Peter Kuper may not have as much name recognition as fellow Cleveland-bred comics R. Crumb and Harvey Pekar, but he’s got plenty of what the suits call “market penetration.” Kuper has run a political comic called World War III for two decades, drawn “Spy v. Spy” for Mad magazine for eleven years, and illustrated articles for Time and The New Yorker. He spoke with Boris Kachka about the “graphic memoir” explosion and what he calls his “auto-lie-ography,” Stop Forgetting to Remember. We’ve also got an excerpt, below!
So haven’t you already published a memoir-style retrospective of your work?
Well, that came out in ‘95, but it was back in the days when you couldn’t get a book into bookstores. I figured with this new enthusiasm that this material was pretty fresh.
I guess by “enthusiasm,” you mean the mainstreaming of comics. That’s a good thing, right?
I’m glad it happened in my lifetime. There are so many people who didn’t get to see much of this. I think it’s going to encourage more people to see it as a career option, whereas before it was an obsession.
You don’t resent those youngsters just a little bit?
Yeah, they’ll never know all the years we spent licking the highway to make our way up to this point. There is a certain obsessiveness that drew people in regardless of what it meant in terms of money that maybe puts a certain degree of oomph into the work. But I’m more than happy if you don’t have to be destitute in order to make comics.
Still, Art Spiegelman couldn’t get his 9/11 comic published until you ran it in World War III.
Suddenly a lot of things weren’t possible to talk about in mainstream publishing, and that extended to somebody like Spiegelman, with his Pulitzer. In that moment, the importance of that alternative media was really clear to me. One of my first coherent thoughts after 9/11 was, “Okay, time to work on an issue of World War III.”
What is it about Cleveland and comics?
Some kind of new fluoride they had in the water? It’s a halfway house. It’s got museums and an orchestra, and it’s pretty close to New York. And you have the suburban experience. Also a lot of Jews and a lot of liberals, and comics and Jews, I don’t know what happened there. Crumb is not Jewish, but everything about his work is.
You wrote about almost subtitling this memoir “Very Little Sex, Way Too Many Drugs, and Rock ’n’ Roll.” Why the many pages spent on your teen desperation for sex?
Sex in general occupies a great portion of the human brain; it was pretty critical in my general development. Sex is right up there with my hatred of George Bush. Maybe even surpasses it.
You’ve said before you turn down a lot of lucrative illustration work. Can you offer an example?
There was a tampon ad that I passed on — they wanted me to do some collage using tampons.
But you were once a sidewalk sketch artist in New York — specializing in animal caricatures. Meet anyone interesting?
Not especially. I did learn very quickly that people wanted themselves drawn as lions and an occasional bird — something highly flattering. The first time I drew anybody as a pig, it was all over. It was a short-lived career.
Courtesy of Random House