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A Short Interview With Michael Kupperman
posted August 7, 2005
There are three cartoonists who have published in alternative newsweeklies where friends have contacted me demanding to know more about this hilarious person they just discovered. The first was Matt Groening back when I was still in college, the second was Chris Ware when "God" appeared in a Chicago free weekly, and the third was "P. Revess," the named used by Michael Kupperman
on the feature Up All Night
appearing in The Stranger
and elsewhere. Using a really line-heavy art style that looked like it took hours and hours to complete, Kupperman told a series of what was essentialy conceptual humor -- "Snake 'n' Bacon," "Black Godfather of the Ants," "The Mannister" -- with maybe one or two steps in some direction taken by the concept in order to provide additional laughs. Much of the Up All Night
material was collected in Snake 'n' Bacon's Cartoon Cabaret
, one of the best books of a really strong 1998-2000 period for comics with a spine, and a book that should be in every humor comics fan's library.
Despite the absence of a weekly platform, Kupperman never went all the way away -- he's published in some anthologies, done work for Nickelodeon and Robert Smigel's TV Funhouse
show, and geared up the illustration portion of is art career. He has now returned to comics after a five-year absence with a honest-to-god comic book, Tales Designed to Thrizzle
, newly released from Fantagraphics Books. The strips in the first issue of a planned two per year for Thrizzle
are as funny as any Kupperman has ever created, and the book is generally much more intriguingly designed and drawn than a comparative sample of his earlier work.
I spoke to Kupperman the day after his first-issue release celebration.
TOM SPURGEON: How did your party go last night?
It went well, I think. I think it was a success. We got about 80 or 90 people. So it was fairly crowded. A lot of interesting people showed up. George Kuchar showed up, which was a surprise.
SPURGEON: Fill me in on who that is; the name's familiar.
He'd done some comics, in Arcade
. He used to be [Art] Spiegelman's neighbor. But he's best known as an avant-garde
SPURGEON: Is he a fan of your work?
He bought the comic, and looked like he liked it. Actually, Doug Skinner, who's his friend, called me today and said that he had called him and he had liked the comic. He was there to meet Doug. I had just seen a pornographic movie he had done in the mid-'70s in Montreal last summer. So it was kind of a shock.
SPURGEON: Are you ever surprised by who likes your comics? Have you ever been impressed by someone who has contacted you?
The nicest was probably Robert Smigel, of course. When he called me for TV Funhouse.
SPURGEON: How do you look back on working with Smigel? Was that a fun experience?
Oh, it was great. It was really great. They were just ultra-nice. They insisted on putting everything under my control, so I cast it, directed the voices, and had complete input on every aspect of production. Then I spent a lot of time watching them edit, especially towards the end, which was fascinating for me.
SPURGEON: Is that something you'd like to do in the future?
If the circumstances were right, yeah. It was kind of amazing. I have such respect of him as comedian and also the other guy producing it, Dino Stamatopoulos, who worked on Mr. Show
and The Ben Stiller Show
SPURGEON: Someone recently tried to categorize your comic book for me and failed miserably. Do you see yourself as part of a group; do you have peers you feel do roughly the same thing you do?
Not really. Sam [Henderson] I find very funny. And Tony [Millionaire] I think is very impressive and funny. But as far as doing what I'm doing, no. The one magazine I buy regularly is Viz
. I don't know if you've ever seen it.
SPURGEON: The British humor magazine.
Right. I still get it. That makes me laugh a lot. I'm impressed by some of the stuff they do. They work a lot bluer than I do.
SPURGEON: Is there a feature in there you like in particular?
There's one cartoonist I think is very impressive: the guy who does "Major Misunderstanding" and "Gilbert Ratchet." Their text pieces frequently make me laugh a lot, too.
SPURGEON: What about humor in general? Is there stuff you feel an affinity for?
Oh, sure. I did grow up on a certain type of humor. We lived for a little bit in England when I was young. So Monty Python
and even before that The Goodies
was kind of an influence. Later on, SCTV
and other shows you can think of. Most lately I've been most impressed by this one writer/producer in England called Chris Morris who did a show called Brass Eye
, that I think is one of the funniest things I've ever seen.
