Peter Kuper is a name that’s not well known to most comic readers. That’s a real shame because Kuper’s been doing exemplary comics work since the 1980s. He was one of the primary cartoonists in the visionary political comic World War 3 Illustrated back in the day before graduating to some terrific comics through Vertigo and Fantagraphics (his 1996 Vertigo comic The System is a memorable highlight from those years) and a teaching stint at the School of Visual Arts.
Hopefully with the release of his new graphic novel Ruins, Kuper will gain a wider audience. This book is the kind of detailed, moving creation that could only come from a highly experienced artist. Ruins is the story of a self-involved New York couple, Sam and George, who move to Oaxaca to find inspiration and revitalize their lives. What happens to them there is intriguing and unexpected while at the same time being completely realistic and even predictable.
In fact, one of the things that makes this story so powerful is Kuper’s verisimilitude. Oaxaca, despite its reputation as a playground for rich bikini-clad Americans, is not an easy place to live. The dogs bark all night, Mocetzuma’s Revenge is all too terribly real, and there’s a clear division between the locals and the Americans who live there. All of those elements add local color to the story and provide it a depth and detail that makes things feel real – a kind of virtual tourism for us Americans who have never been there but wonder what the place is like. Kuper’s gorgeously detailed art and empathetic coloring helps to add to that sense of mood, delivering wonderfully composed and vivid images that feel like they only could come from his pen. The sort of complex and detailed imagery that he presents here is a sign of a cartoonist who is truly on top of his game.
So far this all sounds like a perfectly pleasant book. There are two elements of it that make Ruins really special. First, our American friends find themselves in Oaxaca during the time of the annual teacher’s strike. The strike is nothing to be concerned about, we learn early in Kuper’s presentation. The strikes happen every year, and every year things get settled. It’s kind of a kabuki theatre in which everything is repeated.
Except when it’s not.
This year, instead of capitulating, the government decides to crush the strikers, which means Sam and George find themselves in the middle of a near civil war. Tanks fill the streets, tear gas is fired, and this strife takes a dramatic effect on a character in the book that we have come to like. Kuper draws the scenes of the riots with a wonderfully sure hand, using his colors to focus the eye where he wants it to go while also emphasizing the terror of the moment. The crackdown is real and visceral and terrifying.
That crackdown provides a backdrop for the other element that makes this book so powerful. Ruins depicts the last gasp of a dying marriage between two people who have drifted apart. We learn that George once was a New York punk rocker, filled with energy and an intriguing sense of power, but by the time of this trip, he’d become middle-aged, dull and happy to study bugs all day. Sam is deeply unhappy and hoped that the trip would save her marriage – and hopefully be the place where she would get pregnant as well.
As the battle grows between the government and the strikers, seemingly as out of control and heading for a disaster, we also see the conflicts between Sam and George grow, seemingly out of control. They can’t prevent everything in Sam’s and George’s marriage from disintegrating, just as the strikers can’t prevent the strike from disintegrating into chaos. Even when George and Sam are away from the turmoil, visiting a beautiful forested area in which millions of butterflies live, George’s comments can be read as a parable for everything else that happened in the book: “It’s easy to forget when the prognosis is so bad… and survival has become so… challenging.”
Ruins is a book rich with beauty and important ideas, and it’s just a lovely book from cover to cover. We should be used to Peter Kuper delivering visionary graphic novels. Hopefully this book will start to bring him more attention. It’s a special work of comics art.