Peter Kuper is a political illustrator who in 1980, with Seth Tobocman, established World War 3 Illustrated, a comics anthology. I first stumbled across the magazine on the dusty library shelves of 56a Infoshop in south London and was blown away by the quality and power of the artwork. Peter Kuper’s distinct graphic style was always a joy to witness as was his method of exploring politics through his own personal life rather than relying on ‘famous’ people, or politicians, to drive the story. His real strength though is in ’silent’ comics: best well known perhaps is Spy Vs Spy in MAD magazine, though most remarkable was 2005’s Sticks and Stones, which is a story against the crimes of industrialisation.
Peter visited Angoulême for the Festival International de la Bande Dessinée, which I also attended and within the uncomfortably hot tent where he was signing books he agreed to do an interview. We chatted about how World War Three Illustrated came to be established, censorship in comics and his recent time living in Oaxaca, Mexico with the teacher’s strike and civil unrest down there.
LH: To go right back to the beginning, I know that you grew up with Seth Tobocman and did zines with him. Were they always political , or when was it that you became politicised as it were?
Peter: The first one that we did together was when we were 11 and it was a comic fanzine. The politicising was going on in the background because Vietnam was a backdrop to growing up and my parents were both pretty political. It was just filtering through all the time. It wasn’t until we did World War 3 that we did something overtly political as a magazine. During that time period it was laying the ground work for wanting to do things that had some subject matter to it.
LH: It seems you completely bypassed super-hero comics.
P: Oh no, not at all. I grew up on them. They were my main influence from when I was seven till 17. It was those traditional boy years. I would count Jack Kirby among important influences; Steve Ditko; I loved Spiderman, Fantasic Four, all the Lee Kirkby books. All the broad spectrum of fantasy and science fiction and horror and super hero. I loved all of that. When I was more interested in sex and drugs and rock n roll, then underground comics were there for that.
LH: I know you studied art in New York. Did you do that because there was no way to do comics at university at the time, or were you specifically wanting to become an illustrator?
P: No, I was interested in comics, and at the same time that I got into school in New York I had started to get work [in the comics industry].
In art school I was just exposed to a lot of different things, and illustration came a little bit later. I looked for some illustration work whilst I was in school, and I started to get some. It was just one more avenue to try and make a living whilst doing art. I started getting work doing spot illustrations for newspapers and then that opened that door.
LH: I know that there were a lot of fanzines in New York at that time. Were you inspired by them, or part of that scene at all?
P: I wasn’t so aware of other zines, rather I was aware of having done one myself when I was younger. The other zines were not as big an influence. RAW hadn’t come out yet, but it came out a few months after the first issue of World War 3, and so that too wasn’t something that I saw. That’s not what inspired us doing it.
We were just struggling along trying to get distribution and it fit in, so much as there was a vibrant arts scene, with people doing stuff that we could publish so we could fit with that and get work, and meet other artists. It was a way to interact with other artists.
LH: Do think that New York was a cause for making you want to create World War 3?
P: New York is always a background influence to so many of those things. There was just so much going on in the streets. There was the issue of homelessness. You could just see the effects of political policy as you walked out the door. It wasn’t something that you read in the paper as a remote thing. They’d cut funding to various organizations that will help poor people, and then you suddenly see these people out on the street.
LH: To talk more about the work then; you’ve always had quite a good mix of colour and black and white stuff, especially with your use of stencils. I was wondering whether you always had the colour, or whether you started out using black and white and then gradually added it in there?
P: I did a little colour to begin with. I did colour certainly at school with paintings. When I did start out in illustration work it was in black and white, using linoleum prints and it was so labour intensive doing linoleum that I moved in scratchboard, and other things, trying to speed it up.
A lot of times when I went traveling, which I did as often as I could, I’d work in my sketchbook, which gave me a chance to work with colour and drawing from life and things like that. And that started to come into my illustrations.
Seth pretty much introduced me to stencils. I’ve now been doing it for long enough that I’m probably radioactive. I cut paper and then I use actual cans of spray paint, no airbrush or anything like that.
LH: Quite a few of your comics are wordless and presumably you feel the colour is intrical in making those work.
P: At different times; Sticks and Stones went into colour and then back out again, and so that was essential to the idea. There’s a lot of things that you can capture with colour. But then at the other end of that, doing something in black and white makes it much easier to print. For example, if you want to do something that you might self-publish you cut your costs tremendously by going for black and white. A lot of colour work doesn’t translate into black and white if you’re photocopying.
When I’ve taught courses in comics I almost always get people to do everything in black and white. I’ve found it’s such another layer that until they’ve got the formal aspects of comics down, to throw colour down on there it’s just too difficult to negotiate. I’m thinking that for my next project it might be nice to keep it just in black and white, and with lines because there’s so many possibilities for things screwing up when you get into colour printing.
LH: Was it a concious decision to create so many wordless comics or was it just how the story lent itself to being rendered?
P: I like the idea of a synthesis through my illustration work and my comics, and that wordless comics, using stencils especially, was absolutely that. At different points it was to reach an adult audience who didn’t necessarily read comics.
I like the idea of using comics as a form of communication without language barriers. There’s all these different pluses to making wordless comics. I’ve done so many of them now that it’s a language that I’m very familiar with. I’ve been doing Spy Vs Spy now for so long that I find it very natural to do it all wordless. There’s a real purity to something that is just purely visual.
LH: Most of your work is fairly obviously political. Did you ever worry about it being problematic in trying to make a living, or if you’ve ever found that it has been a hindrance being asked to tone it down?
