Spinning Wire and Spanning Worlds: Building the Brooklyn Bridge

Sometimes great achievements arise from petty annoyances. Writer Peter J. Tomasi and artist Sara DuVall begin their fast-paced and deeply moving graphic novel, The Bridge (Abrams ComicArts), in 1852, on a ferryboat in the partially frozen East River. One of the passengers, John A. Roebling, is irritated because the vessel hasn’t moved in exactly “three hours, twenty-eight minutes, and sixteen seconds,” as he puts it in a note to the vessel’s captain, who has been using the immobility to catch a very long nap. When Roebling, a civil engineer, receives the captain’s reply — “Stick a piece of river ice in your ear and cool off” — he and his young son, Washington, cobble together some scrap metal in the ferry’s hold to fashion a crude icebreaker. As the passengers cheer, Washington comments that all of the other ferries are still stranded. His father, a German immigrant and a ramrod of rectitude, gazes into the chill distance and says, “It will no longer suit the spirit of the present age to pronounce an undertaking impracticable, Washington. Remember that.”

They had been stranded on the ferry because there was as yet no other way to get across the East River — the vast reach seeming, more than a century and a half ago, literally unbridgeable. Author Tomasi grew up in Washington Heights, near enough to the George Washington Bridge that its revolving beacon cast “a soothing nightlight that put me to sleep each and every evening.” This proximity fostered a fascination with the bridges that connected Manhattan with the rest of the world; as a teenager, Tomasi walked across them all, and researched “who, what, where, when, and why these beautiful works came into being.” He and DuVall convey the “how” as well, employing lively dialogue and dynamic illustrations to engagingly explain the basics of industrial processes, including spinning wire from iron plates (use a very hot furnace), the proper way to sink a massive caisson — a hollow box made of wood and iron — into the riverbed (build granite towers atop it), and even how the sewage created by workers pulling long shifts in a caisson is removed (use compressed air to shoot it up a pipe and into the river).

Washington Roebling learns his trade.

The “who” in this true story of the conception, design, and construction of the Brooklyn Bridge includes the senior Roebling, an expert in manufacturing wire rope that he used to build early, relatively short suspension bridges; young Washington and his wife, Emily; and a supporting cast of historical figures — Civil War generals, mayors of Brooklyn and New York, governors, presidents, and, ultimately, the Italian stonecutters, Irish sandhogs, and other workers killed during the fourteen-year project, too many of whose names have been lost to history.

The story follows the teenage Washington, known to the family as Wash, as he is one night unceremoniously rousted from sleep by his father, who loads him into a carriage. As the horses clip-clop away from their comfortable family home in Trenton, New Jersey, the elder Roebling explains to his puzzled son, “Unfortunately, none of us can foresee what will bring us to our knees. Your contentment must be shattered if you are to flourish in good times and bad, boy.” He drops Wash off at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in upstate New York, where the bewildered youth spends the next four years studying geometry, mineralogy, civil mechanics, structural engineering, and other grueling courses.

Washington Roebling keeps an eye on his dream.

When he returns home, Wash takes his place as an assistant manager at the family firm, the John A. Roebling’s Sons Company. But he soon tires of his father’s humorless diligence and bolts, joining the Union forces in the Civil War. After serving with distinction and bravery — he spotted Rebels advancing on Gettysburg from an observation balloon, and later built rope bridges under heavy fire — Washington returns to civilian life, goes back to working at the mill, and marries the charming and steadfast Emily, sister of one of his fellow officers. During this time the elder Roebling makes a proposal to the cities of Brooklyn and New York to design and build an East River Bridge, while Wash is more than a little dissatisfied that his father has not promoted him to full manager. DuVall’s artwork is as precise and forceful as the characters she portrays: The young veteran’s barely contained anger is conveyed by two spare lines at the brow and a couple of squiggles to indicate a throbbing vein at the temple.

