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Cartoonist Gone Mad

Peter Kuper adds his name to Cleveland's strip stake.


Cleveland Heights native and comic artist Peter Kuper is in good company in his hometown. "Cleveland has always been a hotbed for comics," he says, pointing out that Superman creators Siegel and Shuster lived here, as did Robert Crumb, as does Harvey Pekar. Kuper -- now living in New York City, where he teaches at the School of Visual Arts -- came of age in Cleveland in the 1960s and '70s, a time when comics were still feeding off the counterculture vibe.

"I used to pick up underground comics from the head shops on Coventry Road," recalls Kuper, who will visit his old stomping grounds this Saturday when he signs Speechless, a retrospective of his career, at Mac's Backs Paperbacks. "They expressed what the medium could do; they had a mix of humor and politics."

That combination has inspired Kuper throughout his 30-year career. In 1979, he created World War 3 Illustrated, a satirical cartoon magazine that focused on the sociopolitical gloom and doom of the impending Reagan years, an era when he "felt the bombs could drop any second."

Realizing he couldn't make a living simply as an underground cartoonist, Kuper began working in New York City as an illustrator, producing work for the likes of Time, The New York Times, and The Village Voice. His unique style -- stencils and spray paint that results in hard lines and fuzzy edges, giving the work a three-dimensional appearance and a street graffiti feel -- was unmistakable.

In 1996, Kuper's mostly wordless strips attracted the attention of Mad magazine. With the death of "Spy vs. Spy" creator Antonio Prohias, the monthly was looking for someone to take over the strip.

"I decided to give it a shot," says Kuper, who was unsure at first, but quickly rediscovered how the strip's underlying Cold War subtext had influenced his own work. "Besides, it'll give me a chance to reach 10-year-olds and subvert the youth of America."

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