In Conversation with Peter Kuper
One of the best known American cartoonists, Kuper’s claim to fame is perhaps his incredible work on Spy vs Spy. And for the uninitiated, Kuper takes the time to explain the idea. “Spy vs Spy is a spy dressed in black with a very pointy nose, trying to kill a spy dressed in white with a very pointy nose. They kill each other every comic in complicated ways and return to do in each other again and again. It was created by a Cuban artist, named Antonio Prohias, in 1961 as a comment on the Cold War. It’s Ying vs. Yang, Hindus vs Muslims, War vs Peace. Futile destruction–everybody loses, but in the case of Spy vs Spy there are also laughs,” he ends.
Those who have wandered beyond the popular, know that his association with World War 3 is quite an epic in itself. An illustrated magazine that addressed political and social issues through comics, World War 3 was founded in 1979. Made up of a number of people from various backgrounds, genders and ideologies- all united by the idea of telling a story through comics.
In a world where digitization is rapidly overwhelming the print form, some believe that the art form of comics journalism is dying a slow, tragic death. In fact, social media has been witness to statements that actually point towards it being irrelevant even. But Kuper is not one of those pessimists.
ST: How would you introduce World War III to the uninitiated?
Peter Kuper (PK): World War 3 illustrated is a magazine that has been addressing political and social subjects through comics since it was founded in 1979. It is made up of a wide variety of people with different backgrounds, genders and ideologies with the unified idea of telling the story of our times through comics journalism, autobiography and creative fiction. The magazine represents the kind of society we’d like to see; a society driven not by profit, but by artistic expression towards a better understanding of our world and ourselves.
ST: Tell us about your inspirations, influences and muses.
PK: New York City has been a very inspiring environment for me. A subway ride can suggest an entire graphic novel (like my book The System). This inspiration can be found in any big city, but NYC has been the ultimate muse for me. I also find traveling to be an important way to reinvigorate my work ( and I’m certainly looking forward to drawing n Bangalore!) Traveling to new places is a way to refresh your senses. I love the process of discovery and almost a sense of being a new born when visiting a foreign country. Each environment affects the way I draw. The visuals on the streets, the smells, the sounds all get into my fingertips and are deciphered in my sketchbook. As for influences, there are too many to name–a million comics and writers and artists and film makers across the fields and disciplines. My single favorite work is Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times.
ST: How would you define your process of creation? And how would you define your style?
PK: I don’t have just one process, though when I do a comic or especially a longer graphic novel, I follow a consistent approach: I write a series of ideas, then in small “thumbnail” boxes that represent individual pages and two-page spreads of a comic with facing pages I detail what happens each page with a few words or dialogue. Then I repeat that , also in “thumbnail” drawings of what visually happens and consider where there will be a page turn and what I might show or keep the reader from seeing on each spread and work out pacing. Then I do a mini-booklet with larger but still rough sketches of the whole book so I can read through it and make sure the pacing works.Then I enlarge these to the size of the printed page and trace the rough drawings and make the tighter finished pencil drawings. Then I enlarge these on a photocopier and trace my final inked (and colored art) on better paper. That was probably more than you wanted to know…
Anyway I use this method for comics, but I also like to do art that is much freer form without such a tight approach. That is what I do in my sketchbook.My style changes depending upon the project. I’ve done may books in stencils and spray paint, many in scratchboard (a chalk covered paper that can be inked and scratched to look like wood cuts) and, well, whatever other material I get my hands on.My current project is pen and ink and watercolor. I’m less concerned with style that I am with getting bored/boring from repeating myself and doing work in the style that best serves the writing.
ST: How hard is it to create a comic- really?
PK: Oh, just the hardest art form perhaps ever. For an individual to create a really smart, compelling comic they have to be a writer, penciler, inker, letterer, colorist, designer.They have to know visual pacing, understand how to direct the reader’s eyes, know perspective and architecture, fashion and character design and hopefully have something to say that connects with readers.
Once they’re done they have to find a publisher or self publish and think about distribution and promotion. This is also likely not to earn the artist much money so they have to figure out how to do all this and put food on the table.Still I can’t think of an art form I’d rather be working in!
ST: How do you deal with creative barricades?
PK: I keep a sketchbook and there is always something to draw even if I’m not inspired.Sometimes you have to force yourself to draw even even if you’re not inspired in order to create a spark.
ST: How difficult is it to capture autobiographical, social and political issues in a comic?
PK: They say write what you know and we all have access to a world of experiences. That doesn’t mean everything we experience is worth committing to paper, but much of it can be, if you find a new way to express those experiences.This isn’t to say it is easy. Autobio can get into some very embarrassing areas if you are honest–though that is much better that being boring! The political is much harder since it is easy to become didactic, high-handed and dogmatic. Where the autobiographic and political meet can be the most interesting. Telling the story of a direct experience with a political subject can be both disarming, informative and more affective.