SPURGEON: I'm not familiar with that at all.
It didn't make it over here at all. It was fake investigative journalism, with a really vicious edge. What he also did was that he went beyond someone like Ali G in that he got public figures to make fools of themselves by ascribing to causes he had invented, and doing what they thought were public service ads for these imaginary maladies.
SPURGEON: Do you see your own work in that light, as making a point or going after someone?
No. I think in a way to be funny without pointing it so heavily is to make a point. No, I don't see myself as a gadfly certainly.
SPURGEON: Do you have an affinity for the establishment "voice," the material that serves as the kicking off point for many of your gags?
Oh, sure. Yes. And I frequently do read old novels and look at old material. I'm sure that's obvious. I remember when I was younger, I think about 10, 11, 12, I was fascinated by editorial cartoons for some reason. I would really look at them a lot.
SPURGEON: What were you seeing? The local papers, or books...?
I'd go to the library and look at books, going back as far as it went. My parents were professors at the University of Connecticut, which does have an excellent art library, so I saw a lot of stuff there. I'd just be fascinated by people even up to [Pat] Oliphant, who I think is a really unique talent.
SPURGEON: He may be the last great one working.
He really is. He really is. I think it's really hard to do that type of work anymore, and perhaps even impossible. Because people's understanding of what's news has flattened out in a way so that only the broadly satirical is going to mean anything, and that territory is kind of better covered by something like Saturday Night Live
, if it's any good at all.
SPURGEON: That uncertainty as to how to engage something like that effectively, is that why your own stuff is as broad or offbeat as it is?
I don't find it attractive. I don't want to do that. In the times when I've tired, I think it was very ineffective. It was clear to me that this wasn't what I should be doing.
SPURGEON: Now is this something with which I'm familiar?
I hope not. [laughter] It's embarrassing, but I did a political strip for the Washington City Paper
for about a year and a half. I think it actually overlapped with when I was doing Up All Night
. But I thought they were terrible. Most of them I hope no one does see.
SPURGEON: You've offered up a couple of opinions about your own stuff that seem pretty clinical. Do you look at your work later on? Do you have peers that you run material by to figure out what works or what doesn't?
Sometimes I can't resist telling people about a gag I thought up that I think is particularly funny. More often than not, I find people's reactions backfire. I will think something is incredibly funny, I'll mention it, and someone else will just go "Huh." And I'll lose confidence in it. So I try to avoid showing anything to anyone until it's finished.
SPURGEON: With the
Washington City Paper strip, was your negative opinion of it something you came to later or something that occurred to you while doing it?
I kind of plunged into it because they gave me the opportunity. I thought I would find my voice and it would start working, but after less than a year I honestly felt it was not working. Yeah, I don't find it that easy to perform on topical stuff. I think you said the same thing on the Internet. I'm not sure my opinion is really that worth displaying anyway.
SPURGEON: I hope I didn't say that about you.
No, no. You said that about all of us.
SPURGEON: Now has it really been five years since we've seen a published book?
It really has, yeah.
SPURGEON: Where have you been? And I guess the question that goes along with it: I recognize one or two pieces in
Thrizzle #1, so is this all reprints or a mixture with new material?
I tried to keep the reprints down, so I think there's only nine, maybe ten pages in that. With Thrizzle
#2, I think it will go down to less than half that. I've already got all of the next book written, and it's going to have almost no reprinted material in it. As far as what happened in the last five years... I really sequestered myself working on Snake 'n' Bacon's Cartoon Cabaret
, and after I did that I really felt like I should push myself in illustration, which is always a frustrating career, and try to do more comics for magazines. That's what I have been doing. But of course that's been a mixed experience.
SPURGEON: Was the
Cartoon Cabaret book a good or a bad experience for you? It came out at kind of a weird time for books of comics, and it was a second or third book from that company or something like that.
You might be getting it confused with the Doubleday series that really was a conspicuous flop. They did two books and then reneged on the third one and that was it.
SPURGEON: Are you happy with the book?
