Connecting the dots

This week, the Israeli Cartoon Museum in Holon unveils an intriguing exhibition called “Valiant Women and Super Heroes: Bibles Stories in Comics.”

Peter Kuper took over the famous ‘Spy vs. Spy’ comic in Mad Magazine in 1997. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Peter Kuper took over the famous ‘Spy vs. Spy’ comic in Mad Magazine in 1997.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It is hard to believe that Peter Kuper is not well into his twilight years. The man appears to have been producing cutting-edge graphic comics and illustrations since time immemorial. In fact, the Jewish-born American artist is just 56 years old, although he has been in the business for over four decades. This week, the Israeli Cartoon Museum in Holon unveiled an intriguing exhibition called “Valiant Women and Super Heroes: Bibles Stories in Comics.” It is one of three new shows, all of which feed off biblical themes. The other two are “The Bible of Ze’ev,” featuring works by celebrated caricaturist Yaakov Farkash, and “A Deluge of Illustrations: Visual Interpretations for Children of the Story of Noah’s Ark.”
Kuper is a major contributor to the first of the aforementioned presentations, which includes items taken from his 2004 graphic novel Sticks and Stones. It is a definitively biblical- style story that tells a tale of epic proportions – with a weighty moral to it – in which one of the main characters issues forth from a volcano. We learn a thing or two about humankind and morality, as two societies find themselves at loggerheads, as avarice replaces honesty and common sense, until the inevitable cataclysmic divine denouement.
It is a wordless story that is delivered with compelling conviction.
Although Kuper did not attend the opening he is pretty familiar with this part of the world. He first came here in 1969, at the age of 11, when his electrical engineer father took advantage of a sabbatical to work at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.
The youngster had something of a baptism of fire, as he was thrown in at the deep end and basically told to get on with it.
“I went to a regular Israeli school,” Kuper recalls. “My parents thought it would be a good international experience for me. It was that and more.”
The lad had quite a lot to contend with.
“I was shell shocked,” he says. “My parents just dropped me into the local school and I spoke no Hebrew at all. I sat there fidgeting.
It took me about six months to settle in and to learn Hebrew.”
It was, indeed, some transition for the youth, moving from a technologically and materially advanced society to an Israel which, post-Six Day War euphoria notwithstanding, was way behind the real Western world in terms of creature comforts.
“There was no TV,” says Kuper – in fact Channel 1 had been launched the year before, but broadcasts were very limited. “It was great for my reading skills. That is one of things I miss most of all – how much I used to read, without having a television.”
Kuper has an 18-year-old daughter who, he says, got a handle on what her dad went through here.
“Based on my experience of living in Israel we decided to replicate a similar experience for our daughter, and we moved to Mexico for two years when she was nine to 11. She’s now fluent in Spanish. We did the same thing [as Kuper’s parents]. We dropped her straight into a Spanish-speaking school. Spanish is a little easier than Hebrew,” he adds with a laugh.
That sojourn eventually found its way into Kuper’s oeuvre, in his latest book, Ruins.
Kuper has a striking artistic style, aspects of which are instantly recognizable to fans of graphic novels and comics across the globe. Take for example, his long association with the feted “Spy vs. Spy” slot in Mad Magazine, which he took over in 1997. Kuper has never been one for shirking from tackling contentious issues, and his work is replete with political, social and other messages. That, in a way, is also implicit in the “Spy vs. Spy” format that presents one of the conical-hatted characters in white and the other in black. You would have thought that would have naturally led readers to identify with one or the other, but Kuper, typically, says he likes to mix things up.
“I make sure they both get killed in every episode,” he laughs, adding that he hopes the rivals will, at some stage, chill out. “One of these days they’ll find a peaceful solution.”
Kuper’s work is always intriguing, both in terms of the arresting aesthetics and the ideas he tries to convey.
His impressive 1995 offering, Give It Up! is based on nine short stories by Franz Kafka. The characteristic Kafkaesque Doomsday subtext is ever present, but Kuper delivers the messages in a tongue-in-cheek style, which make them far more palatable. The book is as entertaining as it is enlightening.
“One of the jobs of an artist is to help translate a vision of things,” he muses. “It is not just about holding up a mirror to what’s there, but also seeing beneath the surface and some of the aspects that might reflect a deeper picture.”
One of Kuper’s longest-running efforts is World War 3 Illustrated that he founded in 1979 along with childhood pal Seth Tobocman. The comic is produced by a cooperative of artists who are said to “use confrontational comics to shine a little reality on the fantasy world of the American kleptocracy.”
It addresses a wide range of red-hot topics, such as housing rights, feminism, the environment, religion, police brutality, globalization and depictions of conflicts from the Middle East to the Midwest.
Kuper says he is not looking to out any noses out of joint, but is simply incapable of platitudes. He says the latter comes with the territory.
“I want to be loved, of course, but I can’t help myself.
But it is impossible to put forward any kind of idea without hurting someone. If you are going to talk about what’s going on in the world, in reference to what’s going on Israel or my own experiences, someone somewhere will probably take offense.”
Kuper has traveled extensively over the years, and part of what he has seen and encountered inevitably finds its way into his work. That includes his experiences here, from that first childhood sojourn to his later visits, that also took in a stint on a kibbutz.
“There is a story in World War 3 Illustrated about my experiences in Israel, which I hope was nuanced. There are many different angles to that – from the euphoria of post-’67 war to the less euphoric things, and coming back to the States, and the confusion I felt with meeting Arabs and finding them to be nice people who were not necessarily being treated nicely. It was so much easier when everything was black and white – like in ‘Spy vs. Spy.’” Yes, it would be nice to have everything pigeonholed and categorized, and to sleep well at night knowing that order was being maintained, and the baddies were getting their just deserts while we – the goodies – continued to lead a tranquil existence. But, as we learn as we grow and hopefully mature, life just ain’t like that.
Kuper clearly knows that.
But, while he uses his art to try to articulate his own thoughts and feelings Kuper does not attempt to impose his baggage on us. Much of his work is wordless that like, for example, music can enable the creator to put out more universal messages while allowing the audiences to draw their own conclusions.
“Anyone in any country can understand something like, for example, ‘Spy vs. Spy,’ can understand, say, terrorists trying to destroy each other. That is one of the really interesting things in Sticks and Stones where you use images as language and allow the reader to connect the dots.”
For more information about the Valiant Women and Super Heroes: Bibles Stories in Comics exhibition: (03) 652-1849 and