Peter Kuper's Heart of Darkness

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday December 11, 2019

Josef Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is arguably one of the most significant works of fiction in the modern era. First serialized in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1899, at the height of European imperial wealth and corruption, the novella, which can be read on a slow evening, set the stage for 20th-century masterpieces such as William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and later, Francis Ford Coppola’s film, Apocalypse Now.  

The story has now been adapted by Peter Kuper, who has created a new graphic novel based the classic, that takes into account the backlash its racism, imperialism and existential horrors have inspired. [plot summary here]

In an exclusive interview for DART, Peter talks about the motives and methods that came into play for his work: 

Peggy Roalf: What is there about Heart of Darkness [HOD] that prompted you to transform it into a graphic novel?

Peter Kuper: I was working on Kafkaesque, a book of fourteen adaptations of Franz Kafka's short stories. W. W. Norton agreed to publish it as part of a two-book deal if I would follow Kafkaesque with Heart of Darkness. I went from dark to darker, but HOD was such a good fit I didn't get too depressed. Actually I did get very depressed as I began my research. It would be impossible to not be distressed by the horror of what King Leopold had done in the Congo. There are photos of the atrocities that are unbearable. But once I embraced the project, I found myself engaged with an incredibly visual story with interesting characters, so translating it into comics was a rewarding experience.

PR: The problematic nature of the text in terms of today’s socio-political issues seen through an anti-colonialism lens is evident in the quite, if I might say, schizoid page layout in Chapter III [below] with contemporary/past; ink/pencil; squares/triangles on the spread before Marlow returns to London. Do you remember the moment when you came up with those visual metaphors for past/present and how you were able to make this time/place iconography resolute and consistent throughout the book? 

PK: I thought about a number of ways to distinguish between past and present—another beautiful aspect unique to comics. I drew the present, in which the protagonist is telling the story to his ship mates, in pen and ink with the grey tones done in Photoshop and mechanically ruled panel borders. The past—as Marlow unfolds his tale—is done in black Prismacolor pencil with the tones done in a grey wash. The panel borders here are done by hand as wavy lines to suggest an unreliable narrator. These are things the reader doesn't have to consciously notice; in fact I don't want the technique or page designs to draw attention to themselves. They should be there to enhance the total emotional takeaway without pointing an arrow that will distract the reader from the story. I do hope readers with go back after reading and revisit the art a bit. Given it takes a year or more to do a graphic novel that one can read in an hour, it's nice if the art is given a second glance.

PR: How can you tell which literary classics could be good subject matter for the graphic novel form?

PK: For me what matters is if a book has some direct relationship to my experiences, and to current events. Kafka is loaded with human condition issues that are universal and transcend time. Joseph Conrad's tale of colonialist exploitation remains a current event and all the aspects of travel in HOD I could relate to my own experiences traveling in Africa, Indonesia, South America and on and on.

PR: The graphic novel form is open to so many ways of breaking up the pages into frames; and spreads that transition from idea to very different idea; with myriad different transitional forms from static scenes to action; from raucous sound to stillness. Now referring to the spreads in Ch 1, when Marlow begins piloting the ship up the river, on the way to Kurtz’s station, there are three spreads of visual noise followed by a page with no text of any kind. The effect is stultifying, in the sense that the no-text page zeroes in on the plight of the native people under the savage rule of their oppressors. Could you speak to that idea of “framing” the issue of colonials as savages by “framing” your design of these spreads?

PK: There are so many ways comics can convey ideas, mood, atmosphere and I tried to utilize them all. I'm also very interested in using comics as a visual language without any text when it seems appropriate. This creates an intimate dialogue with the reader since they are filling in their own text or sounds to accompany the images. Much of our experiences in the world come without dialogue and certainly no descriptive text, so wordless sequences can feel like a more pronounced realism. This served the story in several places and hopefully allows the reader to bring more of their own perspective to what is unfolding.

PR: How did you arrive at the many different wallpaper textures that so well differentiate settings as City [London] from Africa, with its patterns of grasses and small creatures?

PK: The actual environments dictated the designs. I spent weeks researching images from the locations and tried to find as many details from the time period as I could. Another layer came by moving to Oaxaca, Mexico for the first four months I spend researching and beginning to thumbnail the book. The near-tropical heat, the smells and sounds, were an important aspect that enabled me to get in the mood of the material. I also got a month-long case of the flu, and scabies (an itchy insect infestation), so I was totally on board with the characters in the book!

PR:  How much research did you need to do about the contemporaneous conditions—social, political; tempera / mores—in order to freely do something like creating a jokey sense of irony, as you did with the “harlequin” figure in Chapter II?

PK: I read a number of books around the topic including Maya Jasanoff's biography of Joseph Conrad and the critical edition on Heart of Darkness (W.W. Norton 2005) that examined the book and history through a range of essays, both contemporary as well as from the era HOD was written. I also scoured the Internet for lectures on the themes, history and book itself as well as any other adaptations of HOD I could find including films like Apocalypse Now. All of this helped me approach the material, but also as a reader I just had my own direct response to the book and characters and I found humor and irony embedded in the story.   

