Kafkaesque: Fourteen Stories by Peter Kuper illustrating K’s best known short stories in comics, is fitting for today’s Kafkaesque scenarios with all its comedies and tragedies. I asked him what he and Franz have in common and also what is personal to him about a few of these stories. Apparently, Kuper likes beer.
You obviously have an affinity with Franz Kafka and say in your introduction to Kafkaesque how his work is ideal for comics. Why? My first encounter with Kafka was his famous short story, The Metamorphosis, which left me with an impression that Kafka was all darkness. Fortunately, I had a friend who was a Kafka fan and loved reading him aloud over beers. Hearing the text as spoken-word (with beers) cast a new light on the on the story’s humor—albeit with a dark tilt—and inspired me to begin adapting his work as far back as 1988. Immediately, I found his ideas lined up perfectly with the strengths of cartooning. Through comic’s vernacular I could take his absurdity and angst and bring visual humor to it through the portrayals of the characters. In cartooning, images can contrast with the text and I could re-imagine the stories in a variety of contexts. At the same time Kafka’s words acted as an anchor that gave me the freedom to experiment with the storytelling without losing readability.
What is your “unique personal” relationship to Kafka’s work? His stories inspired so many different interpretations and instantly suggested themes that interested me. I found direct connections to my daily experiences walking on the streets of Manhattan, dealing with intractable bureaucracies and my human condition in general, that personalized much of his work. Though I suspect this isn’t unique depending upon where you live.
The Spinning Top: “I was thinking about “experts” who know more and more about less and less.”
Before the Law: I first penciled this with the main character as a stand in for myself (as many of the characters end up landing) but realized there was a much more striking parallel to draw that would expand the meaning of the story by simply changing the character’s race.”
Hunger Artist: “I had Michael Jackson in mind when I drew this in the 1990’s. I looked at the story in print last week and felt a sudden remorse (perfectly fitting with a collection of Kafka stories!) that I hadn’t switched the hunger artist’s gender. Not to turn this into a check list of social issues—it just suddenly spoke to me this way — an indication of how many different ways these stories could be reinterpreted.”
This book is a collection of 14 stories. Which are the most impactful on your own life, given that you note each adaptation gives you joy? Each Kafka story captures states of mind or circumstances I relate to. Actually, all that is required to understand his work is a membership in the human race. His work reminds me that regardless of how modernized we get there are basic human-condition truths that transcend time.
You cite the masters of early 20th century visual commentary – Franz Masereel, George Grosz, Lynd Ward, etc. – where do you see your work fitting into this continuum? Both the graphic quality and the social, political commentary in the artists you mentioned and German Expressionism in general, speaks to me and helped launch me into my chosen career. I’d also include in the line up artists like Winsor McCay, a contemporary of Kafka’s, who was exploring his own disturbing dreamscapes in his comic strip “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend” as far back as 1904. Artists that respond to their experiences during upheavals like world wars, the sense of urgency and the power of the art to document history, inspired my own attempts to reflect my experiences. Growing up with the Vietnam war on TV every night, presidents —all of them– though especially Nixon, Reagan, George W. Bush and now Trump have created too many reasons to feel that sense of urgency to respond.
The Bridge: “It’s imbued with my years as an assistant, a terrible summer relationship with a girlfriend that ended on the rocks and an ongoing desire to please, which so often fails.”
A Little Fable: “As an inveterate traveler (and small mammal) I related to the mouse’s regrets over a shrinking, homogenizing world.”
Were there any especially difficult challenges you faced in adapting Kafka from word to picture? Well for starters the very idea I might consider adapting one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, was daunting. I had to delude myself into believing this wasn’t sacrilegious. But with my very first attempts, I was instantly convinced that this was a great intersection between words and pictures. I had the feeling that Kafka was whispering in my ear and inspiring me to take more chances with the visuals than I had in my own comics. When I took on adapting The Metamorphosis (in 2002) I had to decide about showing Gregor Samsa as an insect on the cover. In the original 1915 edition, Kafka had given specific instructions NOT to show the bug. My original design idea was to have a translucent dust jacket with just the title and the image printed beneath on the book itself. This way readers would only see the bug as a vague silhouette. They would have to remove the dust jacket to reveal Gregor. That design would have added a nickel to the cost of each copy and it got nixed. Sigh.
Kafka also requested that his executor, Max Brod, burn all of his unpublished manuscripts (which includes most of the adaptations in Kafkaesque) and his friend ignored him thankfully, so I felt emboldened to ignore my own fears I was overstepping and took the chance that something good could come out of translating Kafka into comics.
Have you satisfied your Kafkaesque passions? Given the Kafkaesque nature of our current political and environmental climate I suspect I’ll be returning to Kafka again before my story ends.
About Steven Heller
Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →