Thursday, September 20, 2012

Sequart Reprints: Stop Forgetting To Remember

This article was originally published in 2007 at
The first comic I read of Peter Kuper's was something he did for Vertigo in 1995, called The System. It was a wordless tale of tension alongside the quotidian in New York city, done in an innovative spray paint/stencil style. Kuper's visuals have always been a huge part of his appeal, but they've always been firmly rooted in his storytelling skills. These twin strengths have allowed him to have an extremely prolific and wide-ranging career as an illustrator, political cartoonist (especially as a co-founder of World War III Illustrated) and humorist (he took over for Prohias on MAD's famous "Spy Vs Spy" feature). All of that aside, I was most struck by a series of short stories he did years ago for Fantagraphics called Stripped. These were autobiographical stories, done in Kuper's eye-popping style. While they were mostly about his teen-aged years and his frustrations with sex (ie, not getting any), he manages to dodge the sort of whining present in this kind of story. His imaginative art also made every panel a joy to look at, as his expressive techniques made it easy to accept the characters suddenly shifting into anthropomorphic states.

While I've always enjoyed whatever he happened to publish, I always wondered why he seemed to have abandoned his more personal stories. As it turns out, he didn't abandon it all--it just took him a long time to flesh out the stories to book form and find a publisher. By using a clever and touching framing device, Kuper does something unique in the sort of autobio comics I read--he balances the over-the-top adventures of his youth with the perspective gained from fatherhood & responsibility. The title of the book refers to Kuper's emphasis on keeping a continuity of memory and identity into adulthood, where one doesn't deny or distance oneself from their past experiences and beliefs. This notion was put to its ultimate test when he became a father and its overwhelming demands, and he was sometimes found wanting--especially when trying to preserve a life-long friendship that was slowly disintegrating.

Stop Forgetting To Remember contains virtually everything in Stripped, omitting only a few dream comics and a 1-page strip or two. There's also a story from a Dark Horse anthology, which details his world travels, and a political cartoon from World War II Illustrated. The framing device adds depth and resonance to the original stories. The story begins as Kuper's alter-ego, Walter Kurtz, is about to become a father. That momentous event (and making love to his wife), gets him thinking about desperately trying to lose his virginity as a teenager. What I enjoyed about Kuper's autobio over a decade ago still holds true today: there's a strong narrative flow, it's hilarious, and it's reflective without being self-pitying or indulgent. It's clearly Kuper's goal to entertain the reader as much as possible while revealing embarrassing secrets about himself. We see Walter morph into a bunny-man when he's frightened and into a worm when he's pathetic.

It is fitting that Dennis Eichorn wrote the introduction for Stripped, because this writer of the Real Stuff autobio stories is known for his vivid, often violent recollections of sex, drugs & rock 'n roll. Kuper's older autobio has a lot more in common with Eichorn than Harvey Pekar, the master of the quotidian anecdote. Kuper dips into the Pekar playbook with his framing device, using key moments of reflection to act as keystones for his delving into the past. Meeting with a life-long friend before his baby was born leads him to think about a love-hate relationship that was particularly memorable. Meetings with his friends would grow to become one of the focal points of the story, something that wasn't immediately evident when the framing device was introduced.

Kuper uses a clever bit of visual shorthand to guide the reader's eye in the story. Stories of his youth are in a reddish-brown, and present-day accounts are in black & white. What's interesting is when the two blend on the page. When his wife is about to give birth, she seemingly seems fine until the pain really starts to kick in. Then we see her head in red--on fire in one panel, looking like "The Scream" in another, and made of snakes in another. The phrase "it's going to change your life" is repeatedly rattled off to them about having a child, a truism that eventually starts to inspire terror. When the child was born, and "your dad just became a friggin' greeting card"--and the next panel is father, mother and child in red with hearts as a Hallmark card.

The birth of his daughter inadvertently drives a wedge between Walter and his friend Adam. Adam and his wife couldn't conceive, and this pain was made worse when Walt couldn't help but get excited about his daughter--and ignore his friend because he had so much on his plate. Adam had always emphasized that their friendship was strong because it was based on the here & now and not just the past--and their friendship was now "past" in Adam's eyes. Kuper takes us through a brutally honest look at the highs and lows of marriage and fatherhood, including his wife's postpartum depression & lowered sex drive, the fears surrounding his child (heightened by 9/11), the way his child simultaneously delights him and drives him crazy, and his sadness over the loss of his friendship. The way that fatherhood affects his professional career is also an important side-story--especially since this autobiography was the project that had to sit on the back burner more often than not if he was going to pay the bills.

When he finally gets the book ready to shop around, his new frustration was finding the right publisher. He was either rejected outright or asked to gut his story. One publisher wanted to emphasize the "wormboy" character for marketing purposes and play down the sex & drugs--and "resolve" his friendship with Adam! Downplaying these stories falls into the kind of lies that so many people feel like they have to tell to themselves in order to "protect" their children, when in fact it's a way of creating their own unassailable authority. By denying their pasts, it's easy to issue orders and platitudes to their children rather than engage in honest discourse--with both their children and themselves. Another running subtheme is the inevitability of children growing up and separating themselves from their parents, and Kuper's bittersweet acceptance of this. When his daughter doesn't want him to kiss her goodbye at school because it's "embarrassing", Kuper knows it's the end of an era. This is reflected by an intermittent device about a mother bird and her hatchling, who flies away at the end. It's perhaps laying it on a bit thick, but Kuper's sheer sincerity is moving and his bawdy trips into the past lighten the proceedings when they threaten to get too treacly. It will be interesting if his ability to "stop forgetting to remember" will continue as his own daughter experiments with sex, drugs and challenging authority as her father did--but that will be another story. The story that Kuper tells here is beautiful, inventive and ridiculous, and sometimes all three at once.

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