Despite having one of the most instantly recognizable styles in the industry, Peter Kuper has remained something of a chameleon, fully submerging himself in every diverse project he takes on, from his early days as one of the founding members of the counter-culture-defining rag, World War III Illustrated, to his hallucinogenic paintings, to the fittingly dark adaptations of Kafka’s oeuvre—and then, of course, there’s the fact that, if you happen to have picked up an issue of Mad Magazine in the past decade, you’ve encountered faithful continuation of Antonio Prohías’s timeless strip, Spy vs. Spy.
Kuper’s latest work, the 12-years-in-the-making graphic novel, Stop Forgetting to Remember, is easily among Kuper’s most revealing works, mapping much of the author’s life through rather thinly-veiled autobiography. The work follows Kuper’s alter-ego, Walter Kurtz, from a sexually-awkward suburban adolescence (is there any other kind?) to his more contemporary struggle to bring his daughter up right in a post 9-11 New York.
We asked Kuper to spill the dirt on this Kurtz character, and he was more than happy to oblige.
Was Stop Forgetting to Remember initially intended to be one long story?
Not initially. It turned into that over a period of time. Some of the material in the book I had published earlier, but it was seen by a very limited number of people, and I figured this was a good opportunity to reach a larger audience with it.
When you started work on it, was it intended to be autobiographical as it turned out?
Yes, absolutely. Once I became a parent, it occurred to me that there would a whole lot of new information that might make some interesting comics. I hadn’t read very many comics that dealt with parenting as one of the subtexts of the story. I wasn’t positive that that would be interesting, but it was certainly something I knew a lot about, and I wanted to merge the two things together.
The only things off the top of my head that have really tackled the subject ware those cheesy little strips in the Sunday papers.
[Laughs] I was aiming for Family [Circus], but I missed.
So your child was born before you really started writing the book?
Well, some of the strips that I did there, I did as early as ’93. I was trying to make sure that I remembered these old stories before I lost track of them, and curiously, when I came back to put the book together, I was reading some of the stories, and I realized that, had I not gotten some of that information down in comic strip form, I would have forgotten it. It had already been pushed out by more information, or whatever happens when you get older.
That was also the genesis of the name?
Yeah, that was part of it. But also, doing a book like that part of the point was, ‘would I tell my kid these things, as I get older?’ I found that there were some of these areas that I already found myself pushing back and—not exactly denying, but more like, ‘gee, would I talk about drug experiences with my kid? And if I do, what does all of this translate into?’ By putting it down, it makes it undeniable.
So the kid turns 15, and you say, “hey, here’s a book.”
Yeah. My daughter has seen some sections of the book—certainly the ones that she’s in, but not all of them. That’s awaiting. She has to be of the correct age when it seems—this is kind of unusual, I know, but it’s inevitable that she’ll learn about all of these things that plenty of people that I’ve met never get around to mentioning to their children.
Did it feel like a large weight had been lifted off your shoulders, after a dozen years of writing it, off and on?
It was a huge weight, in a lot of different ways. At one point, some of the earlier material got optioned by HBO. This was in ’98, 99, and I spent a year-and-a-half developing it as an animated show.
This from the stuff that had been published as short stories?
Yeah, yeah. I first started working with them before my daughter was born. I was working with them on the offer for a long time, before we started really developing it as a show. Originally, I was just jumping into the past and telling stories by looking back at my past and contemplating it. And then I had a kid at the beginning of the process, and I said, ‘I think I see the arc of where the show can go.’ Unfortunately they decided to get out of there completely and shut down their studio. A lot of people ended up moving over to Futurama. It was very heartbreaking. I was developing it in one direction, and then started to see the possibilities, once I had a kid.
I had set everything aside, because it all represented the near-miss heartbreak. So, when I came back to it, after all of these years, I had written stories and worked on ideaz about how to do this book, back in ’97 and then it just sat in a drawer. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I decided to look at it again and said, ‘there’s a lot of good material that I’d like to do, and I don’t want to have bad feelings about what didn’t happen to stop it from being done.’ I just had stacks of notes of ideas that I had never done any work on.
Part of the relief was coming back to it and realizing all of the ideas that I had wanted to do, that I thought I was just going to let go of, because I thought it was just too painful on a few different accounts. There was the hurdle of just coming back to the material, and the memory of having come dangerously close to having a career change, by having a show on TV.
When you’re tackling a piece that covers such a large portion of your life, how do pick a logical place to end things?
You know, I figured out the ending when I got to the end. I wrote the end, exactly how it came out, in a very close time to finishing the book. I had general ideas of where things were going, but I hadn’t mapped everything out. In fact, I started the beginning of the book, but was having trouble with something so big, figuring out how to thumbnail through the whole thing. So I just started in, and got lost a little bit. I threw out a handful of pages that I never ended up using, but as I got further into it, I started to map it out more, and things like writing about the relationship with the friend that dissolves–I had some trepidation about that, because I thought, ‘am I going to re-dissolve that relationship?’ Actually, he was initially hesitant, but then he was very encouraging. Curiously, some of the people who saw the book were angry with me for their being in the book, and some people were angry at me for their not being in the book, so I knew I was doing something right.
[Continued in Part Two.]