Humorist Michael Kupperman is the kind of storyteller that prompts a (long thought dead) legendary writer to reveal he’s undead. Such is the offered backstory on Kupperman’s new book, Mark Twain's Autobiography 1910-2010, described by Fantagraphics as follows: “From WWI to the Great Depression, WWII to Woodstock, and through the present, Twain details his careers as an ad man, astronaut, hypnotist, Yeti hunter, porn star, drifter, grifter and more, rubbing shoulders and having never-before-told adventures with many major figures of the 20th Century." After covering his new collection of writing and illustrations, Kupperman discusses the upcoming series of live performances (set to start tomorrow with his solo appearance, but future installments will often be in conjunction with Kate Beaton)—and how performing his work helps him gain a sense of his material. Once you've read the interview, be sure to peruse the publisher's 32-page book preview and Kupperman's reading of the Ant I Am Telling You portion of the 160-page book.
Tim O'Shea: Have you heard what Mark Twain thinks of what you did with the manuscript he gave you, or do you expect never to hear from him again?
Michael Kupperman: Actually I've been hearing from him a lot. I thought that one meeting would be it, but since then he keeps reappearing, asking for help dealing with today's publishing industry. He's written a new novel called Prairie Rumpus, which I feel is dated in its use of slang and locale. Meanwhile I've got a lot of interest in my novel The Fart Vampires, a lotta heat building up.
O'Shea: Back in 2009, you noted in this Onion/The A.V. Club interview: " I grew up near Hartford, and they really pimp Twain out—they have for years—with one-man-shows and musicals. I remember even Buick commercials with Mark Twain." Do you think your childhood exposure to Pimp Twain partially influenced this book?
Kupperman: Obviously it was all meat for the stew. Recently I realized that Twain is "owned" by a sleazy, greasy agency in Indianapolis, which has a roster of mostly buried underground talent. They were trying to pimp him out for a bit, they got a Twain absinthe made and also the Kennedy Center Twain Prize deal. They last made the news trying to intimidate the Carson City Chamber of Commerce out of publicizing Twain's stay there. The pimping continues!
O'Shea: How did you first realize that the duo of Twain and Einstein made such great comedic fodder together?
Kupperman: It coincided with realizing that they could be drawn very similarly, and still make visual sense. It would have been sometime in the early 90s. In fact, I have the first comic here: it was when I was improvising comics on the page, and they weren't even properly rectangularly-shaped. (enclosed!)
O'Shea: In developing this book, did you tackle the text first and pursue the illustrations after that, or did you develop the book's two aspects in parallel?
Kupperman: The writing came first. It always comes first these days. Because time is always an issue.
O'Shea: Several years back Tom Spurgeon interviewed you--and at one point you confided: "I tend to be very self-critical, so there are things always that I wish I'd done better." In the years since, have you become less self-critical?
Kupperman: No, but I've learned to force perspective on myself, so at least I work smoothly and don't cost myself time with self-doubt and pointless flailing. And I try not to be too hard on myself afterwards.
O'Shea: Of all the great moments in history that Twain ended up in as retold in your book, do you have a favorite?
Kupperman: I do love the ants chapter, because it switches idiom so relentlessly. But maybe it's too much for some people. The joke that always makes me laugh, though, still, is the "Fairytaleland/Fartland" bit in the Hollywood chapter.
O'Shea: Does it flatter you or put pressure on you when Conan O'Brien described you as one of the best comedy brains on the planet?
Kupperman: Both! I just wish more people had seen him saying it. It was in Entertainment Weekly, which a few hundred people read, and they used a picture of Snake'N'Bacon's Cartoon Cabaret. That was unfortunate, because Harper Collins is about the sleaziest, most dishonest publisher there is. For that six-month period- which also included the TV pilot- they said they sold 46 copies. So I just can't win.
O'Shea: For scale, in the the six-month period in which the one publisher claimed that you sold 46 copies, did you happen to notice how your books from other publishers performs (ballpark numbers if you are OK with that, not exact--and I understand if you do not care to answer). Is that part of what made you question the count on books sold?
Kupperman: My sales through Fantagraphics have been much higher. Part of what's strange with Harper Collins is that, out of the initial print run, they claimed most had been destroyed, and they sold me the remaining original copies, a few hundred. Then they sold the book in a kind of print-on-demand arrangement… But lately my impression has been that when people do successfully buy a copy, it's an actual printed book again. which would mean it's been reprinted… It's all pretty murky.
O'Shea: In this Jeet Heer review of the book, he wrote: "Here the art is more consistent and resembles, to my mind, W.W. Denslow’s charmingly blocky drawings in the original Wizard of Oz book." Was your approach on this project artistically to emulate the work of Denslow or did that thought never cross your mind?
Kupperman: Well no, I never thought specifically of Denslow; I'm a huge Oz fan, but most of the books were illustrated by John R. Neill, who I also enjoy. I did want to illustrate the book in a different way, but part of that was not emulating anyone anymore, using reference as little as usual, just doing it, bringing it out of the imagination whenever possible. I was thinking of the illustrated humor books of the 30s, and so simple the art could be but so effective. I wanted the art to be simpler than my previous work.
O'Shea: At your website, upon Peter Falk's passing, you did a piece in tribute to him, where you wrote:"Peter Falk, beloved by cartoonists, comedians, and everyone else." What was it about Falk that clicked with storytellers like yourself?
Kupperman: Well, he was possibly the most iconic TV detective of all time, a great actor, and a great character. Also Falk was an artist himself, even later in his career he'd take life drawing classes at the Art Students League.
O'Shea: You just recently announced that you and Kate Beaton are emarking on a series of comedy shows (at Luca Lounge) featuring comics and readings on the fourth Tuesday of every month starting September 27 (when you will be doing the show solo). What is the appeal to live performance comedy (versus your printed work)? Also, how did it come to be that you and Beaton teamed up on this series?
Kupperman: I've been doing slideshows for years, Bob Sikoryak got me started. I've gotten better and sharper at it, and I find it helps my sense of my material. Kate has a similar style in performing, where she's going for the laughs in a very brisk and efficient way. We decided to go ahead and do a show together. It's fairly terrifying but I'm also quite excited…