Stop Forgetting to Remember
The Autobiography of Walter Kurtz
Crown: 208 pp., $19.95
EVELYN WAUGH prefaced “Brideshead Revisited” with the note, “I am not I; thou art not he or she; they are not they.” But some stories might require an I for an I, for the simple reason that people will see the maker in the model, and every deviation from reality will read as a flaw. In a recent interview on the Web radio show “Writers Revealed,” Janice Erlbaum, author of the runaway-teen memoir “Girlbomb,” related how an early attempt to render her gritty life as fiction failed. “If you’re trying to protect yourself or other people, I don’t know if it works,” she said. “In my experience, people think that everything you’ve written is completely based on you.”
Comic-book artist and illustrator Peter Kuper’s “Stop Forgetting to Remember: The Autobiography of Walter Kurtz,” is purportedly a graphic novel, literally wearing the equivalent of Waugh’s dictum on its sleeve as flap copy: “Walter Kurtz doesn’t exist. He’s the alter ego of me, Peter Kuper.”
Although it contains numerous engaging episodes and some bravura panels, the book suffers from an identity crisis. On the one hand, it reads like the story of the author’s actual life, replete with memories of drug use and sexual follies that impinge on his current midlife grapplings with fatherhood and work. The book’s title is a command: Don’t let your respectable station in life (successful artist, family man) make you delete all the yearning, sloppiness and rage that informed your salad days. But since we’re reading the story of someone named Kurtz, the urgency is dissipated at nearly every step. The demands of memoir can seem pointless when translated into a novel. We might well care about Kuper, but he hasn’t imagined Kurtz into anyone who could have an interesting fictional life of his own.
Known for his vigorously expressive woodcut-style drawings, the New York-based Kuper is a potent interpreter of Kafka (“Give It Up!”), a political cartoonist (for the Nation and elsewhere), co-founder (with Seth Tobocman) of the agitprop comic book “World War 3" and the current penman behind Mad magazine’s “Spy vs. Spy.” Kurtz mirrors this, living in Manhattan, contributing to his friend Saul’s agitprop comic book “Bomb Shelter” and working on a monthly strip called “Ebony vs. Ivory.” These displacements aren’t quite playful enough, and the presence of an “Ebony vs. Ivory” story (as well as “Wild Blue Yonder,” an arbitrarily inserted African travelogue) leaves a taste of freezer burn.
“Stop Forgetting to Remember’s” 13 chapters vary widely in length and span the decade from October 1995 to October 2005. When the reader first sees “Walt” Kurtz (the nod to Disney is one of several cartoonist allusions), he’s ensconced in his posh studio in the Chrysler Building, done in silvery black and white with some strategic flecks of reddish brown. Kurtz speaks directly to the reader, lecturing on the virtues of comics as an art form. The posh, silvery idyll is soon revealed as fantasy -- Kurtz is working out of his far humbler apartment, where he’s about to have procreative relations with his wife. The ensuing plot, such as it is, follows the rhythms of maturity: The couple eventually have a daughter, he reminisces (and breaks with) an old friend, Sept. 11 rattles him, the political climate grows harder to bear, he finds a publisher for his book -- the one we’re reading.
If nothing else, “Stop Forgetting” is an adequate showcase for Kuper’s versatility, as he spins out allusions to forebears (R. Crumb, Winsor McCay, George Herriman), dream sequences and political commentary alongside the more mundane narrative. Thus, one can best appreciate it as a series of detailed set pieces: young Kurtz flummoxed in his quest to lose his virginity, his high-school drug taking and small-time dealing, a downwardly spiraling relationship (with a surprise homosexual twist). Not all this memory lane stuff works. The psychedelic extravagance of a bad acid trip, which Kuper could be expected to knock out of the park, oddly resembles a pallid version of Mark Beyer’s nightmarish “Amy and Jordan,” rather than Kuper at his best. In general, however, these sequences have a sureness of tone and a graphic nerviness lacking from the connective tissue around them, as when he details how a doomed love turned him into something brutalized and at times barely human: a flattened welcome mat, a dizzy dreidel, the cowardly “Wormboy.”
But even on this front there’s bad news. Kuper, whose work has looked ferociously full in black and white but who can also deploy subtle bursts of color, restricts himself to an ugly rust-brown palette once the flashbacks kick in. A two-color book can work beautifully (the supple green in Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home” comes to mind), but here it feels oppressive, in a manner at odds with the free-associative nature of the narrative.
The major problem remains Kuper’s insistence that Kurtz isn’t him -- that the I is not I -- which keeps the book from finding its feet. “The idea of exposing one’s shameful history for all to see is beyond me,” he writes on the flap, “and frankly I’m still baffled by what motivates [Kurtz]. One can only imagine the discomfort this must have created for friends and family, most especially for his long-suffering wife, Sandra. My spouse would have killed me!” Even without this note, the attitude can be felt throughout: a desire for full disclosure (the drug and sex scenes throb with firsthand detail, humor and rue) battling a command to rein it in.
Autobiographical comics enjoy a rich tradition of sublime self-exposure and embarrassment, from Harvey Pekar’s frequently churlish behavior in “American Splendor” to Joe Matt’s superhuman onanism recently collected in “Spent.” Kuper might be a good person for sparing the feelings of his real friends and family, but in this case, the consequence is to fall short as an artist. •