In many respects, Ruins is a fictionalization and recapitulation of Peter Kuper's 2010 book Diario de Oaxaca, which was a highly elaborate sketchbook diary of his time living in Mexico around 2006. Oaxaca is well known as a tourist center that draws in a lot of ex-pats because of its unique charms and focus on the arts. Cartoonists like Steve Lafler and Carrie McNinch have also spent time living there. During Kuper's tenure, Oaxaca's annual teacher's strike for higher wages turned into a brutal military crackdown, and Kuper captured that with his drawings. He also became fascinated by the insect life he observed and was interested in capturing all aspects of living in the town without romanticizing them. Still, his love of Oaxaca despite (and mostly because of) its quirks was obvious when reading the book. Kuper is one of the founders of the politically charged anthology World War III Illustrated, and awareness of the social justice ramifications of what he saw came naturally to him. That said, it was surprising to see that both in his diary and in the fictionalized Ruins, he never examines his own role as an ex-pat and what effect he had had on Oaxaca, be it positive or negative.
Ruins follows two separate narratives. The first follows the migration of a monarch butterfly from Canada back to a specific small forest in Mexico. The second follows an American couple named George and Samantha who have decided to take a sabbatical in Oaxaca. An entomologist specializing in scientific drawings, George has just lost his job. Sam is looking to write her book and also wanting to repair her marriage, with her desired outcome being a child. George is Kuper's stand-in in some ways: he's an artist who loves drawing insects who winds up getting swept up in the politics of Oaxaca. He's also different: he's irascible, aimless, and adamant about not having children. Sam is secretive and closed-off for a variety of reasons, and Kuper makes it clear that George is aware of how closed-off she is and resents it. Both of the protagonists are highly flawed and neither is very likable, though both earn sympathy as the book progresses.
The narrative about the butterfly mirrors the journey of Sam & George in some ways. The butterfly migrates in order to mate, for example. The butterfly is also our guide to a number of "ruins" along the way: tenements in New York City, nuclear power plants in Pennsylvania (echoes of Three Mile Island), strip-mining in West Virginia, migrant farmer abuse in Florida, the brutality of the border patrol in Texas, and a drug deal gone wrong in Monterrey. There's no doubt that Kuper's skill as an illustrator is exquisite and makes him one of the few artists capable of contrasting the beauty of nature and the ugliness of man in such a visceral manner. The commentary is not exactly subtle, but then Kuper's always had a tendency to use his cartooning as a kind of blunt force object with regard to political commentary. He's far more successful in using this kind of imagery within the context of the story, while integrating it within the larger narrative. The repetitive nature of the interstitial pieces actually lessened their overall impact, as the reader knows what is coming, more or less.
Kuper's real achievement in the book is turning the reader against his protagonists at the beginning and then slowly allowing the events of the book to humanize them. George is angry at himself, at the world, and at his wife when the book begins, chiding her constantly for small offenses and generally showing a poor attitude. Sam is self-obsessed, selfish, distracted and secretive. As Kuper slowly reveals, Sam has a past in Oaxaca that she's trying to come to terms with, as she was once married to a man from the town and was pregnant with his child, only to lose both of them due to a strong undertow at a nearby beach. She didn't share any of this with George, whom she married because he seemed solid & steady but also slightly romantic as a painter. Sam is a deeply damaged person trying to find herself, and it is clear that she thinks the child she desperately wants would salvage things with George and bind their unraveling marriage.
George proves to be surprisingly open to exploring Oaxaca, as he make friends with a bookstore owner and a photojournalist driven to alcoholism after a lifetime of recording the horrors of war. He becomes fascinated by the area's insects, yammering on about them despite his wife's obvious indifference to his interests. The further the book goes on, the more he tries to honestly explore his environment, as he starts to learn Spanish, becomes involved with the teacher's strike (drawing a number of striking images of resistance and oppression), and even befriends one of the neighborhood's wild dogs. After seeming steadfastly opposed to change, it's George who winds up evolving the most as a character.
Sam, on the other hand, finds herself living in the past. She realizes only too late that in returning to Mexico, she is trying to recreate her past rather than form a new present with George. Writing her book (which Kuper interpolates with Aztec history) is less a process of creating something new than it is a way of processing her past and her feelings about George. Her flaw is her unwillingness to share her past with George and her obsession with trying to recreate what she lost. That leads her to an affair with a local artist that George eventually discovers at the same time he discovers a pregnancy test that reads positive. The irony is that George was starting to come around to the idea of having a child, but it is obvious by this point that neither of them is really motivated to do the work necessary to maintain a healthy marriage, and they probably never should have been married in the first place.
Kuper was gutsy in writing a story where love doesn't triumph over everything, as the happy ending here is that both characters find self-actualization apart from each other. That said, Sam's character felt undercooked in comparison to George. We know that she wants to write a book, but we never get a real sense of her intellectual or aesthetic life that's not somehow connected to her reliving her past, wanting a baby or having an affair. Also, the fact that the only significant native character is their maid is also troubling, even if Kuper briefly tries to show a bit more of her life. In a sense, George and Sam are initially kind of unwitting conquistadors (a running theme in the book). This is a story that shows a lot of respect and affection toward Oaxaca (verging on but never crossing the line into exoticization), but it's an ex-pat story nonetheless. That respect is made manifest in Kuper's astonishing facility with his watercolors and colored pencils. It's not quite as bright as his diary, as he reigns it in for storytelling purposes, but every single page is still a visual feast. His drawings of forests, ruins, and the town itself are at times vivid almost to the point of psychedelic. His character design is highly stylized but fitting within the bright aesthetic that he conjures. Kuper may have overreached a bit in trying to fit his personal and political interests in a single book, but there's no doubting his ambition or skill.