It was a good and bad experience. I'm happy with the book itself. I tend to be very self-critical, so there are things always that I wish I'd done better. But as far as the book, I'm very proud of it and I'm happy it exists. The company didn't really know how to promote it or how to get it reviewed. That kind of doomed it right out.
SPURGEON: Well, that's what I kind of remember, that it seemed like an orphaned book from the get-go.
I'd say that's exactly right. Up to the end it was confusing. This Fantagraphics book came about partly because, or almost wholly because, Harper announced to me that they were going to drop Snake 'n' Bacon
and I could buy up the remaining copies. But there was a lot of confusion about how many they'd sold. But I can leave it at saying that they had a print run of 8000 and I was able to buy back eight hundred and something.
SPURGEON: How did that lead to the Fantagraphics book?
I was looking for other people who might want to distribute it. I contacted Fantagrpahics and they said they weren't interested in distributing another publisher's book but if I were interested in doing a comic, they'd be interested in that.
SPURGEON: We haven't seen you in five years and now you're back twice yearly, right?
Yeah, that's the plan.
SPURGEON: That's quite a commitment.
I felt like I was ready again. Plus the thing with Snake 'n' Bacon
, honestly, too, was that after I did it I felt intensely tired. For the next two or three years just looking at the book made me feel tired. It'd been such a huge amount of labor. In those days I didn't have a computer, so I couldn't use any of the shortcuts I can now. And so for the next few years I didn't feel I could really commit to anything. Plus the fact that I usually got I don't know how many illustration assignments going per week, but it's frequently three to five. I'm drawing a lot anyway.
In between I also did have a comic book deal with Dark Horse, which they then killed when I delivered the first issue.
SPURGEON: What was that called?
It was going to be the boy detective character, Wonderbook Jr., although I think I was calling him Alphabet Jones. [Spurgeon laughs] So I did that, and they said no, and they gave me my advance and let that be the end of it. It was kind of disheartening.
SPURGEON: Are we ever going to see that?
I don't know. I only took it to such a stage of completion. I did one issue. With all the work I'm doing right now, I'm not sure what would entice me to try to go back to it. Also because I think that what I did could be improved, as you tend to do when you look back on something that's a few years old.
SPURGEON: The way you arranged
Thrizzle, with a separation between the ages (see page at top of article). Was that just whimsical --?
Well, in a way that's as close to satire as I get, because the idea that you could actually say to someone, "You can only read this part of the book" is an obviously inherently self-contradictory idea. But then again that's true of so much that goes on in our society nowadays. The kind of censorship people are trying to foist while at the same just by going on the Internet you can see the most appalling perversions within a few seconds if you're handy with a search engine. But also there was the fact that once I came up with that idea for structure, it helped with the evolution of the book, and bringing material together. That happened while I was doing the book. Issue #1 really developed while I worked on it. With the second issue, I've already had the idea of structure in place. The second one is much more planned out than the first one. I think it will be an advancement.
SPURGEON: A lot of your older concepts make their way back into
Thrizzle, such as the Mannister. What makes a concept worth going back to?
To be honest, it may be partly nervousness. A sop to the people I perceive as being fans. "Here's something I hope you remember" kind of thing. Or I've just been convinced by the response over the years that they are funny. I think there's going to be less of that in the next issue as well. I think there will be very little reprinted material and very little that refers to anything I've done before.
SPURGEON: Do you write your scripts out? So much of your work is conceptual, does it start with the gag and then work its way out from there?
Yes, a lot of these ideas really supply their own details in a way, all you have to do is sit and puzzle them out. Something like Mickey Rourke's pubic hair stencil for men, I thought of that years ago. It was always clear in my head. I didn't have to really elaborate in my head what it would be. It was always clear how that would work. Once you have the one angle of a premise then it 's just figuring out the A, B and C of it.
SPURGEON: One thing I remember about
Up All Night is that it had a very set presentational style, where the material you have now seems to work in different areas. "Remembering the '30s," for example, looks very different than your
Up All Night work. Are you trying to embrace a wider range of approaches?
