Award-winning graphic novelist Peter Kuper combines his appreciation of classic architecture with a lifelong fascination with insects in the new exhibition INterSECTS: Where Arthropods and Homo Sapiens Meet, opening January 14, 2022 in the third-floor Stokes Gallery of The New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street.
Kuper, a longtime DART subscriber and collaborator, met me by email last week for this interview:
Peggy Roalf: Your long-term interest in pollinators (Monarchs, for one) is evident, given your previous books [Diario de Oaxaca; Ruins]. Where did your interest in bugs first take hold?
Peter Kuper: When I was four growing up in New Jersey, one of the periodical 17-year cicada broods came out by the millions and I was instantly hooked with a fascination for all things flying in buzzing and flitting. Until I was seven I was convinced I wanted to be an entomologist, but then I discovered Stan Lee and Jack Kirby‘s Thor and Marvel comics in general and switched fields. Though, I never lost my interest in bugs and with INterSECTS I get to bring both passions together.
PR: The list of specialists you’ve included as reference for your NYPL exhibition is formidable. Could you tell the readers a bit about how you identified the scientists from whom you’ve received the detailed information you needed to pursue the study of insects, and how [one or two of them] have influenced your art and storytelling?
PK: Actually, I found entomologists are a lot like comic fans. They’re very passionate about their subject or form, and they are really happy to talk to anybody who shares the same excitement.
I met Barrett Klein at a comics convention. When I was working on my graphic novel, Ruins, he helped confirm all the details I included related to insects and also corrected my Latin. He later introduced me to a number of people in the field. As I read books about insect while developing INterSECTS I’d ask him if he knew the author and very often he did and that just led to more connections.
On occasion I also just found entomologists on the Internet and wrote whatever contact they posted. On the NYPL website for the library exhibition there are links to audio interviews with various entomologists that’s accompanied by music by an author/musician named David Rothenberg. I had heard an interview with him on NPR and reached out through his website and he responded immediately. He was kind enough to provide this remarkable soundtrack where he plays musical instruments with various Insect sounds from his album Bug Music. It was a serious honor to encounter these experts and have them be responsive and enthusiastic and help me as I developed the graphic novel.
PR: What was it like to have unlimited access to the NYPLs main research branch during the Pandemic shutdown? Was there any particular surprise that astonished you?
PK: When I first got the Cullman Fellowship it landed in the early months of Covid. Normally this grant would be a fantastic opportunity to interact with other writers and scholars, but due to the pandemic all our interactions were curtailed.
So on my first day of this amazing fellowship I felt like crying. But soon I discovered it was a surprising gift (not that I’m happy about the pandemic!) Without the normal throngs of people moving through the library I was able to visit all the various rooms and they were completely empty. This began to inspire the concept that when I arrived was still only forming. I realized I could populate the spaces with the insects I was studying.
I came up with the idea that there were giant exhibitions throughout the library on insects and the bugs would talk to each other about their histories and the histories of etymologists. So the reader gets the story straight from the horse’s—er, bug’s, mouth. If it had not been for the pandemic my concept may have gone a different direction, but instead, the library itself became a character in my book. Because I had done so many drawings that included the library, one of the staff members I met during the fellowship remembered seeing my work and suggested that the library give me an exhibition and their third floor Stokes gallery.
PR: Many children are afraid of insects. What advice would you give an urban five-year-old on getting acquainted with some of our most interesting city critters?
PK: I’d probably start pointing to various children’s books like Sam and the Firefly by P.D. Eastman or The Very Hungry Caterpillar. There’s also A Cricket in Times Square, Charlotte‘s Web, Two Angry Ants by Chris van Allsberg and on and on. There’s tons of great documentaries streaming (Nature, PBS Eons, Bug Wars.) Another thing I’d suggest is just getting your child to look down at the ground, there are all sorts of little creatures —ants and beetles right there. I think a lot of the problem is parents being afraid of insects and dissuading their kids before they’ve had a chance to be curious on their own.
PR: Where are some of the best places in NYC for observing insects, live and up close
PK: In the city wherever there’s a park you’ll find insects. I saw bundles of bees in Bryant Park behind the library. I’m always happy if I spy some diligent ants making their way uptown on the #2 or #3 train. Also the Highline has a great variety of insects along the walkway; in fact they have an insect adoption program you can find on their website. I myself adopted a Sphinx moth!
INterSECTS: Where Arthropods and Homo Sapiens Meet is on view until August 13, 2022 at The New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, NY, NY. Info All artrt © Peter Kuper courtesy of W.W. Norton
INterSECTS: Where Arthropods and Homo Sapiens Meet also includes an audio tour—accessible online and via QR code in the gallery—with commentary on individual insects by some of the field’s top experts. Info The audio talks are accompanied by the insect-inspired music of David Rothenberg. All of this plus downloadable coloring book art will be available on January 7 at nypl.org/intersects.
INterSECTS: Where Arthropods and Homo Sapiens Meet by Peter Kuper will be published by W.W. Norton. Stay tuned for updates Info
Peter Kuper’s illustrations and comics have appeared in newspapers and magazines around the world. He is a regular contributor to The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Nation, Charlie Hebdo, and MAD magazine where he has written and illustrated SPY vs. SPY in every issue since 1997. He is the co-founder and editor of World War 3 Illustrated, a political graphics magazine that has given a forum to political artists for over 40 years. He has produced over two dozen books, including The System, Diario de Oaxaca, Ruins (winner of the 2016 Eisner Award) and adaptations of many of Franz Kafka’s works into comics including The Metamorphosis and Kafkaesque. His latest book is an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. He has lectured around the world and teaches comics courses at the School of Visual Arts and Harvard University. Info