Michael Kupperman’s work traffics in one-off and absurdist premises and is immersed in a certain kind of Americana nostalgia. His ongoing series Tales Designed to Thrizzle, which comprises eight issues collected in two volumes, features jokes that riff on everything from Dick Tracy villains to the Hardy Boys; Mark Twain and Albert Einstein team up for raunchy adventures; and fake 1940s-era ads for haunted chewing gum punctuate oddball comics about magicians and Picasso. Kupperman’s work is notable not just for its impeccable comedy but for lampooning its subjects in a contemporaneous style and language, making the comic simultaneously irreverent and ahistorical.
It was a surprise, then, to learn that his latest effort, All the Answers, isn’t humorous. The graphic memoir is a serious look at his father’s time as the math whiz on the popular 1940s radio and television program Quiz Kids, a show that featured hyper-bright children and teens answering difficult questions on topics in their area of expertise. While most kids ended their tenure on the show before high school, Joel Kupperman stayed on well into his teens, spending a decade or so living as a minor celebrity—a life that was fraught with anxiety and discomfort. As an adult, he repressed the experience and refused to talk about it until Kupperman began researching his years as a child and teen sensation. On a sunny day in April, Kupperman and I spoke by phone about the book’s impact on his family and his own understanding of his father’s trauma.
All the Answers begins with your early awareness of a decline in your father’s mental acuity. Why did you decide to make that decline the subject of a book?
It was really a combination of personal and professional coming together. I was looking for a more serious project to do, because all my work up until that point had been humorous, and my career trajectory was not going in a positive direction—it felt like things were falling apart. I also realized that my father was losing his mental cohesion and that I had very little time if I was going to get anything from him. In some ways, honestly, I didn’t want to do this book because it was so personally painful. If I’d had any excuses not to do it, I would probably have abandoned it in the early stages. Once I passed a certain point with it, and some realizations about my family and myself had become apparent, I really had to complete it.
What were those realizations?
My father’s early stardom was an odd bit of trivia we never talked about in the family, and when you stop talking about things, you stop thinking about them, too. And when I began examining ideas and conditions I grew up with, it was startling—not just for me but for other members of my family, including my mother. I shared with her and others some of the conclusions I’d arrived at, including the belief that he was partly used for propaganda purposes. They were resistant at first, but they came around, and it changed their conception of our family’s dynamic, too.
For me, I realized that so much of what I’d grown up with and what had informed me as a person was the effect his stardom had had on him. To give one example, I realized that my parents’ attraction to English culture is partly because of its intellectualism and linguistic cleverness, but it’s also because the British grant themselves an enormous amount of reserve and emotional privacy, which, to a person like my father, was immensely attractive. The things my parents went for, socially or intellectually, were things that allowed them cover. So some of what I was taught as a kid were the result of a psychology born of trauma, and that trauma, in a way, had been passed to me secondhand. Once I’d come to understand these things, I had to engage with them. There was also the fact that, because my father was entering dementia, I was becoming the head of the family, and I wanted to seize control of the family narrative and understand it. I wanted to own it, not hide it anymore.
My father’s story had been a kind of skeleton in the closet for so long. I don’t think what happened to him was something to be ashamed of, which is the way we were taught to think of it, but as a cautionary experience. And I started to see the effect it had had on me. I am an extremely conflicted person. I have a need for attention that’s central to who I am, but I also have a strong need to avoid attention, an instinct to hide that is very hard for me to fight. I’m modest, not in a healthy, pleasant way but in a profoundly self-negating way that has worked against me in many situations. I struggle with an extremely negative self-image. Most of this, I realized, can be traced back to the way I was raised.
How did you navigate the serious tone of this book, given that your earlier comics are comedic?
It was a lot of work. It’s not hard not to be inadvertently funny—you just don’t write the funniest thoughts that occur to you. But here, I worried most about keeping the tone of the language informational and keeping the flow going. I believed that if I could communicate humor through my writing, then I could communicate other emotions, like sadness and loss. But there were issues I’d never faced before, and I wrote draft after draft after draft.