P: There was a point when doing my illustration work that I decided to do political, or social comment, or whatever that means, work with my illustrations. When I first did that it required me turning down jobs that weren’t that. I did see a dip in my income, but I had to, to get the political work.
Then what started happening was that my work started to be regarded in this different way and I started to get work from Time magazine, and places like that, more consistently. I started finding that I was getting more work, because there’s only a small number of artists doing social or political work. I started to get art directors ringing me specifically and saying, “Hey, I’ve got a piece that I think you’ll like,” which was just what I was waiting for.
LH: Did you find that World War 3 helped?
P: For a long time it confused people. Art directors weren’t actually stumbling on it unless I gave it to them. On occasions, depending on the material, some of the art directors were definitely not going to be cosying up to what we were saying.
I did find though that occasionally there would be a subject that I wanted to do, but there were some things, which you just couldn’t do in the mainstream, and World War 3 would be the fall back. After 9/11 was a perfect example. In fact we started running Art Spiegelman because he couldn’t get his ideas to run in mainstream publications.
It certainly gave me a sense of why it’s so important to have a fall back, as it were of self-publishing. It means if you have ideas that you want publishing, and you don’t want to wait around until they’re old ideas.
LH: Is that why you guys have kept it running for so long?
P: I think that’s a big part of it. No-one ever made any money off it, so there never was an issue who was making out, or doing better. A lot of things implode over finances or someone being the head, or too much of a dictator; it was very democratic. Any money we had we ploughed back into the magazine.
We didn’t all of agree or anything, but it’s honest work. I think that now there’s a pretty good group of people who want to be part of it so you can move around and get different people at different times, so that you don’t have people burning out. I certainly got burnt out on it at different points. I stopped working on it for some years; I had some peripheral involvement always. For example, when I first had my daughter there was five years where I just wasn’t able to juggle that. That was a good thing too because it meant that I got a breather from it so when 9/11 came around I was really ready to jump in there!
LH: Why did you decide to move down to Oaxaca?
P: I had previously visited there with my wife before I was married, and I really loved it as a place. It’s both a colonial town from the fifteenth century but really cosmopolitan at the same time. It fit a few different bills that we wanted. They speak Spanish down there, which we wanted looking towards learning a second language. It had to either be Spanish or Chinese; and New York is turning very Spanish. We had a nine year old, and around ten, your language ability starts to go, so we wanted to go around now. By ten we want to get to another country. I had lived in Israel when I was ten and it was hugely formative having a sabbatical year with my parents. Essentially it was following in my upbringing and wanting my daughter to have the same cultural shift.
LH: Obviously you must have known the background with the teachers strikes.
P: Barely. I didn’t go down there knowing that it was going to be like it was. Two weeks before we moved there the government police attacked the strikers and that solidified their strike. No one was expecting what came. The governor certainly didn’t expect what came, with the police attacks, and the American who was shot and killed (Indymedia journalist: Bradley Roland)
I’m not sure what I would have thought had I read two weeks moving there that five months later the federal troops had taken control of the town and there was a US State department warning that US citizens shouldn’t go there. I probably would have felt a little bit put off. It was upsetting for the fact that all the bad happened to these people, and continue to happen. But it was incredibly edifying and really interesting to be there so I could record it artistically speaking.
LH: Since I’ve seen the sketches on the website, I was wondering whether you had done any more narrative work or do you think you will do?
P: Yes, I’ll certainly do comics about it. I’m contemplating what I’ll do bookwise. I just finished a giant graphic novel, which is autobiographical. It was an enormous amount of work, all about parenting, and the politics and masturbation. The important things!
LH: What are you going to do when your daughter can read your autobiographical work?
P: (laughs) That’s a very good question. You know she reads sections and I’ll go, “No you cannot read that.” She’ll occasionally stumble onto something where she says, “What are you doing there daddy,” and daddy says, “He’s not telling!”
LH: I can see that dad might have problems telling her not to do sex, drugs and rock n roll.
P: That’s going to be difficult. Part of my point of this graphic novel, is that as a parent, especially as you get older, you tend to forget or distance yourself from your past behaviour as though it’s horrible and you’re removed from all that. As a parent I don’t want to have fogeyism come in to the point where I view it as though she can’t do any of that. But then it didn’t destroy my life to explore these things. On the other hand it’s a different world; pot’s a lot stronger, sex can kill you. That wasn’t the case when I was young.
One of the reasons that we moved to Mexico is because some of the cultural pressure coming down is pretty heavy. I want my daughter to be a reader. Britney Spears shouldn’t be her first subject of conversation. There’s a balancing act there.
LH: What was it that attracted you to autobiographical work then, because a lot of your stuff is? Was it seeing other people doing it, or just wanting to express what you’d been through?
P: It’s both. I’d say the most important thing is that I think there’s an honest possibility of addressing political subject matter through your own experience because then it’s subjective, and it’s not remote to my personal experience. If I can bring something to it that’s personal then it won’t be ‘definitive’ but it will be from someone who was there.
It’s my own tendency to want to record history and do it in such a way that it’s like diary writing. I think it’s something of value artistically because if you look back at old R Crumb comics it tells you something of the zeitgeist of the ’60s. The more you can dig around within your own psychology on that, the more it reflects a lot of different political subjects. It also has the potential for being entertaining too; it’s not just navel gazing. I have this strange notion of what’s ‘useful’ art and what’s just ’self-serving.’ I have to have some sense that it’s more important, than just myself to sustain me doing it. It’s what draws me to doing the Jungle as an adaptation say. If I’m going to do something that will take that much work it has to be something that will be worth something. If at the end of the day I’ve just some punch line, and that’s it, then why bother?