Review: Stop Forgetting to Remember by Peter Kuper
Stop Forgetting to Remember
By Peter Kuper
Crown Publishing, July 2007, $19.95
[[[Stop Forgetting to Remember]]] is the autobiography of “Walter Kurtz,” a fortysomething cartoonist born in Cleveland and resident in New York City, who worked on a strip about two color-coded spy-types for a satirical magazine popular with teen boys, and who otherwise has an immense amount in common with Peter Kuper. But he is not Peter Kuper – or, rather, he’s different enough from Kuper to provide any plausible deniability that might become necessary.
Kuper worked on [[[Stop Forgetting to Remember]]] for at least ten years, 1995-2005, and the final product is loose-limbed and discursive, a collection of autobiographical stories folded into the “present-day” obsessions and concerns of Kurtz. The present-day material is all in gray tones, with the flashbacks and similar imaginative scenes drawn in a maroon like a day-old bruise. Each chapter does make a connection between present and past, but Stop Forgetting reads like a collection of shorter biographical pieces rather than one graphic novel. (That ten-year span means the book isn’t quite the way either the 1995 Kuper or the 2005 Kuper would have made it. It ends up being loosely organized around the life of Kurtz’s daughter Elli, but it’s not about her; she’s just there, growing up, and her life gives Kurtz things to reminisce about.)
Prose novels sometimes show the signs of too much development time, but there it’s typically an overworked surface, like a miniature painting from an obsessive, with every tiny detail written and rewritten and re-rewritten until it’s completely airless and self-enclosing. By contrast, comics that have been worked on too long get disjointed; it’s much more difficult to rework a ten-year-old comics page than it is to rewrite a ten-year-old novel chapter, so the comics page gets a few tweaks or a new panel pasted on top where the prose chapter would get rewritten from beginning to end. Stop Forgetting to Remember has a mild case of this; there’s a sense that Kuper had an overarching idea for this book – or had more than one, at different times – but that idea doesn’t come through cleanly, so the book becomes a series of glimpses of a life.
It’s not a horribly exciting life, as we see it, but very few creators have exciting lives – excitement leaves little time for creation, and vice versa. So Kuper mostly tells stories of Kurtz as a hormonally-obsessed, overly-sensitive teen boy in ‘70s Cleveland, with a few excursions into stories of Kurtz as a kid and twentysomething. They’re decent stories, told with a clarity of approach and self-knowledge that comes with decades of distance and drawn with Kuper’s trademark pseudo-scratchboard look, giving an edge to every panel, but they do remain separate, like beads on a string. Late in the book, 9/11 happens, which is unfortunate for the book – Kuper must have felt that he needed to include it, but it’s tonally different from the earlier pages, and his growing political anger afterward leads him to include a striking but utterly out of place George Bush/Richie Rich mash-up strip.
Great autobiographical comics impose a temporal discipline unlike nearly every other art – the only similar example I can think of in prose are Sue Grafton’s Alphabet Mysteries, which move forward at deliberate speed, two and a half books to a year, getting further and further behind the calendar. Similar, the autobiographical cartoonist works away at his pages slower than the days turn, getting further and further from his material with every page – but, if he wants to keep the story strong and unified, he has to stay in the mindset with which he started the piece. Kuper doesn’t do that here; the modern-day Kurtz grows older, jumping a year or two every dozen pages or so (and even more near the end), forcing the reader to think about the stack of pages sitting in the corner of his studio, gathering dust for months until there’s a new burst of activity and another stack of pages pile on top. Stop Forgetting to Remember has striking scenes and powerful panels, but it doesn’t all add up to a unified graphic novel; one gets the impression that, if “Kurtz” hadn’t gotten a publisher in 2005, he would have continued to add to this book – five pages this year, three pages next year – until something else happened or he died. Graphic novels, more than any other art form besides maybe oil paintings, need a structure imposed from the beginning, and Stop Forgetting to Remember didn’t have that.
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
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