[4 October 2011]
In his past works, Michael Kupperman has proven himself a matchless comedy writer. Conan O’Brien famously called him “one of the best comedy brains on the planet”, and even a glancing look at his brilliant comic strips shows why. In such creations as “Snake ‘n Bacon” and “Underpants-On-His-Head-Man”, Kupperman has pulled off that most difficult of comic maneuvers, the subtly absurd. But in his new book Mark Twain’s Autobiography 1910-2010, the bright light Kupperman has shown so readily in the comic strip form dims considerably for being written into prose.
This is not to say that it isn’t funny. Rather, the whole book just feels like something is missing, like a great joke being told poorly. Something of the serious commitment to a given comedic set-up is lost in the translation from pen drawn comics to prose description. Where with his comic strips the drawings and the words play off of each other, in Mark Twain’s Autobiography 1910-2010 the ideas are often left stranded in sentences going nowhere.
This isn’t the first time Kupperman has made use of Mark Twain as a comic hero. Twain makes one half of a crime-fighting duo in several episodes of Tales Designed to Thrizzle, with Albert Einstein making up the other half. Certainly the creation of an absurdist Mark Twain cannot itself be faulted. His image is so ingrained in the public consciousness, that anything he does outside his well-known historical moment has to be funny. Mark Twain’s Autobiography 1910-2010 operates on the same novelty in anachronism as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Killer. Well-known figures are re-contextualized with shiny new accessories, made fresh and buzz-worthy.
And there are moments reading Mark Twain’s Autobiography 1910-2010 when one remembers that the protagonist is supposed to be Mark Twain, and everything suddenly becomes hilarious again. But the fact that this is a remembered thing is telling. The Mark Twain of Mark Twain’s Autobiography 1910-2010 is so completely unTwain-like, the jokes get their due only when the reader is reminded as to the character’s identity with visual cues of his distinctive suit and white hair and eyebrows. Without seeing him pictorially or in comic strip form, much of the stories’ absurdity is reduced to mere clowning.
The bravado of Kupperman’s Mark Twain is rivaled only by his amazing capacity for blunder, a combination that could have been achieved with any buffoon character. A few examples of his adventures include: travelling back in time with Albert Einstein to help a drunken Cyrano de Bergerac, testing a new stand-up comedy act with Samuel Beckett, and engaging in a torrid love affair with Mame Eisenhower. (I confess even just typing that previous sentence made me chuckle.) But episodes like the one where Einstein and Twain start a private eye company, or where Twain stars in a series of porno films, read more like the description of jokes than the jokes themselves. The fact that the ideas are hilarious only throws their failure of execution into starker relief.
I can feel the eyes of the reader rolling at this level of joke analysis. And yes, I remember that old adage, “Telling how a joke is funny only kills the joke.” So let’s just try a little experiment, shall we? Read the following passage, a prose description of the classic comic strip Peanuts, and tell me if something is missing: “A bald boy in a striped tee shirt runs up to where a girl in a blue dress holds a football. She pulls the football away, and he goes flying. He says, ‘Good grief!’” See what I mean?