PR:  When does the literary form dictate the graphic form—if it ever does? How do you know when you are playing with fire in terms of being visually true to the author’s text as you create various kinds of dissonance within the graphic novel form? Here I’m thinking again about the bizarre “harlequin” character who seems to be the avenging angel of Kurtz—but who speaks from both sides of his brain/mouth. Can you tell the readers how the idea of his patchwork garb first struck you?

PK: Actually the harlequin, as he's referred to, was described as dressed in patchwork clothing, so I just followed that. I made many other judgments on how to portray things—especially emotional responses that weren't necessarily in the text. More severely I moved elements of the story around in a few places where I was confused as a reader. I felt that Conrad's decisions undercut the emotional impact in certain scenes and confounded the narrative so I made the decision to address that in my adaptation. I wasn't strapped to the mast of his ship, but I did my best to stay true to the intent and tremendous qualities of the book.

PR: Kurtz is often seen as an antihero—even though he participated in the rape and pillage of an established society and its culture—not a heroic endeavor. So why did you choose to depict him naked?

PK: Again, this is how Conrad describes him toward the end of the book. It works well since this towering, threatening figure is reduced to a primal naked state.

PR: How do you approach situations in which you find yourself having to draw things you don’t particularly like to draw in order to maintain the truthfulness of the text? For example, HOD has cityscape, wild landscape, boats, and architecture as well as people of an incredible variety of type/race/background and murder/mayhem of all kinds. Could you speak to the idea that not every aspect of the work at hand can be the most enjoyable stuff to not only draw but also to research for accuracy? 

PK: Well that was especially true when it came to drawing boats. I had no real nautical interest and had to dig and dig to find appropriate period references. Drawing architecture can be the same, but what I've found over the years, is after I get over the hump of resistance I start to enjoy drawing things and details I previously found to be drudgery. Drawing people was also complicated in this book since I wanted to draw accurate portraits of the Congolese and yet not end up with something that looked like caricature, even if I could claim clear reference material. This was a line I had to walk and hope I did justice to the subjects. I also have never been interested in staying "on model," like character animation must. I draw them based more on the emotion I want to convey [frame by frame] than to the letter of their consistent appearance. 

PR: When do you know when it’s important to let reader fill in certain blanks in the verbal narrative by combining text/visuals together in their own imagination—without interfering too much with super-specific imagery?

PK: Some of that is intuitive and also the text suggested points where I could be looser. I like a lot of different art forms and styles—sometimes impressionistic is truer to the content than drawing every leaf on every branch would be. Sometimes the little details are very important and if one thing is drawn hyper-accurate than another thing can be sketchier. I just try and let the story guide me.

PR: I understand from previous conversations that you are an avid sketchbook-keeper—especially from your travels. How did your sketchbook practice come into play for HOD, if it did?

PK: My years of sketchbooking were very important to this project. The backgrounds reflect my direct experience drawing on location in rain forests and other images that I have drawn while traveling. The style of the story Marlow is telling reflects a sketchbook sensibility, which is the general direction much of my work has taken since the first time I lived in Oaxaca back in 2006-2008.

PR: What do you feel is the continuing impact of HOD on future writers on similarly difficult subjects? Especially today, with the rise of nationalism, demagoguery and anti-immigration policies worldwide. For example, genocide—as it emerged in colonial Africa during Conrad’s time—was something new and horrific to Western minds. The shock of this must today require a highly attuned approach to the text, and in the planning of visual info. Could you tell the readers something about how you approached these particularly destabilizing forces? dart-

PK: My ability to have sustain for this project during this unbelievably fraught political time, was the extent I felt it reflected the issues we face today. The insanity of the characters in the book dovetailed with the insane cast of characters now inhabiting the White House. The policies regarding immigrants, the exploration of the natural world and the people without power has a through-line from long before but including the events in Heart of Darkness right up to today. Reading about history that HOD addresses is one example of how events that shape the world can be expressed through art. It's important to try and make sense of history; I feel that works like Heart of Darkness are maps from the past that may help us navigate both the present and future.

Peter Kuper’s illustrations and comics have appeared in newspapers and magazines around the world.  He is a regular contributor to The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Nation and MAD magazine where he has written and illustrated SPY vs. SPY every issue since 1997.

He is the co-founder and editor of World War 3 Illustrated, a political graphics magazine that has given a forum to political artists for 40 years. He is also co-art director of Opp-Art a political arts website sponsored by The Nation Magazine that posts daily commentary on current events by artists from around the world. He has produced over two dozen books including Sticks and Stones (winner of The Society of Illustrators gold medal), The System, Diario de Oaxaca, Ruins (winner of the 2016 Eisner Award) and adaptations of many of Franz Kafka's works into comics including The Metamorphosis and Kafkaesque, (winner of the 2018 National Cartoonists Society Award for best graphic novel.)

He has lectured around the world and has been teaching comics courses at The School of Visual Arts in NYC and Harvard University. 

More of his work can be seen at  Twitter:  @PKuperArt  Instagram: @ kuperart DART: Design Arts Daily

Heart of Darkness by Peter Kuper [Adapter], Josef Conrad [W.W. Norton 2019] is available here dart-interview



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