Sure. As an artist, certainly the "Remembering the '30s" stuff and a couple of the other pieces in there are about exploring different visual styles and keeping the drawing fresh for myself. But also honestly I felt that Snake 'n' Bacon's Cartoon Cabaret
was a little too dense for me. It made me kind of wish that I had had a designer to work with and rein me in. So for the new comic I tried to be my own designer.
SPURGEON: Just in terms of flow from page to page and how that works?
Insofar as not making the reader feel fatigued. [Spurgeon laughs] If you have changes in tone and style from page to page it gives it a more lively appearance. I also wanted it to have a little bit of the feel of a magazine, almost like different people had worked on different parts.
SPURGEON: Does your work in illustration have an effect on the way your approach comics now?
At points I felt like it had a negative influence. Certainly I've gotten a lot more skilled in certain areas, as far as doing work fast and having it reach a certain level of professionalism. But I feel also that the illustration can make you lazy visually -- I don't know if I'm explaining this very well. A lot of my comics are drawn onto the page as one unit. When I do comics for magazines I assemble them from a lot of different pieces. So it's a very, very different process. Sometimes I feel like that can lead to a kind of flattened look that I don't enjoy so much.
SPURGEON: This is a pretty generic question, but is there a long-range plan for the book, or are you taking it issue by issue? Have you committed to a certain number of issues?
I don't have a concrete idea. I just know I want to keep going with it for the foreseeable future. And I'm enjoying that feeling. In my career -- such as it is -- as an illustrator and comics artist, it's very hard for me to get a sense of what the next six months even are going to bring. To have a feeling that I'm going with this is good enough for me right now. That I can build on this vein -- it provides a throughline for me. The other thing about working for so many publications is that I'm handling kind of wildly different sorts of assignments and approaches week to week. That can make things kind of fragmented.
SPURGEON: I think that's all I have for you... Hey, something I wanted to ask off the record: did you really almost get in a fight with Evan Dorkin at an SPX?
This can go on the record. It was a complete non-event, and in his mind it's become a real moment. My impression was I heard someone talking about the Hellman-Rall case, I looked over, he caught my eye and he was angry. And that's it. There were no words exchanged, there was no almost fistfight. It really amazes me he's still bringing it up. I think I posted on his message board and said, "Please, this was all just a misunderstanding." It doesn't really register with me. To me it was a phantom of a conflict. But to him it's obviously become a story worth repeating.
SPURGEON: You seemed like a laidback guy when I met you, I think at that same show.
It's strange to me. Those comic conventions, to be honest, do make me tense.
SPURGEON: What is it about the shows that make you tense?
By nature I'm a little shy, so I find being surrounded by a thousand people or so very stressful. That's just my nature. At the party last night... it's terrible when people ignore you of course, but I also find it very awkward to deal with a lot of people and to have to give each of them a reaction. It has nothing to do with the people themselves; it's really just the situation.
Also I think that time especially I wasn't feeling good because I just had a book from a major publisher and it was already clear it was going to sink like a stone.
SPURGEON: The early response to your
Tales Designed to Thrizzle has been really positive. People were excited about it in San Diego. Is it good to have that kind of early response? Have you heard any of it?
I've been hearing quite a bit of it. It's really great. I'm happy. It seems to be hitting people the way I hoped it would. And cumulatively over the years the response to Snake 'n' Bacon
has been really strong, it's just that on the kind of official radar it didn't really appear.
SPURGEON: I remember it being hard to find. And I swear there was another book they screwed up on, even though I can't remember what.
Originally the book was supposed to be out from Avon. Then they were acquired by Harper-Collins, which is owned by Murdoch. I think that's why some of the excitement was lost. Beyond that what I thought was kind of amusing is that when I went up to Avon to do this -- they were excited about me, I also did the catalogue for a new book line called Spike that lasted about six months. They said, "We're so excited about this up at Avon, we've never done comics before." And of course they had done Neon Lit about nine years earlier. And I'm sure other things as well.
SPURGEON: I wonder if they forget or if that's just the natural lifespan of a book publisher.
It's the short attention span of the publishing world.
All art from Tales Designed to Thrizzle #1, with the exception of the Snake 'n' Bacon's Cartoon Cabaret cover and a snippet of Wonderbook Jr. art from Up All Night.