The Monarch and the Graphic Novelist
Peter Kuper’s new book, RUINS, is a visual experience that follows a couple through Mexico on the path of a monarch butterfly. Kuper has called this his “[Mexican] kitchen sink, pretty much everything I could throw into the book based on living in Oaxaca, Mexico, from 2006–2008.” The variety of people that he encountered, the teachers strike that was going on during that time, the monarch butterflies he raised with his daughter and the butterfly sanctuary his family visited … “I threw that in a blender and added Mexican history, the impact of environmental destruction and made it fictional, so I could place the characters in the middle of events.” It’s a fascinating book and I asked Kuper to tell us more about how it came to be.
There is an opus quality to RUINS. You’ve done many graphic novels, comics and sketchbooks, so where does this stand in your collected works? This is a big leap for me, since I’ve never done anything as long as this 328-page book. I’m also experimenting with color and all the various components of storytelling that are unique to comics to take advantage of the form as much as possible. There are wordless sequences throughout the book, I’ve color-coded each individual’s word balloons and have a few meta story threads included, with one of the characters writing a book within the book. I bit off more than I could chew and then bit off a little bit more. I’m hoping all the fancy footwork remains in the background for the reader and they just get carried along by the story.
You interlace the history and myth of ancient tribes with the lives of your protagonists, Samantha and George. What is it about this relationship that defines its drama? The title RUINS reflects the interconnection of various aspects of the story. There’s the remains of past civilizations scattered around Mexico that are a constant reminder of civilizations that have come and gone. Samantha and George, like many couples, have spent a good amount of time building a relationship only to find it too can crumble before their eyes. The Monarch’s migration as it makes [its way] from Canada to Mexico is another aspect as it struggles with all the challenges it faces in a deteriorating environment. I am making connections between these disparate elements and finding many places they intersect.
As I read the book, I was seeing it in cinematic terms. Do you see this as a storyboard for a movie? Well I do think about my storytelling that way, with different angles and “camera shots” that impact the emotional content. Yet comics have so many things that separate them from film. In a film the viewer tends to be passive; comics asks the reader to be very active as they move from panel to panel connecting the dots and see both the individual frames and the entire spread of two pages. Each reader moves at their own pace and can stop and rewind at will just by moving their eyes. That said, I could easily see this translated into film … wait, is that Hollywood on line two?
What more would you like to accomplish with the various threads of this story? Much of the story is about struggle and birth. Doing the book was a fine example of that for me! I had the initial idea as far back as 2007 and then struggled to bring it to fruition. I thought about it until 2011 and finally found I had to get to it. It took me three years to complete and though I was really engaged and enthused as I worked on it, at the same time I was loaded with self-doubt, wondering if anybody cared whether or not I brought another book into this world. The book is ultimately a love letter to Oaxaca and the experience of my time there. It is also about how sometimes we get what we want, but the form that takes can be totally unexpected. Finally, it is about how life can continue in the face of ruin.