapers and then the next thing you know, you are telling your kid not to do drugs, even though you may very well have done plenty. That’s another whole piece of the book is the idea that as you get older, there’s this tendency to reject your past. Like, you survived it, but your child never could. I’m trying to remind myself that that’s not true.
ANDELMAN: It’s that whole, yeah, you kids have it easy. I had to walk three miles in the snow….
KUPER: Because we licked gravel every night, and my dad beat me about the face and neck….
ANDELMAN: I slept on the floor, and it was a real floor, it was earth. We didn’t have blankets or fancy sheets.
KUPER: Or food or water.
ANDELMAN: Yeah, we had nothing. I don’t know why I’m even here. Do you worry about the society that your daughter is going to inherit now? Literally, does it give you nightmares, or is it just a waking concern?
KUPER: Yeah, unfortunately, it’s a waking concern, and then I go to sleep into the nightmares, my perpetual, recurring end-of-the-world nuclear bomb dream that I’ve had since I was about eight when I first saw the movie Fail-Safe and realized that there was this thing out there that could just blow up, and that would be that. Yeah, I’m very concerned.
We moved to Mexico for, well, it was going to be a year, but it’s now extended to two years, and in part just to get a little breather and in part to have really condensed time with our daughter. The time is just going to slip away, which it does no matter what, but getting a little distance from Bushworld and the United States was part of that idea. Of course, ironically, we arrived in Mexico just as there was an election where it was suspect and there was an exploding political situation here in Oaxaca, where there was a teachers’ strike which lasted for six months, and people were getting killed, including an American journalist, Brad Will. And so I left the calm of the United States for the intensity of Oaxaca’s political exploding situation and concluded, you know, you can’t really go anywhere away from these things per se and also that it is all one world, after all. And also that I’m not looking for a quiet, sipping tea in the back yard watching the grass grow, I’m looking to somehow participate and have an experience. So in a weird way, all the things that have gone on here in Mexico have been really very, very interesting and of course are leading toward the next graphic novel I’m doing.
ANDELMAN: A-ha! Is that why you are in Mexico?
KUPER: No. Again, it was really primarily so that our daughter would have the experience of a second language. When I was ten, my parents had a year sabbatical in Israel. Unfortunately, that was about the most useless language to learn. There was an old lady on the eighth floor that loved talking to me in Yiddish and Hebrew mixed together, but it wasn’t something I could use a lot, but it did give me a much broader world view to live in another country and realize all the different possibilities and how people behave that’s different than the United States and different cultures and all that.
ANDELMAN: And of course, that is in the book that you went to Israel, and your parents put you in an Israeli school to sink or swim, and you sank, I think.
KUPER: And I sank.
ANDELMAN: You mentioned a little while ago about how the world had changed. You do “Spy vs. Spy” for Mad. Now, in looking back at that, I remember that for years. I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s and “Spy vs. Spy,” of course, the origination of that is the whole Cold War thing. Doesn’t that seem like such a quaint concept now compared to what we lose sleep about at night now?
KUPER: Yeah, yeah. Although you know, with the Cuban missile crisis and whatnot, that was pretty close to the edge, too, but yeah, in a certain way, they are living in this Cold War world, although now, it’s called the “Lukewarm War,” but they still provide the opportunity to basically talk about the fact that the winner in the next strip is the loser. It’s sort of the yin-yang circular motion that takes place with them, not to give it too much freight, but that sort of still can exist in there, but it’s more “Itchy and Scratchy” than Kennedy and Kruschev at this point.
ANDELMAN: How long have you been doing it?
KUPER: Eleven years. They are about to come out with a new Spy Casebook that covers my first decade working on it, which I am absolutely shocked to look at the clock and realize it’s been that long.
ANDELMAN: Who did it immediately before you?