Was it a matter of reduction, or did each part of the narrative pose its own unique problems in terms of that tone and fluidity?
I didn’t want a reader to have to work to get through this book. That’s why the structure of the chapters is modeled after classic comic books. It’s meant to pull you through, keep you reading. And reduction was the key. I had to keep my eye on what the story was about and focus on that. There are many fascinating details, cool stories, and bits of trivia I removed. This book is not about old show business per se, or how cool it was to be in his position—even though he had many extraordinary experiences, he didn’t enjoy most of them.
And the book isn’t about me, either, even though it needed my pain to work. I changed the final two chapters radically during the last months of work on it. There was a lot more about who I am, the negative effects I feel my upbringing has had on me. I removed that stuff because it was wrong for this book. This book is about my father first—my experience is secondary.
Did you have touchstones you referred to as you worked on the book? And did you read a lot to figure out how you might work through the story?
It’s funny, because before starting on this I hadn’t been reading a lot of graphic fiction, only stuff people thrust into my hands. But right before beginning, I read as much as I could, pretty much any comics I could get my hands on, looking especially at the storytelling. I read a lot of Grant Morrison, who I think is one of the greatest storytellers in superhero comics. I read a bunch of graphic memoirs, and most I took as negative examples. Many of them are not clear enough in their story, too many digressions, and are difficult to read. The closest I came to a positive example was David Small’s Stitches, which was about his scientist parents.
But most of what I read was not an influence. I think a lot of graphic work, even when it’s personal, is cold and withholding of emotion. I wanted to do the opposite. I wanted to have something that would communicate emotion. I wanted this book to be readable by anyone, even people who did not regularly read comics, or people who are not used to that style of getting information. The other thing I realized about superhero comics, as opposed to graphic memoirs, is that superhero comics are more likely to give information only in visual form. A lot of graphic memoirs will give information in verbal form, which is then backed up by the image. I wanted some of the information in my book to be purely visual, otherwise it’s not enough of a reason to be a graphic memoir.
With humor, you start with a premise and unwind the plot or bit for comedic beats. Since the goal of this book isn’t to parody, lampoon, or generally be funny, how did you find the narrative marks that would shape it into a cohesive story?
I looked for those markers in my own experience and in what I was feeling. Those were my biggest cues—remembering how the train of my investigation and my thinking about the subject had developed. I tried to keep the experience I’d had while doing the book as authentic as possible, so it really is as though I lived it and then arranged it in a narrative format.
And as I said, part of developing this book was restricting what it wasn’t about. I tried to give a few moments of flavor of what our relationship was like during my childhood. His essential coldness at certain moments really stood out. And I don’t even believe he is essentially a cold person, at the center of his being. I think he does love me. He was imprisoned by trauma, frozen and unable to express himself. After he entered dementia, his emotions became much closer to the surface.
Your earlier comics draw heavily on the era of your father’s youth.
Absolutely. I didn’t realize until doing this book how many references I’d put into my entire body of comics about that era. There’s a story I did called “Boybank,” which appears in the first volume of Tales Designed to Thrizzle, about a boy band, and there is some stuff in there that’s straight from a 1940s comic Mark Newgarden gave me about the Quiz Kids. There’s a character I did called Wonder Book Junior, Boy Detective.
It’s obvious now that it was always in the back of my mind. In my twenties, I became very interested in the humor of the thirties and forties. I was watching a lot of Marx Brothers, and it was a shock to pick up a book about them and see a picture of my father with Chico. He spent time with the comedians I was becoming fascinated with. I’d ask him about them, and he’d always say the exact same thing—Oh, he was a nice man. He said that about everyone—movie stars, ballplayers, politicians, war heroes, and all the celebrities of the era. It was the only impression he seemed to have allowed himself.
Your drawing style in the memoir isn’t distinctly different from your other comics work. Did you think about approaching it differently in order to separate it emotionally from that work?
