Comic Artist Remembers, Sort of

Peter Kuper’s Saga of Life’s Vicissitudes

By Paul Buhle

Published July 18, 2007, issue of July 20, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Stop Forgetting To Remember: The Autobiography of Walter Kurtz
By Peter Kuper
Crown, 208 pages, $19.95.

Every Forward reader, it is safe to say, knows Ben Katchor’s work, and almost as many would recognize the contributions of Art Spiegelman. Since the 2000 publication of Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” the in-house story of Jewish predominance in the comic book trade has become part of literary folklore. The rise of comic art to respectability has brought new interest toward what should be considered an artistic genre all of itself, with veteran artist Peter Kuper smack dab in the Jewish American corner.

The Kuper story might logically begin with Mad comics (1952-55) and with Mad magazine, the most successful satirical publication in the history of the English language, because Kuper has taken over the “Spy vs. Spy” page in recent years and is widely considered the magazine’s star contributor. Or it could start with Harvey Pekar, because Cleveland homeboy Kuper met R. Crumb through Pekar and found encouragement to launch his comics career with a fanzine. In my own view, the Bay Area locus of “Underground Comix” during the 1970s diminished the generally high proportion of Jewish artists even while breaking down every barrier of censorship. Kuper’s immigration to Manhattan in 1977 coincidentally marked a renewal of sorts. Comics had come home to their Jewishness, even if no one was eager to put it that way.

Kuper is on the leftward edge of social observation, for sure. A founder (with Seth Tobocman) of the political ’zine World War 3 Illustrated, he has been very focused on exposing ecological devastation, war profiteers and Republicans in general, very much in sympathy with the poor and the plight of our endangered planet. But Kuper fits no categories easily, and it would be better to say that he is a wildly inventive artist with talent to burn. Like comic art at large, he has hovered at the edges of mainstream critical admiration and best-seller status for decades. Now, perhaps, these are finally in sight.

Kuper has done some of his most fascinating work in color, notably a full-color adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” and a series of remarkable children’s books (the most recent, “Theo and the Blue Note,” Saga explains jazz through color patterns more than through storyline). “Stop Forgetting To Remember,” his new book, qualifies as semi-colored, with sepia leaking into scatterings of pages, then disappearing again, defining time shifts, moods and fantasies. The art is such a combination of standard comic styles and artistic variations that the short-attention-span reader may find his eyes absorbed onto individual pages and panels beyond the story. Yet the story’s the thing.

Somewhat transparently the artist’s own experiences, though subtitled “the autobiography of Walter Kurtz” (a small, simultaneous homage to Walt Disney and to Harvey Kurtzman, founder of Mad comics), it’s a saga of life’s vicissitudes. Looking to a Cleveland adolescence of the ’70s, Kuper finds his protagonist rocked and rolled through a familiar path of too many drugs and too little sex. Here we find many pages of embarrassing memories, a seemingly shallow soul bared (one who urgently wishes to bare more). The artist, as an adult, hovers over it all, and his candid observations on his teen self seem right on the button.

The story’s chronological sequence shifts to New York and back to Cleveland then back to New York again, then to an unhappy love affair and finally, a happy marriage. All the while, we are reminded that if we never really leave behind our embarrassing moments, we can nevertheless move beyond them. As fatherhood approaches, Kurtz enters another land, including a dream world that offers us a different dimension of Kuper’s imagination. He’s a grown-up, the husband of a very pregnant (and loving) woman and then the father of a child whose needs conflict violently with his dad’s vision of artistic self-fulfillment and, more specifically, the completion of a graphic novel. But now he’s also afraid of global violence not only for himself, the endangered flora and fauna, but also on behalf of the life ahead for one very special member of a new generation.

He hasn’t lost the sharp edge of his politics, including the psychological impact of the September 11 attacks, and the death-dealing powers of otherwise uninteresting personalities. In “Richie Bush,” George W. Bush is portrayed as a spoiled child toying with the world, a send-up of Richie Rich, a popular mainstream comic that Kuper actually inked when he first arrived in New York. In passing, Kuper also shines a light upon his truly unique childhood memories, including a pretty happy year in Israeli schools. It’s a full life shared with readers in this remarkable volume, constituting an accomplishment that readers are invited to share, however vicariously, and are likely to admire without reservation.

Paul Buhle, who teaches at Brown University, is editor of the three-volume encyclopedia “Jews and American Popular Culture” and of a comic art biography of Emma Goldman, titled “A Dangerous Woman,” by artist Sharon Rudahl, scheduled to be published in September by The New Press.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah: http://jd.fo/g4SIa
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.