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.
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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.

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