At the start of a new year, in our sometimes Kafkaesque world, it is good to realize that not all tales from the inner city are bad. What exactly do I mean by that remark? I hope you will be amused that it contains the titles of two new graphic story collections I am about to discuss. Today I look at works by master storytellers Peter Kuper and Shaun Tan, whose award-winning achievements I have reviewed before. Some earlier works by both artist/illustrators are discussed here, while more of Shaun Tan’s bravura efforts are described here and here. Both men have won acclaim, in part for their wordless or nearly wordless storytelling.
Words, though sparsely used, are integral to Peter Kuper’s Kafkaesque: Fourteen Stories (2018). On the book’s frontispiece, Kuper describes this work as a “conversation with [Franz] Kafka.’’ This Czech author (1883 – 1924) wrote such powerful novels and stories depicting the absurdities of government and cruel circumstances of people’s lives– including The Trial, The Castle, and The Metamorphosis—that his name has become a synonym for nightmarish bureaucracy—“Kafkaesque.”
With this new book, containing some stories that first appeared in his collection Give It Up! and Other Short Stories (1995), Kuper interprets Kafka’s insights in a boldly dramatic way. He has drawn on black-inked scratchboard, scratching away parts to achieve white highlighted images, to capture Kafka’s bleak—and sometimes bleakly funny—view of what Kuper sees as “the basic human condition.” Kuper also sees (as do I) connections between situations in Kafka’s stories and today’s Trumpesque “political and environmental climate.” Teen and older readers engaged by these challenging topics will appreciate Kuper’s storytelling here.
It is hard for me to single out a favorite, though “A Little Fable,” its mouse-like protagonist trapped in a maze, lingers in my mind. An overlapping panel and a close-up dramatize this rendition of life’s diminishing choices for this character (and possibly for any living being). Yet this character is trying his best, as is the narrator in “The Helmsman.” There the central character’s attempting to maintain his position at a ship’s helm is undercut by other crewmembers who cannot or will not question the person who has mysteriously asserted authority over them all.
Such resignation to authority also dominates the main character in “Before the Law,” even as we see him initially questioning the guard who will not let him enter an important government building. Kuper’s making this seemingly powerless figure a Black man adds another layer of meaning to this “conversation with Kafka.” The years-long fictional exchange here, portrayed in a two-page double spread swirl of images, ends ironically, with the guard’s revealing that this entrance was always meant for the now dying, too patient character. He never tried to force his way past the guard. Readers may well wonder about our own life choices and whether or when it is wise to delay action. Like most of the stories in Kafkaeque, these are only five or six pages long.
Two of Franz Kafka’s best-known short works, though, receive lengthier interpretations. Kuper devotes 22 pages to “A Hunger Artist” and 45 pages to “In the Penal Colony.” These sobering, thought-provoking stories about what spectacles people watch and what measures our judicial systems consider to be justice raise multifaceted questions. They touch on human nature in general but are also highly relevant to today’s social media-driven world and to current issues in U.S. judicial reform. Here, as is typical in Kuper’s work, panel size and shape vary to emphasize the mood of each story element. Similarly, Kuper’s exaggerated abstraction of facial features and body language dramatizes his sympathy with Kafka’s nightmarish views.
Shaun Tan’s Tales from the Inner City (2018) is more varied in tone than Kafkaesque, but it too contains dark elements as it explores the relationships among animals and supposedly superior human beings. The 25 prose poems and short stories here are Tan’s “sister volume” to his earlier collection of 15 illustrated short pieces, Tales from Outer Suburbia (2009). In both these works, it is the illustrations that will speak most eloquently to readers of all ages. Tan’s stories in this latest volume, though, seem geared to a tween on up audience.
As he has explained on his website and in interviews, Tan’s fascination with animals, the ways in which humans see them and ourselves as somehow totally separate and yet sometimes close allies, led to this new volume, in which animals appear in surprising ways inside cities. This unifying concept also helped the internationally acclaimed Australian artist to explore further another personal fascination—just how the human imagination works. Tan sometimes used his dream images as springboards; at other times, newspaper articles led him to experiment with different media to inspire the final visual piece, in each instance here a full-color painting. Sometimes Tan photographed real-life places, gaining naturalistic details, while at other points, his own drawings or “doodles” were his visual inspiration. One illustration—of a deer on the upper floor of a skyscraper—even early on was a diorama, populated by stand-up figures Tan made! The author built clay-and-plaster models for another painted illustration here, that of fish with almost human faces.
Giant snails on a city bridge; a leaping fox in a sleeper’s bedroom; in an echo of Kafkaesque legal systems, a bear with its lawyer lumbering up courthouse steps—these eerie images are memorable and thought-provoking. Yet it is Tan’s longer works centering on dogs and cats that also touch one’s heartstrings. A series of 13 wordless, double spread paintings depict the long history of human-canine interaction while also referencing the devotion of dogs to their humans. The short poems that accompany these paintings highlight the sad reality that dog lives are so much shorter than human ones—people will inevitably experience the loss of this bond. As Tan writes, “And when you died I took you down to the river. And when I died you waited for me by the shore. So it was that time passed between us.”
In a parallel twist on this theme, Tan illustrates a cat loss story with a painting of a literally absurd but emotionally-true situation. Just as the death of their cat has rescued a woman from frozen emotions, allowing her to shed tears as she grieves with other bereft cat “owners,” we see a giant cat rescuing its people. The woman and her young daughter sit on the now gigantic cat’s head, kept safely above a sea of crashing waves. Her newly-found ocean of tears will not capsize this mother with grief. Tales from the Inner City is full of such moving images, sometimes provoking sentimental as well as sharply-questioning responses.
Appreciative readers of these latest works by Peter Kuper and Shaun Tan will want to check out Kuper’s graphic version of Franz Kafka’s masterpiece novella, The Metamorphosis (2004). It already appears in some high schools’ curriculum. For an overview of Kuper’s works, including the more light-heartedly satirical “Spy vs. Spy” pieces he has created for Mad magazine, readers can browse the author/illustrator’s website. Shaun Tan’s website has interior links to his creative process for each of the Tales from the Inner City, as well as other works. Tan’s fans will also enjoy this brief video he made recently.
As we question ourselves and set goals for the new year, reading about such creativity is one empowering and inspiring step towards the future. Figuring out how to make the coming year less Kafkaesque remains a collective as well as an individual challenge.