Celebrity Killed The Radio Star

January 18, 2019

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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.


Civil Righting

February 25, 2018

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I expect the new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum to become a regional travel destination: if you’re anywhere near Jackson, Mississippi, you will want to take time to stop by. I lived in Jackson for more than twenty years, beginning as a 12-year-old in 1962, so I was made keenly aware of the prevailing Jim Crow culture, so starkly different from that of my native Virginia (which had sported its own share of slaveholders, to be sure). But it’s so hard for a white man to truly appreciate what it was like to have the wrong skin color in the most notoriously racist part of the United States. This place helps us get it. For the victims of civil injustice, and their descendants, there’s yet more. Their long struggle has been laid bare for all to see. Their bottom-line emotion must be something beyond gratitude. Something like pride.

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The museum is a well-heaved stone’s throw north of the Old State Capitol, where generations of elected bigots made black life miserable, first with enslavement and later by exploiting Dixie whites’ inbred revulsion to the notion of racial equality. Racism is by no means restricted to the Deep South (neither were lynchings, which took place in your state too — look it up), but that is the stereotype. Give Mississippi credit, though, for owning up to its past: this is the first museum about the U.S. civil rights movement to be sponsored by a U.S. state. (The National Civil Rights Museum is in Memphis.)

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There are actually two museums under the same roof in the new complex. You can also visit the Museum of Mississippi History, which unless I miss my guess was floated by white legislators as a quid pro quo to allow the civil rights exhibition. It begins with dioramas of cavemen — there’s lots of history down in Mississippi — and it’s fun in its own way. But the headline grabber is the civil rights side.

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The facility is managed by the state’s Department of Archives and History, a stand-up agency which pored through its own files as well as those of the vile, secretive Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, sort of a state-run White Citizens’ Council which prowled the political sewers from 1956 to 1977. The people who put this campus together are scholars, not partisans. Nothing is spun or sugar-coated. Nowhere in either museum did I find anything but unvarnished history, nor did I read a single word which I knew to be untrue.

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The Civil Rights Museum is intuitively easy to navigate. The exhibit halls radiate out from a large central rotunda, where you return after each exhibit. Keep going clockwise, and you’ll see it all in order. (A two-day “Dual Admission” lets you into either museum or both, which should give you all the time you need. If you are very interested in the subject and a physically fit museum-goer, you could easily spend a whole day at each one. I barely scratched the surface.) The first exhibits have to do with the slave trade: the physical passages are close and cramped, to give you a slight sense of discomfort. As you approach the birth of the activist movement, the rooms become larger, suggesting possibility, solidarity, and eventually freedom and triumph. This joint was built by pros.

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There’s lots to read, which suits me fine, also a nice helping of tastefully programmed a/v. Little built-in theaters let you sit down and watch very well-produced short pieces on, for example, Medgar Evers (they also have the rifle that killed him, which is worked into the presentation). Hidden audio speakers startle you every so often by blasting an angry voice: “Whatchoo lookin at, boy?” Some of this stuff was happening while I lived there (e.g., Evers), but I was a white pre-teen and while I was dimly aware, I was not yet, you know, woke.

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This movement is about blood and grit and passion. It can be emotionally exhausting before you come to the end — and you’re only in a museum! But you can’t make it through without hearing the glorious strains of songs like “This Little Light Of Mine” wafting past. That returns the mighty, overwhelming slog back to the shape of one human heart. Now the brave Freedom Riders feel like nervous soldiers engaging a fearsome enemy, and that’s exactly what they were: heroes in a long, grim battle.

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The museum was dedicated last December 9. You may have read something about the ceremony. Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican — these days they’re almost ALL frickin Pubs down there — decided to invite Donald Trump to the dedication. (I assume it was Trump’s people who ordered the invite from the feckless guv. At the time, you’ll recall, he was stumping for fellow racist Roy Moore in neighboring Alabama.) The NAACP pleaded with Trump not to come. Nearly every civil rights leader, aghast, stood on principle and regretfully boycotted the ceremony. But it gets worse. Trump didn’t even attend the dedication. Instead, he took a private, 30-minute (?!) tour of both museums while protesters marched outside, then gave a ten-minute speech to a small, Trump-approved group of worthies. And then he went away. He did what he does best: he stuck his fingers in the eyes of anyone to whom this museum meant anything. He blew up what should have been a reverent dedication ceremony without even having to frickin go. His slimy work in Jackson was finished before the first Big Mac was unwrapped on AF One. (Civil rights leaders returned to the museum for a Trump-free “christening” on February 24.)

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Well, this museum is going to outlast the current White House gang and the fool who lives there. I’m so glad to be able to pay tribute to this indefatigable movement, which fundamentally changed our country against all odds, political and physical. I’ll definitely be back. The museum was full of school groups when I was there. Maybe more than one child — of whatever race — will pause and look and listen. You want role models, kid? This place is packed full of them.

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The New Deal Is Old Again

October 28, 2016

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We went up to Poughkeepsie (that name always makes me think of THE FRENCH CONNECTION) last Saturday to attend a glorious wedding, but first we took a side trip to the FDR Presidential Library and Museum in nearby Hyde Park. The library is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. The math doesn’t seem to work, does it? That’s because Franklin Delano Roosevelt had no idea that he would serve a third term as President (he claimed he hadn’t even decided to run yet, but playa hataz on the right didn’t believe him) so construction began in 1939 and the facility officially opened on June 30, 1941, barely five months before the event that would determine the second half of his service as POTUS.

