In a previous edition of The Story and Its Writer, we included a page illustrated and written in 2009 by Michael Kupperman titled “Are Comics Serious Literature?” In the first panel, a cowboy answers in the affirmative, but in the next panel another cowboy answers, “I SAY THEY AIN’T.” A violent fistfight ensues — a series of pictures illustrating “SOK!” “POW!” “BAM!” “BIF!” and “CLOP!” – as the first cowboy beats up the second. In the last panel, the winner says “NOW WHO ELSE SAYS COMICS AREN’T SERIOUS LITERATURE?” Kupperman is spoofing the comic book style he’s using to make his point, but in the process he shows his reader that supposedly childish graphics can answer serious questions.
Instructors and students who enjoyed the page-long story “Are Comics Serious Literature?” will be happy to learn that in May 2018 Kupperman published a new book, All the Answers, in which he again asks a serious question and answers it brilliantly. It’s a graphic memoir, the same genre as the true-life stories told so well by Alison Bechdel and Marjane Satrapi in the recent tenth edition of The Story and Its Writer. In All the Answers, Kupperman tries to solve the mystery of his father Joel Kupperman’s lack of emotional support during his entire life. Joel Kupperman, currently living in a nursing home in the last stages of dementia, was a college professor of philosophy when Michael and his younger brother were growing up in rural Connecticut in the 1970s and 1980s. The family had a secret — the boys were never told that their father had been a world-wide celebrity. In the decade of the 1940s he had been a child prodigy star on a popular weekly radio quiz show out of Chicago called “The Quiz Kids.” Joel Kupperman refused to talk about or reveal anything about his past life to his children. This emotional withdrawal had crippling consequences for his family.
In a recent conversation, Michael Kupperman told me that it was painful for him to return to his memories of childhood and create All the Answers, but it was even more difficult, as he said, “to sell my pain to a publisher” in order to come out with his story. “The Quiz Kid experience went, along with the rest of my father’s childhood, into a kind of locked box. It was understood that talking about it would cause him pain, so we didn’t bring it up. It wasn’t until I started really examining it that I started to see what it had done to him – and through him to me and the rest of the family. His generation and the generations surrounding it were not about talking about stuff and dealing with trauma.”
Kupperman feels that his earlier work, such as “Are Comics Serious Literature?” involved what he describes as “the absence of meaning.” His readers could decide if his drawings were funny or not, but as an artist he was “committed to the painstaking parody and reproduction of pop culture.” It was only when Joel Kupperman began to suffer from dementia that Michael realized he had a very limited time left to ask his father about his earlier career as a Quiz Kid. Joel continued to be evasive, but Michael’s questions were answered when he discovered five scrap books created by his paternal grandmother documenting Joel’s ten years as a radio celebrity, from the ages of six to sixteen. His father had hidden the scrap books behind a shelf at home in his library. The photographs and mementos taped onto their yellowing pages became the source of the richly detailed visual world of the 1940s that Kupperman meticulously creates in All the Answers.
As a precocious child, Joel had the ability to perform complex — if trivial — math problems in his head, and in the process remain unflustered while on the air in a coast-to-coast live radio show. As an adult he was very modest; he never considered himself a genius because he possessed this talent. His mother had been his tireless publicist, continuously pushing him to meet prominent people who admired his plucky performances on the radio. His fans were as diverse as the movie comedians Abbott & Costello and the industrialist Henry Ford. Michael Kupperman believes that his father was promoted as a celebrity by the national radio networks and used as a non-threatening American symbol of the Jewish race to fight anti-Semitism during World War II. His memoir is more than a personal story about his difficult relationship with his father; it is also about the country’s fascination with celebrities and our long history of religious intolerance. I entirely agree with what Jake Tapper said about All the Answers on CNN: “Poignant and funny and sad.”