In 1869, Roebling senior dies after a freak accident (ironically, when a Brooklyn ferry hit the dock he was standing on and crushed his foot; he died several weeks later of tetanus). Prepared by his father’s stern protocols as well as by his own service in the war, Washington takes on the unprecedented engineering project. The bridge’s financial trustees are wary of hiring someone in his early thirties to oversee a gargantuan enterprise that includes two 90,000-ton towers and 14,000 miles of steel wire in the suspension system, but Washington persuades them by pointing to the plans that he and his father had drawn up, stating, “The only person who knows this bridge better than I do is dead.” He gets the job, but the next fourteen years take a heavy toll on him, his wife, his crew of assistants, and the small army of workers who toil in otherworldly conditions far beneath the surface of the East River.

Red lead and granite: Building the towers.

In a recurring gag, Tomasi captures the fatalistic humor of men in dangerous jobs (with a nod to the movie Airplane). As they climb into one of the sunken, pressurized caissons, an assistant named Farrington remarks, “Guess this is a bad time to let you know I’m claustrophobic.” On the next page, as the lights go temporarily dim, Farrington adds, “Guess this is a bad time to let you know I’m afraid of the dark.” Then, as they hear the water rushing past on the other side of the caisson walls, he informs the assembled crew, “Guess this is a bad time to let you know I can’t swim.” Some eighty pages later, when he is selected to be the first to traverse the bridge’s preliminary wire span, he stays true to character: “Guess this is a bad time to let you know I’m afraid of heights.”

But Farrington and the other men involved in the construction show Roebling the loyalty soldiers give to respected officers, calling him “Colonel” in reference to his Civil War rank. Roebling in turn offers good wages and — when men start suffering from nose bleeds, vomiting, fever, and fainting — orders that a doctor be present on site every day. The sickness turns out to be a form of the bends brought on by the high atmospheric pressures inside the sunken caissons. The doctor, struggling to make the caisson crews understand the grave importance of depressurizing in an airlock when they finish their shifts, tires of flip remarks from the skeptical laborers and shakes a soda bottle hard, saying, “The seltzer in this bottle is your blood. If you do not stay in the airlock a few minutes after leaving the caisson, then — ” He lets the fizzy seltzer spray over the audience. “Class dismissed.”

A new age dawns: Surprised by a woman in the workplace.

In one scene, the caisson crew discovers the bones of Redcoats while digging toward bedrock. “The British are coming! The British are coming!” one jokes. Another answers, “Not anymore, they ain’t,” while a third grumbles, “Feed their stinky Limey bones to the dogs, who cares?” The workers’ reactions make real the idea that the history of the Revolutionary War was still raw, as of course are their memories of the just-ended Civil War. A couple of the workers who served on different sides nearly come to blows.

When a caisson that is not yet fully weighted lifts with the tide, the pressurized air holding the water at bay, DuVall depicts the startled workers pointing at fish on the other side as if they had suddenly found themselves at an aquarium. After the wooden box slams back down, some of the workers decide that their nerves can no longer handle the hazardous labor. As they leave, Washington assures them, “Keep your heads up. There’s no shame here.”

Emily Roebling, hands-on manager.

But eventually Washington himself begins to show the effects of working literally under high pressure. When he is no longer able to tolerate loud noises or perform extended physical labor, he resorts to surveying the project’s progress through a telescope from his Brooklyn Heights residence, relaying instructions to the work crews in notes delivered by Emily. Although not formally trained as an engineer, she is nearly as steeped in the family business as her husband, and becomes the de-facto on-site manager.

As the years pass, the towers rise and the caissons sink, and Washington’s company bids on the next phase of the project, stringing the massive steel cables. But they are undercut by another wire manufacturer, one with financial ties to a bridge trustee. Corners are purposely cut to skim more profit, and when the subpar materials are discovered it’s too late to remove the faulty steel from the suspension system. The bridge, however, was designed to be six times stronger than its maximum load, and the inferior materials (which remain part of the structure to this day) still left a safety factor of five. When Washington exposes the crooked trustee, the man huffs out of the meeting, sneering, “You will be hearing from my attorney.” The experienced engineer replies, “I doubt it.”

