Books

Comics Great Michael Kupperman on Fame, Family Trauma, and All the Answers

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With the arrival last week of his graphic memoir All the Answers (Gallery 13), Michael Kupperman, the cartoonist and deadpan pop Dadaist, has become the rare artist whose work has stirred from me both kinds of tears: I’ve laughed until I’ve cried, and now I’ve simply cried. His searching, dead-serious new book — Kupperman’s first extended narrative work — follows his investigation of a story that shaped his family’s life but that his family rarely discussed. His father is Joel Kupperman, who was perhaps the most famous boy in America in the 1940s and early 1950s, when he dazzled the country as one of the “Quiz Kids,” those whip-smart young know-it-alls on radio and then TV. Joel Kupperman’s feats of improvisational mathematics charmed millions throughout his youth, but we know today a truth that wasn’t readily apparent back then: Fame has a cost, especially for the young.

All the Answers dives deep, with clear eyes and some touching uncertainty, into the years that Joel Kupperman spent a lifetime not speaking of, digging up a continuity of family trauma but also many fascinating, surprising connections, inviting us to witness young Joel with Orson Welles and Chico Marx and to marvel at the possibility that the young boy’s fame was engineered, in a way, as a sort of positive propaganda to counter international anti-semitism.

The book arrives eighteen years after the publication of Michael Kupperman’s first, the riotous collection Snake ’n’ Bacon’s Cartoon Cabaret (still in print! still impossibly funny!). I’ve bought three copies of that Dada miscellany over the years, because everyone I’ve ever loaned it to finds an excuse not to give it back. The Brooklyn-based Kupperman, a father himself and just past fifty, has also published the marvelous goof Mark Twain’s Autobiography 1910–2010 (Fantagraphics, 2011) and collected editions of his comic Tales Designed to Thrizzle. All are strange and gorgeous works, funny as hell but also committed to the painstaking parody and reproduction of musty twentieth-century pulp and comics and pop culture. Kupperan’s attentiveness to what Forties comic covers and newspapers actually looked like has paid off here in All the Answers’ painstaking reproductions of family scrapbooks collecting news clippings and mementos of Joel Kupperman’s reign as America’s smartest kid.

I spoke to Kupperman in mid May.

You seem to be getting more attention with this serious, autobiographical work than with the funny comics that established you as one of the medium’s greats.

To be honest, that was one of the problems with doing the funny stuff, rarely getting written about or interviewed. My older, funny work involved the absence of meaning. There was nothing particularly strongly thematic about it or about me. That gave people nothing to write about, really. They could say This is funny or not, but there were no other angles to latch onto. The dissection of humor does not drive the news cycle.

As a cartoonist who has worked for so long in unmeaning, was it scary to attempt to stir in us feelings beyond laughter?

Oh, yeah. It was terrifying and very difficult and wrenching every single day. One of the most important things was to tell the story in a way that seemed honest and was not inflated in anyway. Writing the book was a process of reduction, removing material, taking out stuff that was only interesting as trivia.

Characters in your work always are boiled down to a perfect cartoon essence. In the new book you draw yourself as a man who seems to have a perpetual headache and exists in a state of near-panic. Is that what you were intending?

It’s fairly accurate, so yes. When you get to know me you find that I’m not a barrel of laughs all the time. I can be a pretty intense personality. The character I came up with looks a little like a sad, intense, middle-aged Tintin.

Usually, though, there’s some warmth in your caricatures of real people. When I look at your Michael Kupperman, I think, for possibly the first time while reading you, here’s someone he maybe doesn’t like very much.

Frankly, I feel the likeness is nicer and cleaned up from what I could have gone with. In some ways I do have a pretty negative self-image, and it can be a struggle to combat that.

Nothing could seem more benign in mid-century American culture than being the kid genius on TV and radio. The book suggests that it’s taken you a lifetime to fully understand what a traumatic experience that must have been, and that we still don’t quite understand what fame like that can do to a person, especially at that age.

Absolutely. The Quiz Kids experience went, along with the rest of my father’s childhood, into a kind of locked box. It was understood that talking about it would cause him pain, so we didn’t bring it up. It wasn’t until I started really examining it that I started to see what it had done to him — and through him to me and the rest of the family. His generation and the generations surrounding it were about not talking about stuff and not dealing with trauma. So it just went unexamined for years. Things that I really struggle with in my life come directly from this. I have a need to avoid attention, to be anonymous, to not be noticed, which goes very strongly against other aspects of my character. I have a modesty and pessimism about myself that’s so intense that even when things are going very well I can paint myself as a loser.

Are you able to feel, right now, with the book’s release, that you are doing well? Are you able to enjoy it?

It’s so recently that I’ve finished the book – it’s just been six or seven weeks since the last piece of working on this. I never went through therapy, so this was like an accelerated course of it. And now, going into this interview cycle, I realize I’m going to be discussing it over and over again, which is almost like continuing through therapy. Then there are all these open questions from the book. There’s a lot of things I open up, and I already have received some feedback and new information. It’s like I started a process. I feel a little punch-drunk waiting to see what happens next.

The book is the rare work of autobiographical art that concludes with the question of should this work exist.

Yeah. I do feel like I had to do the book. It was a very necessary thing in some ways. But I couldn’t help feeling that by asking these questions and by focusing on this I pushed him further into dementia, which I know a lot of people will tell me is completely ridiculous —

Of course we will. We’re all nice.

But I still feel it. But once I started looking into it, it was impossible to stop. It’s changed how some other people in the family see our family dynamic, including my mother.

You shared on Twitter a while ago an appealingly odd video your son shot of a fire hydrant. Then you said that if his YouTube channel gets too much attention you’re going to shut it down. Was that a joke?

Completely serious. I keep saying to him, “You read the book. That’s my statement on children becoming famous. I don’t want you getting too much attention.” Anything a child gets at that age is drawn from an account marked The Future that’s drawing on their future success and will affect them later.

Earlier you mentioned your “older, funnier” work. That phrase, of course, once seemed owned by Woody Allen. One panel in the book finds you, young, watching Allen’s Radio Days, a film that features a parody of your father. Did your father see the movie?

It surprised him and upset him. He was very hurt by it. After that he avoided any movie that might be dealing with quiz shows or that era, so he never saw Quiz Show or Magnolia. He was a very sensitive person, and was very hurt by mockery, especially public mockery.

I’m hung up on older, funnier. Are you retiring from comedy?

There just aren’t that many incentives. There’s a lot of humorous material being produced every day. We’re all used to getting it free on Twitter. It’s increasingly hard to get people to pay attention or to pay for it. It’s just not a good career path anymore.

All the Answers: A Graphic Memoir
By Michael Kupperman
Gallery 13
224 pp.

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