Latin American Ilustracion: Peter Kuper

By David Schonauer   Wednesday January 18, 2017

Peter Kuper’s interest in entomology led him to Michoacan, Mexico.

Every winter, millions monarch butterflies fly from Canada and the United States to congregate in the mountains of Michoacan, northwest of Mexico City. Kuper, an American illustrator and comics artist, was living with his family in Oaxaca, Mexico, on a sabbatical from 2006 to 2008, and it was then that he and his daughter went to see the butterflies.

The experience inspired a portion of Kuper’s 2015 graphic novel Ruins, a story about a married couple living in Mexico. The plot, while fictional, mirrors Kuper’s own life. The novel also focuses on the town of Oaxaca and a teachers' strike that happened during Kuper’s time there.

The book's narrative is wound around the story of the Monarch's migration. “I spent four months sketching it up in rough form, and it came out to 224 pages,” Kuper says. “I sent the roughs with the text placed in digitally to about 20 publishers. "They wanted to know what other graphic novels it was like, and all I could say was, ‘It's like other books that are not like other books.’ Nobody jumped at it until I found a British publisher, Self Made Hero, who took the chance. In the end it took me three years to complete, what with other work I was doing. It was the most exhausting and gratifying project I've done. I had wanted to be back in Mexico and got there through my drawings!”

One of the illustrations for the book was later named a winner of the Latin American Ilustración 5  competition. “That one was created in 2015 in New York City. It was done with pen and ink then colored digitally,” Kuper says.

Kuper’s illustrations and comics have appeared in magazines around the world including, the New Yorker and MAD — he’s written and illustrated the “SPY vs. SPY” feature in every issue since 1997. He is also the co-founder of World War 3 Illustrated, a political comix magazine now in its 38th year of publication. He’s produced over two dozen books, including an adaptation of Kafka's The Metamorphosis. His novel Ruins won the 2016 Eisner award for best graphic novel. He has also been teaching comics and illustration courses at the School of Visual Arts for 25 years and is a visiting professor at Harvard University.

“I've always been interested in comics, which for the first decade of my career was very difficult to make a living doing,” says Kuper, who studied painting and drawing at New York’s Pratt Institute. “At the same time I found work as an illustrator and found I really enjoyed the challenge of editorial assignments and quick turn around.”

Since the 1990s, when comics gained a more respected cultural position, Kuper has been able to juggle both illustration and comics. “But since the 2008 crash, I've focused more on longer form projects. My heart is in comics,” he says.

Kuper is currently working on a new collection of Franz Kafka short-story adaptations titled Kafkaesque. His novel Ruins has been translated into French, Spanish and Portuguese, with editions in Italian and Chinese editions coming this year.  He will be returning to Mexico to create new work for an updated edition of his 2009 book Diario de Oaxaca, which will be published in 2017. And that’s not all:

“I'm also editing a new issue of World War 3 Illustrated. We’ll be focusing on the rise of fascism in America and around the world,” he says.


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Dispatches from Latin America