KUPER: There were a few other people. I think Bob Clark did some of them. They had a few different artists serving intermediary, but they basically were trying to do Antonio Prohias, the creator’s style, and when they asked me if I wanted to try out for it, it seemed to me they were looking for some possible alteration, and I certainly wasn’t going to be interested in doing it if I was just trying to mimic somebody else’s style. I gave it a shot with doing it in stencils, where I actually cut paper and used spray paint and then go back in with water color and all this mixed media. I thought, “If they want me to do this, if I’m going to do this, I should really in some way try to make it my own,” because it just felt a little late in my career to be subsuming into another style. And it worked out really beautifully. Happily, they were looking for that, and right maybe at the point that I might have sort of lost my wind, Mad went to color, which a lot of people probably don’t even know happened, and that gave me a whole range of possibilities of using color. Blood is red, and it just explodes there.
ANDELMAN: Is it cool to be doing something that is so legendary and iconic?
KUPER: Yeah, absolutely. Aside from the fact that I was a huge Mad fan, that was a major influence on the kind of work I ended up doing, the idea of humor and politics and laughing at pretty much everything.
In a lot of ways, it’s like a dialogue with my 10-year-old self, because when I do it, I do it thinking about there’s some kid that’s reading this, and the details that I put into it really mattered to me when I was a kid. Mad has that very much going is this idea that adults are putting all this energy into working on these things. They’ll put a little bone on the floor, and there’s something flying by in the background, all these details that you think, who’s making them do that? It’s just that desire to make it matter, make it like something that’s not just, well, it’s for kids, so you don’t have to really worry about those kinds of details, because they won’t notice. I always noticed those things when I was younger, and so now is my opportunity to basically continue that process, and that part of it is a real joy.
ANDELMAN: How does your work load split these days in terms of when you’re working on a graphic novel versus Mad? I’m assuming you’re still doing some newspaper and magazine illustrations.
KUPER: In Mexico, I’m working at about one-third speed. It just seems to do that to you, and the overhead is so much lower than New York City. You had to scramble just to keep up in New York, which I’m going to return to and very happily so, but “Spy vs. Spy” is two pages every month, which comes around at a rather alarming speed. I rarely get ahead and immediately have to come up with another one, so that takes about a week of my month. And then if I’m doing a graphic novel like Stop Forgetting, that was such an enormous amount of work to do. It’s 208 pages, and there was a lot of work half-toning it and adding a second color in, just lettering and everything, that I was working kind of around the clock on that whenever I had the opportunity for a year or a year and a half, and then in between those things, if an illustration job comes along, I’ll do that. Down here, I get periodic calls from different magazines, but generally, I can focus on “Spy vs. Spy.” I’m doing a lot of work in my sketch book here about what’s going on politically, which I then in turn am able to send out and I get magazines to run. It’s just a strange combination of cobbling together a living from doing things that I’m interested in doing. Overall, including “Spy vs. Spy,” it seems to be mostly the fun part of the spectrum.
ANDELMAN: As we close in on winding up here, what’s ahead? Is there another book in the pipeline? Is there any news on The Virgin, for example, or Richie Bush?
KUPER: Well, I’m formulating a follow-up of Stop Forgetting, which is going to be the same way that Stop Forgetting has a through story that covers 1995-2005 with going down all these other roads of past experience. This one is going to be about moving to Mexico and then go off on the side with experiences of travel, because I did lots of lots of travel, including eight months traveling around Africa and Southeast Asia with my wife and a lot of other trips to New Guinea. Those will all sort of figure into the sideline stories, but the idea of moving to another country, which where we stepped into this exploding political situation will be part of it, so that’s one of the things I’m formulating. And then I’ve just been keeping various sketch books and periodically sell something from that, like most recently I did a condom design that was a Mexican wrestler that somehow seemed appropriate.
ANDELMAN: Just want to make sure we hear that correctly, that is a condom design.
KUPER: You can find it on the Web. They are for sale, and it’s the “Lucha Libre,” which is the free, it’s like the big time wrestling, those wrestlers, there’s great masks, so my first condom is available now. That dovetails with doing strips about losing, attempting to lose your virginity, carrying condoms around in your wallet to the point where it’s like from the pre-Cambrian period.
ANDELMAN: That’s in the book. I was going to say, there’s a line in the book about looking for a condom. Seems strangely appropriate.