Peter Kuper’s Diario de Oaxaca: A Sketchbook Journal of Two Years in Mexico (PM Press, $29.95) is my favorite nonfiction comics collection of the past year. The book is more politically aware than Craig Thompson’s Carnet De Voyage, less stylized than Guy Deslisle’s comics travelogues, and more varied in composition than just about anything. I especially appreciate the multiplicity of narratives Kuper has introduced to his own experience of the city and its varied cultures.
I came to your work with some appreciation for Spy vs. Spy and some familiarity with the content of World War 3, and I expected some of that in Diario de Oaxaca. But the tone is different. Though it certainly deals with political unrest, I didn’t feel the agenda of WW3 so much as I entered the contemplative observation of a man in tune with his surroundings. Can you speak to that?
I didn’t have an agenda going into it, the material in Diario grew organically from my experience. It only formed into a book in the last six months of our two years in Oaxaca when I crossed paths with a publisher who ran some pages from my sketchbooks. I had also been writing for an arts website called DART, again with no agenda besides letting people know about Oaxaca and my experience living there. That it did become a book is a small miracle, since I never expected any publisher to be willing to print a book of this sort all in full color.
I like the idea of the graphic memoir, or, as you call it, the “sketchbook journal.” It seems like a very natural form of recollection, and I appreciate the collage techniques you’ve employed. What inspired you? What other artists or contemporary storytellers do you admire?
Traveling in general has been a big inspiration and when I was a child traveling with my family, we always made scrapbooks to remember our trips.We camped through Europe and then spent a year living in Israel when I was ten. This had a big impact on what I did in my art. Collage is a natural form to remember a trip since the experience is always a collage of events and you invariably collect tickets, maps and other scraps as you go from place to place. Artistically Steinberg has been a big influence, but also lots of work by artists whose names I never learned. People in different countries I traveled: Africa and Indonesia and Mexico, who carved masks and animals and wove rugs. Things I saw during Day of the Dead I always especially loved.
If you were to place Diario on a shelf of books that inspired or influenced it, in whatever sense, what else would belong on the shelf?
R.Crumb’s sketch books, Chris Ware too. There was a book that Dover published of ancient Mexican designs that was always on hand. Steinberg’s Passport, among his many other books, Diego Rivera, Orozco, Siqueiros mural work. Steinbeck’s The Pearl, just to name a few.
One of your goals listed at the book’s end is to write every day. Have you maintained the practice since?
My plan was to sketch every day, and with few exceptions I’ve stuck to that. I’ve done another six sketchbooks since I returned, some of which I will be publishing.
A lot of your sketches are pretty complex. Different colored pencils, pens, maybe even the occasional paint. How do you lug it all around? What’s your process like?
Actually I don’t have too much to carry—I use a colored pencil that has 7 colors in the tip—all I have to do is turn the point to change colors. I carry a set of watercolors and 1-2 pens, brushes, a little water and I’m good to go .
What about Oaxaca? Have you been back? Do you keep in touch? How do you know you’re getting the real scoop, instead of the inaccurate media you portray in Diario?
I’ve returned 3 times in the last two years and had a couple of shows and given talks at book stores and at the IAGO museum. We still have a lot of friends there and they keep us up to date on events. Being there allowed us to see first hand the ongoing damage that the governor has been able to inflict tearing up the town with unnecessary road projects to line his pockets.
What are you working on now? What are you taking in?
I illustrated a spanish-language edition of Alice in Wonderland for my Mexican publisher Sexto Piso (They co-published Diario along with my US publisher PM Press). I am about to illustrate Kipling’s The Jungle Book for Sexto Piso as well. I am also assembling all the work I’ve done about New York that will include work as far back as 1982 and as recently as the sketches I’ve been doing every day. The book will be titled New York Diary.
I have done a number of stories for the Simpson comics—the one I’m working on now, ¡Viva la Bart!, involves Bart going to Mexico and being mistaken for an ancient high priest. Trouble and laughs ensue. Suffice to say, my Mexican ties are ever-present in all my work!