These days you need to hold up on the museum until your complete term is finished. Pubs wanted to make sure there could never be another wildly popular progressive like FDR: their solution was a Constitutional term limit. But liberals can’t really complain. Absent the 25th Amendment, Ronald Reagan might well have been re-elected way past his sell-by date. He would almost certainly have won a third term in 1988, yet even Reagan might not have been able to beat Bill Clinton four years later. His poignant letter to the nation (“I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life”), bravely acknowledging and declaring his battle with Alzheimer’s disease and giving a Reaganesque boost to research efforts, came in November 1994, and presumably he had already begun showing symptoms in public. The electorate would have probably been unable to ignore the President’s illness.

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I’ve been to a few of these POTUS museums — keep in mind that the primary mission of each one is not to preserve history but to make the boss look good — and FDR’s is right up there with the best of em. It’s not rickety at all for something that’s older than I am, and the display technology is fairly up to date: rear-projected video, sleek design, intuitive self-guidance. It’s clearly been modernized over the years, making the contemporary Roosevelt items look even more historic. My favorite display was a mockup of a typical Thirties blue-collar household ready for a Fireside Chat: clothes hanging from a line, the radio a centerpiece of the room. You’re invited to sit down at the table on the “set,” choose a Chat, and take yourself back in time.

This great cultural remove, the many titanic developments that separate us from the imaginary family in that room, struck both of us independently as we realized how eerily similar we are, all these years later. Too easily we tend to call this or that event “unprecedented.” Man, just about everything is precedented.

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Historical events can appear inevitable in hindsight, but they weren’t at the time. People who agree with SCOTUS Justices Scalia and Thomas call themselves “originalists” and like to base their opinions on “what the Framers intended.” But a Broadway frickin musical gets closer to the actual atmosphere. The Framers were a bunch of argumentative partisans looking out for their own personal interests and pocketbooks, and they didn’t intend anything as a group. The Constitution wasn’t written on stone tablets by Jesus. It was hammered and pleaded and compromised into shape, and ratification was a series of bruising battles. The resulting document was the best these flawed people could do — and note that it was almost immediately amended ten times because some states demanded it.

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Well, Roosevelt’s presidency was no less of a struggle. Despite being dealt the worst hand of any successor in Presidential history (Barack Obama received the second worst), FDR went to work almost immediately to move the dispirited country forward again. All these dopes who say, “on my first day in office, I’ll…” to get cheers from the cheap seats should be awed by what President Roosevelt accomplished in his first 100.

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The first thing that struck us is that, much like today, Roosevelt had plenty of powerful opposition even though the country had officially grown desperate. (At least he was white, so he had that goin for him.) Private industry didn’t want to take the rap for the Depression, so the New Deal was roughly derided as Commie incursion by a volatile group of nay-sayers. That display up there on the first 100 days rightly concedes that some of FDR’s early proposals were failures. But at least he got the needle moving in the right direction — yet he was dogged at every turn. Even as war clouds darkened, isolationists begged to keep our concentration inward. Some were morally against war, others were morally against any disturbance to the fragile return of profit, and some farseers realized that grand-scale war could itself be very profitable, but that’s another story. The Orc hordes currently arrayed against President Obama (and almost certainly massing against a potential President Clinton) are nothing new — even today’s shameful level of disrespect has at times been seen before — and the most active, significant administrations have still faced constant braying from the other side.

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“No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy,” said Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, and the second thing we noticed was that luck plays an outsized role in any Presidency. FDR had a giant bit of good fortune on the horrible day of December 7, 1941. He had long understood that Hitler was the greatest worldwide danger, but there was a strong resistance to the US entering the war (some still remembered the trenches and mustard gas of the previous Great War). Then came the brutal surprise assault on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor. War with Japan was declared by an inflamed Congress — and the Axis’s Tripartite Pact meant that Germany and Italy were also at war with the US. So, only a week after the “day which will live in infamy,” Congress declared war with Germany without a single dissenting vote, and FDR had the authority he knew was necessary all along. He was lucky. The Axis did the work for him.

It’s easy to imagine the heated fervor of the time for anyone who lived through September 11, 2001 and its aftermath. Though we didn’t go so far as to set up internment camps for Muslim-Americans (some Americans wanted to; a few still do), the neocons in the White House saw a similar galvanizing opportunity. They could re-draw the map in the Mideast on the back of a national frenzy for revenge. The real motives for their warmongering (oil? strategic military bases? gargantuan wartime profits?) may never be known for sure, but we do know they were almost peeing themselves with excitement over an American presence in the region while the country rattled its sabers alongside them. Hence the tepid, nearly nonexistent opposition to the Patriot Act, George W. Bush’s warmaking power, and the hamhanded invasion of a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 and was no threat to the homeland whatsoever.

Face it, Americans frighten easily. Look at the overblown Ebola scare of 2014, during which I recall a sitting Senator, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, actually staring into a camera and warning, “We’re all gonna dah!” (Never mind the genuine scourge in Africa.) We as a nation have a knack for setting calamity aside when it happens far away, but when danger threatens at home we freak out. It happened in 1941 and it happened again sixty years later. That quaint little room with the radio has faded into history, but the thing is, history keeps repeating itself.

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