I feel like my father is sort of the genesis for a character type that has been seen repeatedly in movies and comics since then, including in the stories of J. D. Salinger, the comics of Chris Ware, movies like Magnolia, and so on. The reality of being that type of person is very different from any artistic depiction I’ve seen. I thought long and hard about the approach. I wanted this book to feel very immediate and somewhat loose, so I didn’t want to get too labored and fussy. I wanted it to feel as if I had done it all in a rush, which I had.
I hand-lettered the whole book. I also did all the cover design and lettering, indicia, every piece of the book except the bar code. Every bit of it was done by hand. I haven’t always done that, but I felt it was important to do with All the Answers because the book is like magic for me, it’s a ritual of a kind and I wanted it to be absolutely perfect, or as close as I can get.
Did the personal nature of the book produce any challenges in terms of the drawings?
The area where that really applies is my likeness, because I tried in earlier drafts to present a real portrait of myself. It was quickly apparent that that would be too exhausting and would add a layer of emotional stress. I realized I had to create a cartoon character that would represent me, because that was going to be the only way I could get through it. I mean, one of the things I didn’t explore in the book is the fact that I have a hard time seeing myself. I’m just not aware of myself in the same way I’m aware of other people, and I find my appearance distressing. So to draw my father from memory two hundred times was no problem, but to draw myself even once was an immense labor.
The cartoon you is a sort of Tintin look-alike, complete with beady eyes and flipped-up hair. Was this a way to position yourself as a character on an exploratory mission?
That’s very true, and portraying myself as a character that represents the investigative energy of the book required, I think, that kind of stylization. In terms of structure, it’s not a comic book per se, but it has the language of comic books, so it has chapters that are structured somewhat like issues of comics, and it has a central figure that is recognizably a cartoon character.
At the end, you ask whether it’s ethically appropriate to publish a book about your father’s greatest pain and struggle. Have you now reconciled that question?
Well, yes, I do feel that I have a right to tell this story. I’ve earned it, and I needed to do it, for myself and my family. As for my father, he’s passed the point of knowing. He passed through an arc of saying, No, I don’t care, you can do a book about it. And then a little later, saying, No, I don’t think you should do a book. To which I replied, I’m sorry, but I’ve put in too much work on it. I’m not going to stop. Then, later, he was okay with it again. And now, he’s at stage-four dementia. If you mention Quiz Kids or the fact that I’m doing a book, he looks very troubled, but he can’t articulate why.
You mentioned at the start of our conversation that you felt things were not going well in your career. What did you mean?
There’s a glut of humor right now, and nobody really wants to pay for it. I’ve had some good luck in my career, but some hard luck, too. A lot of a career is timing. I started after the undergrounds and Raw were over, during the age of the zines, and, although I’ve worked for a lot of places, I’ve never had a long tenure with any of them, never had any kind of security. A lot of art directors and clever people in the publishing world like my work but think it’s too clever, weird, or anarchic for regular people. They’ve hired me to do other, less interesting work. And the twenty-first century is a terrible time to do what I do. The complete failure of the trickle-down economy means that you can be employed past your physical level of endurance and still have trouble paying the rent.
Meanwhile, I think that readers right now are obsessed with meaning, that they are hungry for it. So that also informed this book. If I’m lucky, if this is a success, maybe some people will be curious and discover my earlier work. As it is, I don’t know how I can continue. I need this book to do well. The great comic artists of the twentieth century were allowed to develop their styles over years until they became masters. They were allowed to suck, and that let them become amazing later. Those conditions don’t exist anymore.
I was also doing comics all the time I was doing this book. I did a huge amount of comics for both Vice online and adultswim.com, partly because I needed to keep money coming in but also because I wanted to be busy while doing the book, as counterintuitive as that may sound. I didn’t want this book to be created in a void. I wanted it to have the feeling of someone who was doing other comics at the same time, if that makes sense. It was a device to prevent myself from making it too fussy or precious. If I increased the pressure on myself, and also the amount of drawing I was doing every day, it felt like that would help, and actually I do believe it did.
Eric Farwell’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Believer, GQ, Esquire, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and elsewhere.
Last / Next Article