This interview with Michael Kupperman about his new book Mark Twain's Autobiography 1910-2010 was conducted by Fantagraphics intern Steven Davis. Thanks to Steven and Michael!
STEVEN DAVIS: You’ve been talking about doing a longer-form narrative for a while. What made you decide on the autobiographical format?
MICHAEL KUPPERMAN: It’s just what I fell into doing. I find the reasons for doing things, the “why,” is very important, and if you’re doing what you’re doing because it genuinely amuses, you’re in the strongest position possible. I just started writing a couple of chapters and I was enjoying it, and it felt like the right thing to do to go for a book.
DAVIS: How do you feel about your results?
KUPPERMAN: Well, I’m always self-critical to a painful degree, but I do find myself laughing when I look at it. I feel pretty good, I guess; the reader’s reaction is all up to whether they find me funny or not.
DAVIS: Was it refreshing to work with a different format?
KUPPERMAN: It’s interesting to notice the difference. Both are wonderful escapes — and with writing I’m able to execute some rapid changes of idiom — but one notable thing is that writing has more of a time limit. You can only write for two or three hours at a stretch before you start to lose focus, I find. Whereas drawing is an activity you can really lose yourself in for as long as you can stay awake — I’ve drawn for as long as 20 hours at a stretch.
DAVIS: Why is Mark Twain a better target for parody than his partner Albert Einstein?
KUPPERMAN: Well, there was the occasion of the anniversary of his death: That really tipped the scales. But Einstein only really works for me as a character in relation to Twain: the same way Harpo only worked in relation to Chico or Groucho. Not alone. I’d love to do more with the two of them, though.
DAVIS: There’s a full chapter in the book that is cartooned, in which Mark Twain finds himself an accidental member of the Apollo 11 mission. Why did you decide to cartoon this section?
KUPPERMAN: I just wanted to break up the text a bit, and the Moon mission seemed like a good excuse to do some cartooning. That’s one in which many of the jokes are more visual.
DAVIS: Did any ideas that you’d originally intended to be comics get transformed into prose?
KUPPERMAN: No. That’s not so easy to do… A lot of ideas only work for the medium you invented them for. I have a bunch of material from my various aborted TV pilot deals that I can’t find a way to re-use, unfortunately.
DAVIS: What is the appeal of autobiographies? How does that translate into satire?
KUPPERMAN: Autobiographies have an automatically funny component in the self-deception that we all practice, which can be inadvertently revealing. The self-justifying and obfuscation that most autobiographies contain are comedy gold. The last two I read were the autobiographies of Jerry Weintraub and Esther Williams. Both contained comedic elements, although Esther was by far the better swimmer.
DAVIS: What specific autobiographical tropes did you most focus on subverting?
KUPPERMAN: False modesty is a big one, also unwittingly revelatory anecdotes, such as when the aliens try to get Twain to have sex with Sophia Loren; and the shaping of one’s life into a narrative, and how unreliable that can be.
DAVIS: You’ve talked about simplifying the cartooning in order to better focus on the humor. How is this reflected in Twain as compared to your past works?
KUPPERMAN: I think the Twain book is a big step forward in that direction. The art is much more streamlined, and less influenced by art from the past. I concentrated on just carrying the jokes through the art.
DAVIS: There’s a momentum in Tales Designed to Thrizzle that moves the reader through the book, even though it lacks a continuous narrative. In what ways did you approach flow and progression for Twain?
KUPPERMAN: I tried to vary the tone of the chapters enough so that the reader would be carried through what is basically a series of routines… I’ve never sustained one scenario for so long, but I’m eager to move on to longer projects still.
DAVIS: How did Snake ‘N’ Bacon become your flagship strip?
KUPPERMAN: People kept asking for it. And when Avon (subsequently bought by HarperCollins) asked me to do a book, they insisted Snake ‘N’ Bacon be in the title. Then later on Scott Jacobson and Rich Blomquist from The Daily Show spearheaded the Snake ’N’ Bacon pilot for Adult Swim, same thing. They’re anti-characters, basically: extremely limited in almost every way.
Some people do really seem to like them. I’ve even seen tattoos!
DAVIS: I’m curious about your past pseudonym P. Revess. Where did this come from and where did it go?
KUPPERMAN: It was just the prefect pseudonym I came up with— mysterious, ambisexual — and I stopped using it because some dumb editor at New York Press told me I should just use one name, my own. And I was an idiot and listened to her.
