Conscience Comix

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For nearly 25 years Peter Kuper has worked to raise the consciousness of comix. In 1980, inspired by the Reagan Revolution, he co-founded the highly politicized magazine "Word War 3 Illustrated," an early conflation of 'zine and comix anthology. Since then he has expanded his repertoire into travel comix, autobiography and even the "Spy vs. Spy" strip in "Mad." (He has also done a fair amount of illustration work for TIME.) But his political comix have always been the standouts. As far back as the late 1940s, EC comics included themes of racial inequities and the hypocrisies of war in such books as "Shock Suspenstories" and "Frontline Combat." Kuper's work continues the tradition with two new books — one a wordless allegory of governmental madness, and the other an adaptation of a key social realist novel.

"Sticks and Stones," (Three Rivers Press; 128 pages; $14) looks, at first flip-through, like a kid's book. The illustrations are large, often taking up an entire page, and contain no dialogue. While even pre-literate children may be able to suss out the broad good vs. evil story, only more mature readers will recognize it as a pointed political parable. It portrays a giant rock creature, born of a volcano, awaking to a barren, grey world. Klutzy and unskilled, he takes command of a tribe of tiny laborers by virtue of his might. Still unsatisfied, he makes war on another tribe of little agrarian wood people, exploiting their forests to fill his fireplace. But this act has a costly and unexpected price. Using themes that echo the Old Testament, and a language as ancient as pictograms, Kuper creates an allegory whose current political associations are impossible to miss.

A detail from Peter Kuper's "Sticks and Stones"

That's the reason "Sticks and Stones" doesn't really work. By drawing parallels to the Bush administration, "Sticks and Stones" becomes only timely rather than timeless, and simplistic rather than simple. Without subtlety or nuance to enrich the story and make you want to return, you simply consume the book in less than five minutes and declare that you "get it." Even the artwork lacks return appeal. This is surprising, as Kuper has one of the most unique styles of any cartoonist. He cuts out stencils and then spray-paints the images onto the surface, giving the work a splattery, fuzzy tone. But even the graphics, mostly rendered in a palette of grays with brief bursts of color, has an unappealing drabness to it. Kids will almost certainly find it dreary. "Sticks and Stones" means well, but manages to find an imperfect middle ground between art and politics.

Skip it, and go instead for Kuper's far more interesting adaptation of Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel "The Jungle" (NBM; 48 pages; $16). When first published, its exposure of the Chicago meatpacking industry's outrageous conditions created a scandal that resulted in the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act. But far more immortal than mere reportage, "The Jungle" retains its power to shock thanks to the artistry of the novel's characterization and cracking plot. It stars Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian bear of a man who, at the novel's beginning, has just arrived in America and taken a young bride. Filled with hope and ambition he starts a job as a laborer in a packinghouse and puts a down payment on a house. Thereafter Jurgis endures a nearly endless stream of misfortune, exploitation, and pain that gives lie to the fantasy of the Happy Immigrant. From the horror of the fertilizer factory to the mansion of a robber baron, Jurgis experiences the extremes of capitalism run rampant.

Jurgis stands in the shadow of death in Peter Kuper's adapatation of Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle"

In rendering Sinclair's vision, Kuper uses the full power of his graphic style to remarkable effect. His airbrush effect implicitly evokes a sense of violence or sex gone wild, which perfectly matches the blood and sweat of the Chicago slaughterhouses. In the fertilizer factory, for instance, he makes it appear as if Jurgis is working in a literal shit-storm. By adding his own purely visual commentary, Kuper essentially doubles the power of the book's social message. The swirling winds turn into predatory monsters when Jurgis loses his job, for example. In spite of its bleak story, "The Jungle" is gorgeous to look at. Printed in full, rich color, Kuper's technique allows blending and shading in ways matched only by computers. The piece de resistance appears in the form a two-page spread of a labor strike. Kuper creates a cubist swirl of cattle, men, billy clubs, gears and skulls into a giant, violent abstraction.

One only wishes it were longer. The circumscribed length of Kuper's version of "The Jungle" dispenses with much of the minor character development — so much so that it gets a bit confusing. It also lacks the details of atrocity that made each of Sinclair's chapters seem like a punch in the gut. On the other hand, Kuper wisely does away with the anti-climactic Socialist agitprop that made up the last few chapters of the original book. Instead he ends on the hope of a new beginning. While certainly no substitute for the original, Kuper's adaptation makes for a fine compliment to the prose novel, and a worthwhile work in its own right.

Peter Kuper's dedication to using comix to foment social change, or at least keep social inequities on the table, makes him one of a long history of politically aware comix makers. Of his two latest books, "Sticks and Stones" will likely age as poorly as the anti-Nixon spoofs from the underground era, but "The Jungle" successfully mixes both artistic and political agendas into a new work of engaged literature.