This morning I was walking south on Broadway after leaving my son Isaac at school, and two familiar faces stopped me in my tracks. Peter Kuper and his daughter Emily. Peter, a friend, is the famed political cartoonist for Mad Magazine’s Spy vs. Spy. He gave me a copy of his new book, Diario de Oaxaca.
As I continued strolling down Broadway, I felt as if I had just won La Loteria. Right now, after you finish this blog, buy this book. It’s the best book I’ve read all year. Beautifully crafted. Well-written. Irreverent. Bilingual. The work of an artistic duende. ‘Reading’ is not quite the right word here: this book is an experience, into Oaxaca, political protests, bugs, Monarch butterflies, perros, and searching for the truth around and in front of you.
Diario de Oaxaca is Kuper’s sketchbook journal of his two-year stay in Oaxaca, Mexico to get away from George W. Bush, to seek peace of mind, to work. He and his family arrived when a teachers’ strike, for better pay and more funding for schools, was unfolding in the zocalo: sit-ins, barricades, marches, and eventually the response from the governor of the state of Oaxaca, which was to kill. October 27, 2006: three teachers and an American journalist dead.
The artwork of protest and death, buses aflame, bored soldiers occupying the zocalo, a woman carrying fruits on her head in front of a giant battering ram twice her size, the Day of the Dead ofrendas in Oaxaca commemorating those killed during the teachers’ strike. It’s breathtaking. It takes you to Oaxaca. It creates atmosphere in a way that prose cannot. Peter Kuper has created a remarkable eyewitness account of those turbulent times, which repeat themselves in Latin America’s version of Nietzsche’s Eternal Return.
Diario de Oaxaca is visual micro-history: what Kuper experienced in Oaxaca, from the teachers’ strike to an earthquake, both of which he complains were wildly misreported in the media. How do you make sense of a world in which the ‘news’ is often not true, but mostly spin? How does your immediate world fit into the major currents of history, particularly when you have experienced what people are writing about, and the 'official reports' hardly resemble what you have seen with your own eyes? These are questions Kuper is asking about Mexico as well as the United States.
After the teachers’ strike was crushed by the government, Kuper turned his curious eye to entomology. Bugs and butterflies. His family traveled twelve hours to Michoacan, to the remote forests where millions of Monarch butterflies return to have sex and die, presumably a glorious death. Every night bugs invaded their home in Oaxaca. Scorpions. Black widow spiders. Unfathomable creepy crawlies. If only we could stomp on some of our politicians too!
Diario de Oaxaca is a remarkable book. On display is a mind that experiences the world in an astonished play that questions this world at the same time that it communicates its fractures, absurdities, and terrors. ‘Political cartoonist’ as a term to describe Peter Kuper, even though he uses it himself, does not do justice to the work. This is a book I will never give up. It’s curiosity in action. In words. In stunning, thoughtful artwork. It creates an unforgettable new world.
P.S. Take a look at Peter Kuper's show of original art from Diario de Oaxaca at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, and read a recent interview at Design Arts Daily.