Humor used to be a big deal in comics. But at present it has become a much maligned art, all too often crassly mishandled or even simply dismissed. In the mainstream, it obscures narratives which can ill afford to alienate the readers. With the industry demanding books with mass appeal, allowing for comic asides to punctuate the punches, there can be room for little else. With independent publications, the need to carry conversations with readers earnestly, balanced with the need for artistic innovation frequently pressures creators into steering clear of humor. In both cases, the funny papers rise or fall at the expense of the genre of muscular and insular heroes. So, it may come as a surprise to the uninitiated that Tales Designed to Thrizzle achieves a singular humor. With it’s vibrant aesthetic, Dadist sensibilities, and genuine hilarity, this work seems to have landed from an alternate dimension with firm intentions to buck the popular trend against humor.
Devotees of writer-artist Michael Kupperman will be pleased to note that this new four-issue collection doesn’t present a radical break from the style of work he has steadily cultivated over the past decade. His talents as a humorist remain, as does his love of the forms and conventions of antiquated publications. A range of American periodicals from the last century still influence and enrich his style, including everything from the detective pulps of the ‘30s to EC comics of the ‘40s and beyond. The art feels like a love letter to work which is no longer in vogue. Often it is mimicking, but never mocking. Although with this new publication, there seems to be a razor-sharp intent behind every page. Kupperman it seems, has finally found his ideal format, one which accommodates his abstractions, subversions and sophisticated unsophisticated gags.
The book reads like a surreal and half forgotten chapter in publishing history as it is inhabited by characters like Pagus (Jesus’s half–brother), the Bittern (a crimefighter who admires thickset birds), and Fireman Octopus, presenting Fantagraphics with a golden merchandising opportunity. These examples are snapshots of the relentlessly focused humor and multiple artistic styles that Kupperman sandwiches between an ever-increasing number of diversions. Not content to stay with just one character, or a simple series of short tales, Kupperman crafts fake advertisements (“Do Men Dressed Bears Keep Stealing Your Homework?”), full page covers for comics which will (sadly) never be written, (“Mentally Ill Gangsters”), as well as returning to longer features like the perennial “Snake ‘N’ Bacon”. The work is so hyperactive, that even when the style dictates a narrative structure, the characters themselves rebel against the constraints of the form. This is clear in the detective story format, in the tale of Einstein and Twain. This is a work that stripps the medium to its core, allowing for nothing to stop its Absurdist universe propelling forward.
It is easy to assume that for a reader, these multi-layered concepts and defiant attitudes towards narrative structure might become exhausting. However, Tales Designed to Thrizzle never falls into this trap. Partly because its self-referential nature, its subversion of received expectation and use of callbacks are what binds the mixture together. These strategies create a subtle consistency, which masters the complexity of appearing random and spontaneous, whilst reinforcing an Absurdist and insular world. The narrative structure becomes an unnecessary constraint. One that would hinder jokes from flowing freely and allowing the reader from to fall into near hypnotic immersion. It is this which marks the work as a triumph; it extends beyond humor into a visual language which succeeds in captivating its audience. This is achieved without oversaturation.
It is this fantastical world-building, which allows for an easy association with Monty Python, Glen Baxter and Spike Milligan—just some of the surreal, comic greats with whom he stands toe–to–toe. In terms of intelligence, goofiness and breakneck hilarity, these comparisons become valid, but it would be remiss to not acknowledge the hypertextuality of Kupperman’s work. His is a book that easily fits within the same cannon as William Hogarth, Laurence Sterne and Henry Fielding.
The only criticism to be leveled at Tales Designed to Thrizzle is the gnawing disappointment that this cannot be read on a monthly basis. Kupperman is already transferring his work to television. Is this an indictment against the comics medium, or simply the evolution of his own work?
Like an ocular sugar-rush, Kupperman’s skewed and dizzying landscape, bursts with pop cultural ephemera. But there never dip into self-parody and there is little need to wink at the reader with a knowing postmodernity. All the while, Tales remains exceptionally funny. Kupperman confirms that humor does not solely come from a cheap, knowing laugh. Rather it emerges as the product of dedicated work and thought in a fictive universe where anything is possible. Allowing language and art to work freely in synthesis, conveying ideas which feel at once comfortingly familiar, yet uncharacteristically alien, Tales appears surrealistically singular. Like the memory of a dream.