Across the Border
SelfMadeHero Books, 2015.
The artist most well known for his Mad Magazine “Spy vs. Spy” pages has had quite a career, artistic and political. Much of it began when he abandoned his hometown Cleveland, back in 1977, for Manhattan. The creation of World War 3 Illustrated, the now long-lasting comics annual, encompassed but did not exhaust his views of his adopted location, summed up artistically in the gorgeous Drawn to New York, published in 2013. Large parts of that book showed settings and people that the wealthy classes of the gentrifying boroughs would prefer to ignore (and do ignore, mostly). Ordinary humanity and even nature somehow survived, though with obviously increasing difficulty, in his adopted space: a modestly optimistic, highly artistic statement.
Kuper is an artistic border-crosser. The ambulatory artist moved to Oaxaca, Mexico in 2006 for a two-year sabbatical and has returned each year since that time. He established a following in Mexico, has published several graphic novels, a children’s book, and illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s Alice books in Spanish.
With his latest work, the artist occupies a wholly different space. The main thing to be said about Ruins is that it crosses several other lines. It is certainly political, and not only because the struggles against an oppressive and violent state—directing its brutality toward schoolteachers in particular—play a central role here. It is also political in an ecological sense, describing the migration of a Monarch butterfly from North America to the presumed safe (but not so safe) havens in the Mexican mountains. The Monarch’s journey functions as a continuing narrative thread. But Ruins is far more than that: it is an artistic exploration of Mexican flora and fauna, urban and country life, through the eyes and pen (or computer equivalent) of an ever-inventive artist.
Woven into the mix is the story of an American husband and wife, George and Samantha. The couple is in Mexico on a sabbatical but they become drawn into the politics, culture, and history of Mexico. Though they struggle in their marriage, Samantha, who has a complicated past relationship to Mexico, hopes to introduce George to its beauty and rekindle their love. She also yearns for a child of her own, and hopes the sabbatical will be lead to conception and the salvation of their marriage. George is reluctant (and intermittently ill from germ attack on his intestines), the more so as he sees the violent political attack unfolding in front of him.
Amid remarkable depictions of Mexican folk pageantry, violent class conflict, and the kind of travelogue images that used to appear in photo albums (or artist sketch-books), we find oddball characters. Al, a longtime transplant, for instance, comes from of a Yiddish-speaking Jewish background, and represents the culture that blossomed with the McCarthy Era blacklist when screenwriters, radio script editors and others facing persecution sought a second life below the border. Al seeks to explain the legacies of Rivera and Kahlo to the young American, as well as explain the politics of the day—while drinking as much as possible. This oversized character with overblown features is both a guide to Kuper’s Ruins and one of the story’s many hearts.
The wonderful thing about Kuper’s artistic adventures, over his many books, is that they never escape the ruminations of Kuper the thinker. But nor do they fall into didacticism. His work, as totemic comic artist Jules Feiffer suggests on the back cover of Ruins, offers marvels page after page. One could not ask any more of a comic. Or any other book.