29 February 2024
Ruins explores the shadows and light of Mexico through its past and present as encountered by an array of characters. The real and surreal intermingle to paint an unforgettable portrait of life south of the Rio Grande.
After its Eisner win in 2016, Ruins returns TODAY in paperback! Click here for a preview!
We sat down with author/illustrator Peter Kuper for a chat about his history with entomology, conservation, and the past, present, and future of Ruins.
SelfMadeHero: You recently described in Fictionable how moving to Oaxaca and visiting the Monarch sanctuary fulfilled a “lifelong dream” – Ruins came out years later, but how far back do its migratory themes go for you?
Peter Kuper: I was probably five years old when I'd heard about the existence of a place where Monarch butterflies would migrate, but in the western world exactly where millions of them flew remained a mystery. The image of a gathering of butterflies was lodged in my brain from then until 1976 when National Geographic magazine had a cover story on the discovery of the mountain location. I pored over those images of trees filled with Monarchs and it still took me another 30 years before I could see it for myself. It ended up more spectacular than anything I had imagined.
SMH: Entomology is also a lifelong passion for you, obviously. Did living in Oaxaca bring out your inner conservationist, or does that specific passion go back further as well?
Peter: Thanks to my parents, I had the good fortune to travel starting at a young age. My father had been a boy scout and my family camped with a tent and explored nature as long as I can remember. My father, a college professor, was always finding mushrooms to cook and foraging. We spent his sabbatical year traveling summers in a VW minivan through Europe and then lived for a year in Israel. I continued to travel as an adult – I met my wife while traveling in Spain and she and I spent years traveling around the world (Africa, Middle East, South East Asia, Central America) before moving to Oaxaca with our daughter. These travels opened my eyes to the planet and made me very aware of our limited resources and the value of basic things, like clean water.
SMH: That move to Oaxaca in 2006–2008 was with your wife and daughter, and you raised Monarchs there. In Ruins, Samantha and George take a lot of familial baggage on their Oaxacan sabbatical. Why turn a place you and your family know so well into a proving ground for characters with those anxieties?
Peter: I had done a good amount of autobiography in my career and wanted to explore beyond that. Creating fictional characters allowed me to put them in the center of things we had experienced from the sidelines. Many aspects were based on people I knew from our time there and I used that as a jumping off point. I had some idea about what would happen when I started, but as I wrote and drew it, the characters seemed to come alive and behave in ways I hadn't anticipated. I felt like I set certain things in motion, but the characters seemed to dictate some unexpected directions. I didn’t begin knowing exactly how the story would turn out, it was a process of discovery that expanded my work.
SMH: Colour is a powerful tool in Ruins. For years people have been poking fun at depictions of Mexico in film and television, where colours are often yellowed and muted. Conversely, you show colours brightening and diversifying as the characters travel south. Was this choice made with any motive beyond capturing the country’s vibrancy?
Peter: During the two years we lived here, I drew in my sketchbook constantly – that became an entire book published before Ruins called Diario de Oaxaca. I had time to take in the environment and all the colours and that poured into Ruins.
I really like the idea of playing with style and used that as a way to separate both chapters and locations. So in the beginning when my characters are in NYC the more rigid and linear environment of the city is in pen and ink with digital colouring. When they reach Oaxaca it changes and becomes more like my sketchbook drawings with coloured pencils and watercolour. I wanted to give the readers the same feeling I had arriving in Mexico – the wonderful foreignness, so much more organic than New York. Every other chapter is taken by the Monarch's migration from Canada and I did that in monochrome blues for the background so the butterfly would pop and your eye would land on the Monarch. Those chapters are also wordless which is another switch in tone to put readers in a different state of mind.
SMH: The cast of Ruins all have very specific perspectives. There are also great differences in terms of what means of seeing they use and what aspects of the world they tend to notice. Even the eponymous ruins play into the characters’ ways of seeing. Where did that particular throughline come from?
Peter: I tried to make the characters as real as the people I knew and so they naturally saw the world from different perspectives. The environment is an important character as well – there's so much history here on every street, the ghosts of the past abound. Living here gave me a strong sense of that – the visual contrast of someone on a cell phone walking past crumbling remnants of vanished empires inspired many visions. The journey the Monarch takes was a natural way to show contrasts and the struggle nature faces confronted by our modern world.
SMH: Has anything changed since Ruins’ original release in terms of what you hope readers learn from it, or even what it means to you as part of your body of work? Have things like your INterSECTS exhibition changed how you look back on Ruins?
Peter: I am deeply pleased to have Ruins come out at this moment, it's still fresh for me and I hope readers will find that too.
The plight of the Monarch has increased and their numbers are dwindling, so that's a horrifying direction that has only increased since Ruins was first published. The exhibition I had in 2022 at the New York Public Library reminded me how much Ruins informed where my work was heading. I had a fellowship at the Library in 2020-21 working on a graphic novel I proposed about the history of insects and the people who study them. Showing work from Ruins was one of the reasons they gave me the fellowship. I'm now finishing the final chapter of that book, INSECTOPOLIS, that takes what I started in Ruins following one Monarch and expands it into the story of dozens of insects. Ruins was a project that reminded me how interested I am in entomology and it links up as a bridge to my very current project. The fact that I'm writing these answers sitting in Oaxaca, where I've returned once again, closes the circle.
SMH: Ending on a lighter note, please tell us one of your favourite facts about the Monarch butterfly.
Peter: We still don't know exactly how Monarchs know how to find the very same forest in Mexico – one they have to fly thousands of miles to reach. Earth's electromagnetic field? The smell of fallen ancestors? A butterfly God whispers in their ear? We live in a world that is full of beautiful, unsolved mysteries.
Ruins returns in paperback TODAY in the UK, and migrates stateside on March 5th!
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The SelfMadeHero team