DAVIS: Were your parents supportive as you pursued a career as an artist?
KUPPERMAN: Yes. I don’t know if they saw it coming but they’ve adjusted well.
DAVIS: What type of art were you interested in when you attended art school?
KUPPERMAN: Basically anything and everything (still am):What I didn’t know was how I should fit into it all...
DAVIS: How were you first exposed to surrealism and dadaism?
KUPPERMAN: Through Alice in Wonderland and books like that, but I think it’s just part of the culture now. Comedy now has a strong strain of surrealism in it.
DAVIS: What has kept you interested in surreal humor?
KUPPERMAN: It’s what I respond to. I love idioms sliding into each other and situations that melt and transform: dream logic, where meaning shifts and overturns.
DAVIS: You’ve talked about being influenced by sketch comedy shows, Monty Python and SCTV. A few years ago you had the chance to write some sketches for The Peter Serafinowicz Show. Was that a pretty easy adjustment for you?
KUPPERMAN: It wasn’t an easy situation, because I was so far away. The real writing action was taking place in London, and I was in New York. Even when an idea came from me — the whole acting-class thing, which in my version was with Michael Caine —it would be so heavily re-written that it wasn’t so much mine anymore. That’s just the way things work. I’d love to try again on a more level playing field.
DAVIS: I know you’ve talked a little about this before. But can you discuss some of your experiences writing scripts for DC — Any differences in your process? Any challenges? Any new creative avenues it allowed you to explore?
KUPPERMAN: It was frustrating — the more of those comics I did, the less rewarding it became. The very first one — a Jetsons story where Mr. Spacely becomes a baby— was probably the best. But the editing became more and more severe. The last story I did was a Scooby-Doo — they even changed the name of a character I wrote from Murderous Pete to Homeless Pete! I didn’t pursue it after that.
DAVIS: You’ve called Twitter a "petri dish of comedy.” For you, is the Internet mostly helpful or distracting?
KUPPERMAN: Helpful, but you have to limit your exposure or depression will result. I do love Twitter and the people I’ve met on there, and I try not to let it prevent me working.
DAVIS: You’re currently producing a weekly comic called Up All Night. Will any of these strips or related strips be featured in future issues of Thrizzle?
KUPPERMAN: Perhaps some of them…
DAVIS: In an interview last year you mentioned a potential project with Adult Swim after the Snake ’N’ Bacon pilot wasn’t picked up. Can you elaborate on that at all?
KUPPERMAN: Yes- they hired me to develop a horror pilot. But by the time I had characters and a scenario their attention had completely drifted away. This happened to a lot of talented and well-known comedy people last year, so I’m not alone! Dealing with Adult Swim is like trying to talk to someone peaking on an acid trip. You never know what they’ll say or do next...
DAVIS: Between TV Funhouse and the Snake ’N’ Bacon pilot, you’ve done quite a bit of work in animation. How do you feel about the current state of animation?
KUPPERMAN: I am indifferent, since I’m not involved. There really isn’t anything that’s compelling me to watch lately...
DAVIS: Many alternative cartoonists have transitioned into animation and videogames. How interested are you in pursuing jobs in different media?
KUPPERMAN: I’m only interested as long I continue to exist as an artist! So it has to be on my terms to some extent. I had that with the S&B pilot, which is why it was so amazing. I drew every inch of the animation, that’s why it looks the way it does. But I have a horror of producing crap, and unfortunately most media product ends up being just that.
DAVIS: How does your work reflect what’s going on across media, in terms of humor, today?
KUPPERMAN: I think my humor is very contiguous with the humor that’s going on now in live comedy, the better TV comedy, podcasting the smart stuff. Not comics though: I feel very alone there. Most other humor in comics is excruciating.
DAVIS: You have a serious graphic novel called Henry Spelman in the works. Can you tell us any more about that?
KUPPERMAN: Not at the moment! I’m trying to examine my options with as clear a head as possible. My bank balance is always a concern, and right now I’m just trying to stay alert. I’m hoping to get into the Spelman project soon, but it’s a matter of balancing the work against the chances of an advance in today’s publishing world, truly the worst and least hospitable ever. And I’m waiting to see how the Twain book does…
Don't forget to catch Michael Kupperman on the "Twain in the Membrane" book tour! -- janice