Like ‘The War of the Worlds’

American comics artist talks to Kathimerini about his 9/11 experience and related works

Like ‘The War of the Worlds’

His memorable work – be it political cartoons for magazines like The New Yorker or The Nation or graphic novels, including adaptations of works by great masters like Franz Kafka and Joseph Conrad – has captivated the whole planet. Co-founder of the emblematic political publication World War 3 Illustrated (being published for 41 years now) and artist/writer of Mad’s “Spy vs Spy” since 1997, a creator of more than 20 books, heavily awarded and translated in nine countries, he has taught at top schools in America and abroad and is is a visiting lecturer on the first graphic novel design course at Harvard University. Peter Kuper, a veteran American illustrator with an insightful, sharp political and social eye, talks to Kathimerini about his own 9/11 experience and what led him to design one of the most unforgettable illustrations inspired by the attack on the twin towers.

Were you in New York when the 9/11 attacks took place? Can you describe your initial thoughts and feelings? How did the emotional experience of it all feel like?

My sister in Dallas called me at my studio in Upper Manhattan to say one of the towers had been hit. I assumed it was a small plane that went off course. Then I looked out my window and in the distance saw the smoke rising. I had no TV at my studio so I turned on the radio and I felt like I was listening to Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” fake radio broadcast. Some of the reality hit through the day as people made their way up from downtown, covered in ash, sirens from police and fire trucks everywhere. But it wasn’t until a day or two later that I found myself downtown and just walked towards ground zero – I talked with people on the street, saw the missing persons posters everywhere, saw cars that were crushed by debris – and it all sank in. The tremors from that day lasted for years with lots of panic and then even greater fear knowing that George W. Bush/Dick Cheney were going to use this to lead our country into endless war, which was horrifyingly obvious to a lot of us immediately.

How did you come up with your unforgettable depiction of the Empire State Building mourning over the ruins of the twin towers? 

I was trying to express the way the entire city felt – and that wasn’t one person. I thought a building was a good metaphor for the collective of New Yorkers mourning loss.

Your work has a strong political orientation, but looking at that specific illustration it feels like it transcends the political and becomes something more personal, something that has to do with your special relationship with the city. Am I correct in my assumption?

My first reaction was sadness and horror at what happened in the city I love. It was a wound and I needed to express that. But with some time to process it and see the way our government was using the event, my political reaction stepped in. The country’s patriotic fever that followed with a blood lust shook me out of simply being sad and made me very concerned about the manipulation and lies that were overshadowing the event.

Would it be right to assume that New York holds an important role in your creative life in general?

My first collection of comics was called “New York, New York.” A later collection is called “Drawn to New York.” NYC is in my bloodstream, although I’m a transplant (from Ohio) – moved here when I was 18 (as soon as I could!). I love this city as much as ever. It’s endlessly exciting and inspiring.

In a past interview you stated that when you were younger, you were desperate to complete a book you were making before the A-bomb was dropped in an effort to somehow help prevent the event. Do you still feel your work can change things?

People say we are preaching to the choir. I say the choir needs something to listen to! Nobody pops out of their mother politically aware. I was influenced by a thousand artists (of all kinds) that got me to do the kind of work I do. I was changed by those artists. We’re just carrying on that tradition.

A page from Kuper’s comics story in the 9/11 edition of ‘World War 3 Illustrated.’

Do you feel that comics nowadays can be more influential, especially considering the recent global rise of the graphic novel? Are they perhaps taking their rightful place in a wider market, a market that has the numbers needed to support the artists, too?

It’s better since comics aren’t stigmatized as much as just being for kids. The door has opened to a tremendous amount of great work in this art form with a much wider range of artists with different backgrounds and viewpoints. Also bigger publishers who would never publish a graphic novel before are jumping at them, occasionally paying real money, and bookstores carry them – not just comic shops. It used to be we’d have to self-publish, or get paid almost nothing when doing a book.

Donald Trump kept popping up in your cartoons, being wonderfully ridiculed. What about Joe Biden, how do you feel about him?

Trump was a walking caricature, a monstrous version of a snake oil salesman. Easy to draw, but I don’t miss that at all. Biden has so far surprised me, being much more progressive than I expected. Even with the awful way we exited Afghanistan I am thrilled we left and think history will look kindly on Biden for getting us out of there. Of course, we’ve only gotten less than a year into his presidency, so I can’t make any final judgment, but by this point in Trump’s presidency we were in deep trouble.

Can you give me a few words on Afghanistan and Biden’s decision? Twenty years after 9/11, what do you see at the beginning of the road, and what at the end?

In addition to what I said above, we should never have gone in there. All we’ve done is further damage the Afghan people and kill more of our own people as well, needlessly. This was about pouring money into the munitions makers’ pockets. The question is, how quickly will we get ourselves into another war to keep that machine oiled?

What was your last big project and what are you working on now?

My last book was an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” Currently I’m working on a graphic novel on the intersection between humans and insects.

Generous and kind

like-the-war-of-the-worlds2Peter Kuper was stunningly direct, generous and kind in his communication. This kindness is, after all, present in all of his work, a big oeuvre that shines with the charisma of a great talent, carries within it the whole exciting history of the comics genre and its urban roots, and at the same time emits a sense of humanism, an agony for the human condition and a deep-reaching tender approach. In one of the digital files of his work which he so generously shared with us (the pages he drew for the special 9/11 edition of World War 3 Illustrated, published in December 2001), we found an accompanying text that seems to express in the best of ways all of what we tried to talk about in this article – the feeling the attacks left the people of New York with and, at the same time, the true ethos of this great contemporary artist: “Ιn the weeks and months that have followed the September 11 attacks, the reality has certainly sunk in. When I look back at all the comics I’ve drawn depicting imagined disasters in New York City, they seem flat, inadequate and trivial compared to the real thing. How can lines on paper ever capture the loss, the fear of an uncertain future and the smell of death that hangs over Lower Manhattan? Yet, I’m compelled to keep putting pen to paper in an attempt to articulate my life experiences. Or, if nothing else, to create something in the face of so much destruction. For me, comics have always provided this form of catharsis and served as a way to examine and communicate what’s on my mind…” 

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