Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Michael Kupperman's Mark Twain's Autobiography is Designed to Thrizzle

Posted By on Wed, Sep 28, 2011 at 8:00 AM

click to enlarge twaincover_02.jpg
No less an authority than Conan O'Brien has said that cartoonist Michael Kupperman "may have one of the best comedy brains on the planet." Kupperman's Tales Designed to Thrizzle is the most notable humor comic currently in print (issue #7 comes out in November).

Drawing inspiration from Mad among other influences, Kupperman's brand of humor is punchy and ridiculous: men fall to their deaths climbing into floating sex blimps; a snake and a strip of bacon become a popular buddy cop team. Like the best satire, it reflects a vision of our world that is simultaneously accurate and abstracted.
click to enlarge bookcover_thriz7_02.jpg

Kupperman's new book, The Autobiography of Mark Twain, 1910 - 2010, comes from the same comedic source. Twain, imagined here as a farcical cipher, takes readers on a guided tour of his adventures through the 20th century, as he influences all manner of historical and cultural moments -- including World War II, the Warner Brothers gangster films of the 1930s, and the first Peanuts strips (which, according to our narrator, Schulz had originally titled Li'l Shits). Unlike Thrizzle, The Autobiography relies primarily on text to tell the story, with the pictures serving more or less as illustrations (there are, however, a couple of comic strip interludes along the way). Twain has appeared in segments of Thrizzle, too, as half of a superhero/adventure duo with Albert Einstein.

We corresponded with Kupperman recently via e-mail, and discussed his comedic influences, the fake Mark Twain, and the inherent absurdity of our commercial culture.

Did you attend art school? What kind of formal training did you receive as an artist?

I have a BFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York. I studied fine art. At that time I had no clear idea what I wanted to do with my life. It wasn't until a couple of years later that I committed to comic drawing, but drawing had always been my main focus.

Who have been your biggest comedic influences? Have you been receptive to different comic sensibilities at different moments in your life?

My comedic influences are endless and ongoing. Monty Python was a big influence early on, and the books they produced have been a big influence on Thrizzle in particular. They really put a lot of invention and work into those books, which is why they're the finest books ever produced by a TV franchise. I believe Eric Idle was the Python who worked the hardest on them; he deserves a lot of credit.

Some of my comedic influences are deliberately funny, others are not. The unwittingly bad, the pompously ineffectual, the flimsily maudlin -- these are all genres I warm to. The Sunday comics page on 9/11 this year was a good example. Like it does anyone any good to see Hagar and Momma weeping.

click to enlarge Twain & Einstein meet Oscar & Felix
  • Twain & Einstein meet Oscar & Felix
What is it about Mark Twain -- or the idea of Mark Twain -- that keeps bringing you back to him as a subject?

Well, it's not really him, obviously. It's this character I've created using him as a template. In some ways it's a classic modern farcical character -- blithely self-contradictory, faux-roguish yet easily shocked. He has some of the same qualities you find in Homer Simpson.

How did The Autobiography start out? Did you plan it as a book-length work?

It started as something I was just doing for my own amusement -- which is the best way to start any project -- and developed from there. Finally I called Fantagraphics and told them I wanted to do this book, and they said "Okay!"

People seem to react to absurdist humor with either enthusiasm or frustration. I wondered if even a successful humorist like you ever feels difficulty communicating with an audience.

It's nice you consider me a successful humorist! I feel plenty of frustration, because I'm working in the comics/"graphic novels" field, where my kind of humor is unknown. Humor in comics tends to be either coyly unfunny or flatly unfunny; the kind of humor that finds favor in magazine publishing tends to be the kind where you chuckle lightly, quite possibly because you've recognized a reference. I really do feel, in the modern scene, very alone, and not always in a good way, because I am meta-textual and funny.

You enjoy mining the impact of creeping commercialism on our culture -- for example, your Hardy Boys parody that turns into an ad for terrible biscuits. Is commercialism something that's on your mind a lot?

Isn't it on everyone's mind? Advertising has become a constant jibber-jabber at the corner of our computer screen and in our ears. I think Philip K. Dick was genuinely prescient on this and other aspects of our culture.

Also, advertising is inherently funny because it is someone lying to you. The more shaky and unreliable the language and tone are, the funnier it becomes.

Follow Casey Burchby and SF Weekly's Exhibitionist blog on Twitter.

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