November 2011

Grace Bello


Mark Twain's Autobiography by Michael Kupperman

As a freelance writer and occasional book reviewer, my coffee table is littered with advance readers' editions of a Twitter-feed-turned-book, a photoblog-turned-book, and a collection-of-comic-books-turned-book. Content is promiscuous these days, flirting with one platform then fleeing to another. Some stories hold up in bound format, such as the spoken-word-true-stories-series-turned-printed-comics,Post-It Note Diariesby Arthur Jones or the webcomic-turned-bookHark! A Vagrantby Kate Beaton. Others, like Michael Kupperman's latest illustrated book,Mark Twain's Autobiography 1910-2010, did not fare as well.

Kupperman's book is a satire built on the totally normal question, What if Mark Twain did not die a hundred years ago, was kept alive by a wizard's spell, and cavorted across great moments in American history with his bro Albert Einstein? Accompanied by cheeky illustrations, Twain's narrative traipses from Gatsbyesque Jazz Age parties to hanging out with space robots to shrinking and befriending sentient ants. The tone is authoritative yet absurd, like your father telling you that he was definitely in an acid-induced threesome with Jessica Lange in the '70s. It's a silly and ironic romp, similar to sketches that have reimagined Abraham Lincoln as a perverted ghost ("The Venture Brothers"), creepy sadomasochist ("Late Night With Conan O'Brien"), and time traveler (Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters).

But back toTwain. What I did enjoy were the subtler, visual gags. In a chapter called "I Continue to Inspire," the narrator recounts influencingPeanutscartoonist Charles Schultz. In the drawing, Schultz is depicted, like Charlie Brown, with a singular, sad curl of hair on an otherwise bald pate. Fast-forward to another chapter, and the narrator is on the front lines of the Space Race. (Twain in spaaaaaaaace!) We see Twain in floating above the Earth in astronaut's garb and opening a shuttle containing -- of course -- a goat. And, later, when the protagonist has an affair with Marilyn Monroe, she's in the middle of filmingThe Seven Year Itch. Kupperman depicts her in her iconic pose -- holding her dress down as the subway's breeze forces it upward. Twain, cheekily, looks up at her from beneath the grate.

Yet the clever drawings can't saveTwainfrom its own lunacy. As any comedy nerd knows, you need to ground humor in something real. You need a straight man. You need skeptical onlookers. You need a -- how-you-say? -- Jason Bateman to let the audience know that, yes, this plot is going to Crazy Town, but please bear with us. Instead, when Mark Twain stars in a porno, he recalls, "The New York Timesraved about the sex, which they called 'masturbatorily inspiring.'" And when the literary icon discoes his way through the '70s, he says, "I'd finish the night having breakfast at a diner with friends such as Toni Basil, Meatloaf, Mashed Potatoes, Hot Chocolate, Stacka Pancakes, Alfalfa, Potatoes Browning, Soupy Sales, Kofi Annan, Juice Newton and Melanie." The name game is an easy gag. Why isn't Twain accusing John Travolta of ripping off his all-white suit look? Why doesn'tHuck Finn's author head to Harlem and accidentally invent voguing?

I was hoping that, like a subdued, cartoonist version of Sarah Vowell, Kupperman might earnestly explore the history surrounding Mark Twain. Or, likeForrest Gump,we would see the title character as a naf caught up unknowingly in pivotal American events. Instead,Mark Twain's Autobiography 1910-2010is a mashup of historical and cultural figures thrown into harebrained situations. (Do you have a kid sister who plays with Barbies? Give her action figures of Mark Twain, J.D. Salinger, and Richard Nixon, and see what develops.)

That said, I think the Mark Twain pieces are seen in their best light online. Bound as a book and read on the subway during one's morning commute, the madcap silliness has too much time to fester and garner unfavorable comparisons to similar comedy premises or devices. Instead, consume Kupperman's work in bite-sized pieces. Like cat videos or shrooms, they're meant to be digested occasionally. Unless you're, like, unemployed.

Mark Twain's Autobiography 1910-2010by Michael Kupperman
Fantagraphics Books
ISBN: 978-1606994917
128 pages