Michael Kupperman isn’t afraid to beat a good gag to death. In his hands, a repetitive and simplistic joke like Snake ‘n Bacon somehow gets funnier the more he flogs it. One reason why this works so well is that the more absurd the premise, the straighter Kupperman plays it. His frequently flat illustrative style is a perfect counterpoint for the sheer, unrelenting lunacy he draws on page after page. His most recent visual obsession has been the pairing of Mark Twain and Albert Einstein, a gag fueled almost entirely by the fact that he draws them exactly the same–as two men with thick manes of white hair and bushy mustaches. Kupperman took that gag and ran with it, making the duo travel through time, fight crime, and get up to all sorts of other nonsense. The original Twain & Einstein strips worked so well precisely because—other than the vaguest of references to what made them famous—Kupperman made the characters into blank slates. In the same vein, Mark Twain’s Autobiography 1910-2010 has little to do with the real Twain and instead is a showcase for an Our Dumb Century-style send-up of the 20th century. Flogging the famous Twain quote “the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” Kupperman creates a ridiculous back story for Twain reveals that the author is immortal.
In recent issues of his Tales Designed To Thrizzle series, Kupperman has been relying more heavily on text-heavy gags and color than the ultra-dense, cross-hatched rendering that is featured in his first book, Snake ‘n Bacon’s Cartoon Cabaret. The density of that style could be almost exhausting to read after a few pages, as Kupperman layered gag after gag on top of drawings meant to emulate classic cartooning and illustration tropes. In Mark Twain, Kupperman goes in the opposite direction, as most of the book is illustrated text, with only twenty-four pages of full-blown comics.
The result is a breezy read that varies a little from Kupperman’s usual style. Most pertinently, in his illustrations, he’s a bit more willing to use a “funny” picture to get across an idea than he has been in his comics. The images he draws of Twain buried in a pile of sand as part of a stand-up comedy act (on the advice of Samuel Beckett), Twain-as-hobo (with his clothes stuffed with newspapers), and Twain as a 1970s porn star are worthy of chuckles even without the accompanying text. Kupperman is also quite willing here to use funny-sounding names to get laughs in a way that he has never employed images to do in his comics. I’m guessing that, based on the sheer number of words in prose, an inherently funny name or two is more acceptable than a visual joke; a picture dominates a page in a comic in a way that a word or two can’t. Kupperman goes deep to this well, culminating in a sublime chapter about disco.
In that chapter, Kupperman spends a paragraph detailing the discos in which Twain parties and the celebrities with whom he parties. What starts as a simple idea goes beyond easy parody of Studio 54 and Andy Warhol to a truly inspired place, with repetitive, ever-lengthening sentences in which Kupperman mixes obviously fake names with ridiculous & frequently incongruous real names. He concludes with this orgy of puns and absurdity: “At 5AM I’d stop at Moochy’s for a small brandy–Woody Allen or Idi Amin would usually be there–and then I’d finish the night having breakfast at a diner with friends such as Toni Basil, Meatloaf, Mashed Potatoes, Hot Chocolate, Stacka Pancakes, Alfalfa, Potatoes Browning, Soupy Sales, Khoffi Annan, Juice Newton and Melanie. God, those were the days.” Those silly names and gags just pour off the page as if Kupperman was desperate to get them out of his head. Kupperman even manages to put together a loose continuity for Twain, bringing back characters and situations from earlier chapters and highlighting Twain’s dim awareness of his immortality in a chapter where fellow immortal Santa Claus challenges him to a sword fight in a mall, crying, “There can be only one!”
At times, I was disappointed that this book isn’t all comics. In particular, the chapter where Twain is abducted by a floating fortress disguised as an iceberg while guest-starring on The Love Boat would have lent itself to comics form, though perhaps Kupperman’s decision not to draw it is part of the point. In other words, perhaps Kupperman wanted to find a way to do gags that wouldn’t take him a month to draw, ideas that he may well have shelved because they’d take too long to bring to life.
With this book and the seventh issue of his Thrizzle series, Kupperman takes back the crown of Funniest Cartoonist Alive from Lisa Hanawalt. Finding a way to be more productive without losing his comedic edge is an important breakthrough for an artist like Kupperman, who also spends a lot of this time doing illustration work. Hopefully, the production of this book was painless enough for Kupperman to try something similar in the future; perhaps a prose book-length series of Snake ‘n Bacon adventures or the complete mythological story of Pagus, Jesus’ half-brother. Whatever direction he moves in, there is a consistent level of dizzying joy to be found in Kupperman’s work, a kind of humor that features dark and occasionally satirical edges but is mostly just a barrage of inspired wordplay, deadpan humor, and deceptively simple images.