by Rob Clough
The Comics Journal
September 1st, 2010
Diario De Oaxaca may be Peter Kuper’s greatest accomplishment as an artist. It flatters all of his strengths as an artist and limits his flaws. The simplicity of the project and the mere fact that it didn’t start out to be anything other than a journal of his two years spent in Mexico with his family were keys to the book’s understated impact. Kuper is a wizard with his colored pencils and has a fabulous eye for detail. His years spent thinking and drawing stories related to his own political activism certainly informs that eye and his writing. He’s also more than proficient with all sorts of storytelling tricks.
The problem with Kuper is that he sometimes tries too hard and hammers too many points home with text. It’s as though he has so much to say that he doesn’t trust his ability to convey it visually. That was sometimes a problem with his striking memoir Stop Forgetting To Remember, where Kuper overwhelmed his visuals by his incessant need to talk through his memories. Kuper’s at his best in his silent work, but Diario De Oaxaca manages to bring to life the best aspects of all of his comics. Moving to Oaxaca in the middle of a teacher’s strike that turned into a frightening & violent government crackdown, Kuper provides the audience with background detail through text essays, but really brings them to life in his drawings of burned-out buses acting as barricades and a colorful array of street graffiti protests. That certainly gave the activist/journalist in him an opportunity to sink his teeth into living history.
For the most part, the Diario was an opportunity for Kuper to exercise his autobio artist muscles. Other than a few short essays, most of the book is taken up by Kuper’s drawings of the stunning natural wildlife and endless array of insects (a childhood fascination of his). Much like one of his ComicsTrips stories, it’s another opportunity for Kuper to sink or swim in brand new waters. This time, however, that experience was greatly mediated by having his ten-year-old daughter with him. It seems as though Kuper has always periodically needed to make himself uncomfortable physically by turning his environment upside down in order to achieve a different kind of comfort in coming to terms with himself at various points in his life. Kuper has an uncanny sense for understanding just how and when the routines that make up his life threaten to strangle it and finds ways to create a new steady-state.
The political intrigue and
autobiographical nature of what he chose to draw provide a loose
framework for page after page of beautiful (and sometimes humorous)
renderings. Kuper was obviously taken by the ruins in the area and the
various civilizations they represented; that kind of continuity and
history in a single small area is particularly powerful for an American
to experience. Kuper was clear in saying that he wanted to talk about
the flames of protest as a way of discussing the recent lives of
Oaxaca’s people, but he also wanted to portray the beauty of an area
that has, in many ways, remained fundamentally unchanged for quite a
long time. That is certainly true of the luscious greenery and the
exotic insects and critters he loved to draw. The only full-length
comics story in the book, “Going For A Walk”, concludes the book and
recapitulates Kuper’s view of Oaxaca in terms of its gritty everyday
aspects (like fighting off wild dogs), its sense of community, its
identity as a hotbed of resistance and its sheer, weird beauty. In
essence, Diario De Oaxaca is a journal of deeply personal aesthetic
experiences, rendered in such a way as to record those experiences for
himself as much as they would be for any particular reader.
Buy Diario de Oaxaca: A Sketchbook Journal of Two Years in Mexico: