MICA exhibit, symposium leaping from comics pages

January 29, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Peter Kuper has nothing against superheroes, funny animals and maligned office workers. Except when that's all people know about the comics.

"For most people, it's like a tossup between Dilbert, Garfield and Superman - that is the broad perception today of what comics are," says Kuper, a cartoonist, graphic novelist and comic artist whose work is far afield from such populist touchstones. "You are constantly shaking off that stigma."

At 46, Kuper is among a bevy of comic artists trying to stretch the boundaries of what are popularly perceived as the medium's limitations. Beginning tomorrow, he'll be one of the artists featured in Comics on the Verge, an exhibition running through March 14 at the Maryland Institute College of Art. And next week, he'll be in town as part of MICA's Comics Weekend: A Symposium on an Art Form, lecturing, leading workshops and generally trying to jibe the public's perception of comics and comic artists with the broadened vistas opening to them in the new millennium.

There are comics that make political statements, as in Seth Tobacman's book War in the Neighborhood. There are comics that establish their own cultural barometers, such as Bill Griffith's Zippy the Pinhead, whose catchphrase, "Are we having fun yet?" has earned a place in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. There are comics that chronicle (and comment on) the lives of everyday people, such as Harvey Pikar's American Splendor.

And there are comics that defy easy description but certainly seem to be onto something. Those include the works of Carol Lay (whose Story Minute strips are published regularly on salon.com) and David Mazzuchelli.

"Comics are on the verge," Kuper says, "of crossing over into all the areas that are open to explore. There isn't anything you can't do in creative comics. There is even top-level journalism in comics as a medium."

39 in exhibit

Thirty-nine artists will be represented in the exhibit, all of whom do both the writing and drawing for their work. Doing such double-duty makes them talented, says MICA curator-in-residence George Ciscle, but it's their sensibilities and their willingness to look past conventional comic boundaries that make them special.

"They represent two generations of artists ... who have really pushed the field of comics into very serious storytelling," says Ciscle, taking a break from setting up the exhibit this week. "They're looking at everyday issues, whether it's politics or things that affect them personally. They're not limited to fantasy or science-fiction. Much of the work these artists are doing is autobiographical, and that really is quite telling, in terms of what they're willing to address in terms of the content of the work."

Kuper's introduction to the world of comics came in the conventional way. As a young boy growing up in Cleveland (where he knew Pikar, whose comic-book work was the basis for the film American Splendor, the screenplay of which was just nominated for an Oscar), his heroes included Spider-Man and all the Marvel Comics superheroes.

Influence of Stan Lee

"Stan Lee was the man for me," Kuper says of the legendary head of Marvel. "The way Oprah can tell her people what to do, Stan Lee could inform me. ... I did the standard progression, I went from Spider-Man and Batman and all to, as I hit my teens, the underground comics, where it suddenly seemed like, `Oh, wow, there's sex in these, well all right.'"

As a teen-ager, Kuper published a comics fanzine in Cleveland, which afforded him the chance to interview some of the seminal figures in the underground comics movement. There was MAD magazine publisher William M. Gaines, whose dedication to anarchy and disdain for authority revolutionized popular culture beginning in the 1950s. And there was Robert Crumb, whose rough-edged, frequently autobiographical musings were polarizingly profane.

In 1977, Kuper traveled to New York to find work as an animator. "This guy offered me a job based on my sketchbook drawings," he remembers, "but when I arrived in New York, he couldn't remember my name."

But things have a way of working out. Kuper began scrounging up work, getting some of his drawings published in Heavy Metal magazine ("In those days, Heavy Metal was about the only resource for getting that type of work published," Kuper says) and laying the foundation for a career. In 1979, he and Tobacman started World War 3 magazine, offering an outlet for themselves and other artists dedicated to pushing the envelope (issue No. 34 was published in September).

Other works

Kuper has also done a graphic novelization of Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis, the tale of a man who wakes up one morning having been transformed into a cockroach. His books include Speechless, a collection of wordless drawings and ruminations on both the state of the world and the burgeoning world of the comics, and Peter Kuper's ComicsTrips, an illustrated (and opinionated) journal of his trips through Africa and Southeast Asia.

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