Rob reviews the new collection of the first four issues of Michael Kupperman's TALES DESIGNED TO THRIZZLE (Fantagraphics).
About a decade ago or so ago, I first became aware of Michael Kupperman's work in dribs and drabs. There'd be a few pieces here and there on random websites, perhaps a strip or two in an anthology. As a cartoonist and humorist, it was obvious that he was the total package: awesome chops, clever design sense, and a refined sense of timing for gags all served his absurdist sense of humor. Paired with his appreciation (and homage-laded appropriation) of the history of comics and illustration, he rattled off strip after crazy strip that worked on several levels simultaneously. The drawings were dense, beautiful to look at and often funny on their own--though he rarely relied on "funny drawings" to get across a punchline. He wasn't afraid to work at any number of levels to tell a joke: conceptual, scatological, deadpan or mining the fields of popular culture. Even when drawing a more conventional gag, Kupperman always avoided the easy punchline in favor of something that subverted the expected, often confusing his own characters in the strip.
His first collection of strips, SNAKE 'N BACON'S CARTOON CABARET, was one of the best books of this decade. It was unfortunately widely ignored, coming just a couple of years before graphic novel mania hit the publishing industry. That is perhaps the densest collection of gags I've ever seen; Kupperman insists on filling nearly every inch of space with either his main joke narrative, a throwaway gag or a funny decorative touch. Every inch of that page demands reader attention. In his earlier work, his cross-hatching was much more dense and his commitment to crafting strips in the style of classic comics made reading this book a sometimes dizzying experience. Reading the whole thing in one sitting was akin to having one's reality slowly rewritten with crazy new rules. Running out and looking for the nearest sex blimp suddenly seemed like a reasonable proposition. His work is sublime in the truest sense of the word, speaking to me as a reader in ways that can be discussed and broken down but not quite fully communicated in their Rightness. It's my ultimate goal when experiencing art, this feeling of sublimity, and while it's quite rare in general, it's even rarer when dealing with comedy. About the only other humorists who have affected me in the same way were the Marx Brothers.
With TALES DESIGNED TO THRIZZLE, Kupperman actually had the perfect delivery system for his work. Each issue was just long enough to leave a lasting impression, but was short enough to not have that dizzying effect. The first collection of this series addresses that density of his work by using color. There are some pages where color is clearly just being used to provide some variation so as to soften the backgrounds and dense cross-hatching of the art. This is especially true when he reprinted some of his older work here, with that use of color being rather perfunctory and being used to balance out the page rather than enhance the strip. Those older strips are jammed at the bottom of newer gags to fill up space, giving the reader their money's worth on page after page. It's as though Kupperman is afraid to let down his readers if there aren't twenty gags crammed in on every page.
For other strips, the use of color is a revelation. This is especially true with gags that are parodies of children's book illustrations, advertisements or of old, mediocre four-color comics. He doesn't pile color on to strips where it would hurt, like his lovely Granpa strips that are as much flights of fancy as they are gags. The hatching and use of blacks look perfect as is. Kupperman is careful to try and retain the experience of reading each issue individually, both in how the original covers were kept in the reprint and the way he'd add a couple of purely decorative pages to either encourage a reader break or at the very least refresh their palate.
It's encouraging to see Kupperman go from being a cult favorite to someone who's started to receive a lot more attention and recognition. In particular, he's done work with the great Robert Smigel back on his much-missed (by me, at least) TV FUNHOUSE show, and recently had a pilot of SNAKE 'N BACON air on the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim (it's currently available at their website). Hopefully this collection will draw yet more attention to a unique humorist and the Human Sneeze, Twain & Einstein, the Scaredy Kids, Pagus and the ever-licenseable Fireman Octopus. Kupperman saturates each page with crazed ideas, bizarre connections, and references that aren't really references. Even a reader who may not be familiar with what Kupperman's (often obliquely) mocking is still pulled full-tilt into the gag. No matter what the concept, once Kupperman's laid his hands on it, it's no longer recognizable as anything but his.