The System on High-LowBy Rob Clough
October 7th, 2014
In some ways, Peter Kuper's The System is very much of its time with regard to its view of New York City. Written in 1995, its Times Square is still sleazy and the city (especially its downtown area) was far less gentrified than it is now. That said, its central plot beats--police corruption, racially-charged violence, insider trading, the threat of terrorism--are still all too familiar. This is my favorite of all of Kuper's comics, as it synchs up his interests in urban storytelling, political rabble-rousing, silent storytelling and his personal relationship with New York. It's also his most visually inventive and ambitious, as he spray-painted stenciled sheets to get a gritty, graffiti-inspired effect on each page. Given that the visual theme of the book is the way seemingly random people and things intersect and affect each other, the fact that colors literally bled into one another from panel to panel only helped to reinforce this theme.
There's an orderly sense of chaos in how Kuper designs his pages. He resolutely stays away from any set sort of grid pattern on a page to page basis. In the second chapter, a brutal race-related murder is framed such that the panels are all askew, as though they were rocking or vibrating. Some of his panel-to-panel transitions are simple, while others are more dramatic and abstract, like the scream of a murder victim giving way to the tracks and train of a subway. A pigeon is his go-to way of moving the action somewhere new, as the bird draws away our eyes when Kuper simply wants to shift scenes without having characters intersect.
Peter Kuper's New York is one with predators, prey, and those in-between, trying to live their lives. Some of the characters meet horrible and unjust fates. Others have surprisingly sweet happy endings. Some of the corrupt are busted, while many more of the corrupt continue to exploit and profit off of others. Some murderers walk away clean, while others are punished in the most dramatic and ironic ways possible. Kuper's amazing achievement is keeping over a dozen different stories tightly wound around each other, effortlessly weaving them in and out of each other over the course of a few days. Some of the stories are a bit on the broad side and even feel a bit silly (like a corporate saboteur being brought in to nuke a competitor's building), though after the events of 9/11, who can say what's broad? Relying on simple visuals means Kuper can't afford much in the way of restraint or subtlety, neither of which were ever his strong suit to begin with. In the system, he uses that bluntness effectively and beautifully, making each and every page look like a beautiful bit of street art. Street art is frequently simple, bright and direct, and that's what Kuper aims for here. That said, he also manages to throw in a murder mystery, a political thriller, a cop procedural and various other kinds of stories into the book all at the same time, and pulls each of them off seamlessly. More than any of his other comics, The System is admirable simply because of the beauty of its structure. I do think that the final-panel reveal of a (literal) ticking time-bomb was a tad on the ridiculous side and betrayed the cyclical nature of the storytelling in the rest of the book. It was too much an "end of history" moment for a book that essentially showed that at any given time in the city, there's a cycle of predators and prey, lovers and artists going about their day, the rich trying to exploit the poor and certain elements of the underclasses that try to fight back in their own ways. By teasing an explosive game-changing end felt a bit cheap and went against the grain of the rest of the book. That said, the rest of the book worked as a distillation of much of Kuper's career as an artist and editor.