Celebrity Killed The Radio Star

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One of the most moving, most significant, most powerful books I’ve read over the last few years is mainly made up of illustrations. It’s the remarkable ALL THE ANSWERS, a “graphic memoir” by Michael Kupperman, and I strongly urge you to give it a spin.

The author is not new to me. I published Michael Kupperman’s first book, SNAKE ’N’ BACON’S CARTOON CABARET, nearly twenty years ago. We had noticed his work in such publications as the Oxford American, and every time we saw another cheerily demented comic strip we wound up wiping tears of laughter from our faces. Mike has a straight-laced, almost retro drawing style that you can tell a mile away (by now, others are obviously trying to imitate it). But the cultural melange roiling around in his brain is unique, charming and dangerous. He loves old Hollywood, old media (heavy-breathing magazine ads from the Thirties and Forties are a huge inspiration), mass marketing to innocents, deliberately absurd juxtapositions — you can’t possibly get ahead of him before you turn the page.

Either you love this stuff to death or you want to throw it across the room. Some people at the publisher where I worked were far from smitten, but to their credit they said, we don’t get it, but we get that you get it. I got the green light and set out to find the guy who signed his work “P. Revess” by calling those magazines and asking, where do you send the checks? Turned out they headed right here, to New York City, to a guy named “Michael Kupperman.” When I called him to ask about his interest in possibly doing a book, I detected a hint of suspicion, the do-you-have-Prince-Albert-in-a-can type. But I proved my bona fides and we made a deal. No agent, no nuthin.

The book sold modestly but steadily (it’s still in print after all this time, which is an achievement on its own), but more important, it introduced Mike to a growing and influential audience. Art directors loved his funky visual style: I started to see his spot illustrations in unexpected places like the New Yorker. One week he did the cover and interior color illos for the lead story in an issue of Fortune. He was all over the place outside the comics field for a while. 

He was also getting noticed in the world of comedy. Andy Richter, Conan O’Brien’s original sidekick, was such an early fan that he gave us a quote for our book cover. Conan himself called Mike “probably one of the greatest comedy brains on the planet.” Robert Smigel, who is also probably one of the greatest comedy brains on the planet, heartily agreed and adapted some wild stuff for his TV FUNHOUSE, and Michael Kupperman was officially hip. There’s since been more tv, more illustration, more comics, and in 2013 Mike won the Eisner Award, comics’ highest honor, for a fevered, off-the-scale-hilarious story about the 1969 moon landing in his book TALES DESIGNED TO THRIZZLE.

I’ve been following Mike’s career as best I could in the years since we worked together. I’m proud of him. But nothing prepared me for this latest dazzler. It comes from someplace deep inside the artist, an excruciatingly personal corner where he hasn’t allowed us before. As the flap copy calmly states, “This is his first serious book.” 

Nearly every creative person I’ve ever encountered, myself certainly included, loves it when s/he is credited by name. A couple times I casually asked Mike why he’d usually gone by a pseudonym instead and never got a straight answer. Maybe this book provides a clue. I didn’t know it, but there was a time when “Kupperman” was one of the most famous surnames in America. It belonged to an unwitting pioneer of celebrity culture, a child star whose popularity was launched and exploited by the mass medium of radio. This was Michael’s father, Joel Kupperman. He was a Quiz Kid — probably the best known Quiz Kid of them all.

Joel was a “child prodigy” when that term was still new. He scored better than 200 on the Stanford-Binet test when he was only six years old. His specialty was doing complex mathematical calculations in his head; he was also a maven at trivia and remembered nearly everything he read. He was a perfect fit for QUIZ KIDS, a radio program created by broadcasting executive Louis G. Cowan (the author calls him “almost certainly the smartest person in this book”) in which children answered questions sent in by listeners. Joel’s first appearance was in 1942; he was five. 

Today Joel is a grandfather. He spent fifty years teaching and writing books about philosophy. He has been a good man, neither an abuser nor philanderer, but to his son lamentably distant. Now, before Joel succumbs to the dementia that has just been diagnosed, the young Kupperman wants to open a subject which his father has compartmentalized and never discussed: the traumatic years on QUIZ KIDS which basically stole his childhood, tormented him as he grew out of single-digit cuteness and the show migrated to television, and caused him to recoil from the whole experience. 

The complexities which intertwine to form this saga include the state of mass media in the mid-twentieth century, Joel’s stern and smothering stage mother, the role of anti-Semitism on QUIZ KIDS, the high price of fame, and most searingly, the poignant real-life relationship between a wounded father and his son, who is by now raising his own young boy. These strands dart and weave and intersect in magical ways: ALL THE ANSWERS turns on a dime from humor to heartbreak. 

It looks simple, but looks are deceiving. The pages are trimmed to 6-by-9, just like a book full of words. It’s drawn in black-and-white (as was the book we did together). The illustrative style is Kupperman-clean, with slightly more ornate chapter-heading ”splash pages,” and show off how the artist can conjure familiar people from real life with just a few economical lines (a secret cache of scrapbooks assiduously kept by Joel’s mother provides all the contemporary source material needed). The first-person narration is active, impassioned, haunting and honest, a world away from the hyperventilating wisenheimer of gonzo Kupperman comics.

The text in ALL THE ANSWERS is so clear that it serves to emphasize the rich subtext. Ideas, emotions, relationships, issues, injustices, yearnings — they all pop off the pages in deeply human ways. It appears to be hand-lettered, though I’ll bet there’s a computer involved by now, but this isn’t a comic book. It’s exactly what it claims to be: a graphic memoir. The closest cousin I can think of is Alison Bechdel’s FUN HOME, but this feels even more basic and vital, and you can’t stop comparing the World War II years — QUIZ KIDS’s golden age — with our culture today. As you read, Michael Kupperman’s very personal world expands to encompass your own. 

Artists are supposed to startle and surprise us. Boy, did this book deliver. I didn’t know Michael Kupperman had it in him. I’ll be thinking about this for a long time, especially while reading this talented man’s next outrageous bit of goofiness, which I hope comes along very soon. (He’s got an agent now.) It’ll be even more fun now that I know the guy a little better.

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4 Responses to Celebrity Killed The Radio Star

  1. Bill Fitzhugh says:

    I’m ordering mine today! Thanks for the heads up!

  2. […] Source: Celebrity Killed The Radio Star | You and Me, Dupree […]

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