Peter Kuper‘s weary, gorgeous graphic novel Ruins is something of a slow-burner. No page numbers indicate the length that Ruins spans, but that only serves to lighten the load, as Ruins is as intoxicating as it is rambling. Ruins is a story that spans a kaleidoscopic amount of time, locations and emotions. There’s no one conventional story shown within Ruins, but its lengthily emotional sprawl is undeniably addictive.
Ruins follows budding author Samantha and her recently made redundant partner George as they take a sabbatical year from the safe confines of America to the wild exotica of Mexico. Samantha revels in returning to Mexico, but George remains uneasy at the thought of the trip. For both however, this is a journey that destroys, fixes, and then destroys again the balance in their relationship. Along with their own personal traumas, the political tensions run amok in the town of Oaxaca where they’re staying, resulting in a tender, mature, spiralling snapshot of human beings at their most vulnerable.
But that picture of human beings is really only realised in full once one reaches the end page. Before you even reache that stage, it’s Kuper’s artwork that’s going to astound and delight you, I promise. As something of a prologue to reading the novel in full, I encourage you to flick through the whole book, just to gain a brief flirtation with the artwork before you really get to grips with it. Kuper has a preference for warm, dulcet colours that match the somewhat tropical atmosphere of Mexico, but the warmth of his artwork never leaves Ruins, even in its darkest moments.
SelfMadeHero have a knack for publishing stories that feel like they should be recognised not just in sales and reviews, but in Oscar awards. Ruins is yet another title of theirs that, at first glance, has that feel, but ultimately, such a feeling winds up doing the novel a disservice. Kuper is no stranger to graphic fiction – he’s produced dozens of graphic novels, has been teaching about comics for over 25 years, and for the past twenty years has been illustrating the infamous Spy vs Spy comic for MAD Magazine. In all that time, Kuper seems to have perfected an idiosyncratic manner of visual story-telling. His illustrations have a highly comic (geddit?) flavour to them, as his characters almost become amusing caricatures when emitting emotion. Such a tactic doesn’t turn these characters into slapstick objects of comedy however. Rather, they make Ruins shed any sense of pretension, making it all the more enjoyable to read.
The stories found in Ruins themselves are a delight to read. Ruins is bursting with brief, standalone adventures for Samantha and George that are anchored by the journey they find themselves taking, both as a couple and as individuals. Political uprisings, holidays-within-holidays, befriending an array of ramblers who find themselves settled in Mexico, and life-ruining pasts all slither in and out of each other as the novel progresses. What begins almost as something of a buddy road-trip across another country finishes as something far more revealing. This is very much their story, but Ruins succeeds in moulding an entire world around the pair.
Ruins isn’t a heart-stopper of a novel. It’s not full of unforeseen twists and turns that have us shouting at the pages, and it’s not a wildly original take on a typical love story. But Ruins is acutely aware of its own simmering wonderfulness without having to flaunt it to death. Beautiful in both its depth and appearance, Ruins doesn’t like to make a fuss about itself, which in turn give the book more flavour and likeability. Simply put, a perfect graphic novel.