AUTHOR: PETER KUPER | ART: PETER KUPER| PUBLISHER: W. W. NORTON & COMPANY | FORMAT: HARDCOVER | RELEASE DATE: NOVEMBER 26TH
Peter Kuper’s art style is a force to be reckoned with. His sense of expression sears itself into your eyes, with his characters appearing as if caught in a psychedelic nightmare. His style remains intact with his latest work - Heart of Darkness. This adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s controversial 1899 novella is the latest in a long line of sequential interpretations of cult and classic literary works that dominate Kuper’s back catalogue. Distinguishing itself from Kuper’s recent output, Heart of Darkness lacks the humorous warmth of the Eisner-winning Ruins and the ruthless energy of Kafkaesque. What it does shoot for is a paranoid sense of mystery that plays well against Kuper’s visual robustness.
Since its publication, Conrad’s original text has been the source of never-ending debate, as critics, scholars, and readers alike continue to make sense of the book’s themes of colonialism and racism. The book tells the story of eager expeditioner Marlow’s river-based journey from London to the Congo Free State in Africa, experiencing a maddening mental rush as he journeys deeper into the country’s titular heart. That prevailing sense of dread is the focus of Kuper’s adaptation, encapsulating his attitude towards adapting the original work itself. Throughout, Kuper wrestles with the moods of antagonistic ignorance of its white settlers, while his unflinching depictions of the characters’ racist attitudes towards African natives feels like Kuper commenting on the original work itself, though it’s a surface-level judgement of a notorious text that doesn’t feel like it has the impact it should.
The perfectly matched kinetic partnership between Kuper’s drawings and Franz Kafka’s unnerving narratives from Kuper’s most recent literary adaptation, Kafkaesque, isn’t to be found here. In the comic’s introduction, Kuper acknowledges the herculean task of breathing new life into a problematic text such as this. Kuper’s characteristically dynamically detailed illustrations flex themselves throughout the comic, whilst the art is baked in a warm, monochrome style, reflecting the exotic locale Marlow ventures into as his dreams of journeying across rivers come true, with freakish, frightening consequences. However, that’s perhaps Heart of Darkness’s greatest flaw. It places so much emphasis on the story’s sense of dread that the opportunity to tackle the racism is left relatively untouched. Heart of Darkness ultimately coasts on the feelings it conjures, observing without really grappling with the original book’s problematic concepts.
Kuper’s interpretation of Heart of Darkness isn’t perfect. It carries a weighty sense of grim anticipation for its protagonist’s journey, but never quite offers a cohesive conclusion, no final judgement. Still, Heart of Darkness feels like a very suitable book for Kuper to adapt. Beyond literary transformations, the idea of travel is central to Kuper’s output. Spinning out of Ruins, its prototype prequel Diario de Oaxaca: A Sketchbook Journal of Two Years in Mexico, and similar travel journals focusing on New York, Africa and Asia are other works of Kuper that celebrate the idea of journeying to new places. Culminating Kuper’s bibliography, Heart of Darkness melds two key aspects of his work: the travel and the literary. It’s just a shame that this latest work from such a driven, powerful visual voice should come off as more unsatisfying than it means to be.