In scene after scene, Tomasi and DuVall limn human intimacies, giving the familiar history of their tale a lively and surprisingly touching resonance that goes beyond the sweeping visual appeal of the neo-gothic support towers and elegant webwork of the cables. The Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1883, after fourteen years of construction and at a cost of $15 million (approximately $350 million today). Both figures were roughly twice their original estimates, and between twenty and thirty men died working on the bridge. (By contrast, the new Kosciuszko Bridge, between Brooklyn and Queens, which is a bit longer, cost $555 million and no workers died during construction.) In 1884, some people still doubted whether the one-mile-long Brooklyn Bridge — which includes a main suspension span of 1,595 feet, the world-record holder for twenty years — could truly be safe. Ever on the lookout for a galvanizing publicity stunt, P.T. Barnum marched twenty-one elephants from Manhattan to circus grounds in Brooklyn, thus putting New Yorkers at ease.

Such is the Brooklyn Bridge’s romantic gravitational pull that when future East Village counterculture icon Tuli Kupferberg attempted suicide from the Manhattan Bridge, in 1945, he found himself reimagined ten years later in Allen Ginsberg’s Howl as the man “who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually happened and walked away unknown and forgotten into the ghostly daze of Chinatown soup alleyways & fire trucks, not even one free beer.…”

The 1883 celebration for the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge. So many fireworks were used that the glow could be seen as far away as inland New Jersey.

Author Tomasi ends the book’s preface with a quote from Montgomery Schuyler, an essayist and architecture critic, who showed astonishing prescience in a May 1883 issue of Harper’s Weekly when he wrote, “It so happens that the work which is likely to be our most durable monument, and to convey some knowledge of us to the most remote posterity, is a work of bare utility; not a shrine, not a fortress, not a palace, but a bridge.”

It seems, 135 years later, that Schuyler was on the money — after all, nothing’s been sold more times than the Brooklyn Bridge. But it’s still here, free as the breeze.


Pow! The Red Hook Takes New Brooklyn

Look up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s an allegory of gentrification! It’s the Red Hook! Comics creator Dean Haspiel — known for his collaborations with Jonathan Ames on the graphic novel The Alcoholic and on Ames’s HBO series Bored to Death, among myriad graphic endeavors with Marvel, Harvey Pekar, and more — has recently turned his eyes and pen toward the late capitalism trials and tribulations of the city he’s lived in all his life. The 51-year-old Manhattan native moved to Brooklyn 21 years ago, when rising rents made his home unaffordable, and now that those rents are pricing artists out of Brooklyn, Haspiel is dreaming of a way to save it. How? With a superhero, the Red Hook, named not coincidentally after the neighborhood where Haspiel had his studio for years.

Dean Haspiel

Published earlier this month in print by Image Comics (after running as an online serial at Line Webtoon two years ago), The Red Hook is an ode to Brooklyn wrapped in a Dear John letter (wrapped in an “I love you anyway” letter), and inked in more bright and muddy hues than the water of the Gowanus Canal. Peopled with colorful characters such as the Possum, the mob boss Benson Hurst, and the Red Hook’s vigilante justice-seeking mama, the Coney, Haspiel describes the story as one of “a super-thief…who is transformed into a hero against his will, a year after a sentient Brooklyn’s heart is broken, and physically secedes from America.”

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It’s not the first time Haspiel has turned his pen and ink toward Brooklyn. Haspiel was the loose inspiration for Zach Galifianakis’s comics artist character on Ames’s Brooklyn-centered Bored to Death, and won an Emmy in 2010 for the character drawings he did for the title sequence. But this project, written as well as drawn by Haspiel himself, is much more a reflection of Haspiel’s own hopes for the borough’s future. Not all heroes have capes, but this one probably has a MetroCard. Haspiel spoke to the Voice in the midst of a book tour heavy on Brooklyn stops.

So tell me about The Red Hook.

Well, it’s about a super-thief who is bequeathed the Omni-Fist of Altruism [a character called the Green Point is involved in this] against his will, and he’s forced to become a superhero, or he will die. And it’s during a time when Brooklyn reveals herself to be sentient, and she is heartbroken by the apathy and indifference of the world, and decides to physically secede from New York City, ergo the world, to start her own republic. And here, artists can trade and barter their art for food and services.

That last part sounds like a Utopia.

Listen, where does this stuff come from, right? I grew up reading Marvel and DC comics and then later on specifically a lot of Jack Kirbyinspired comics and/or written and drawn by Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Stan Lee, later on Frank Miller, Jim Starlin…and what I discovered is that a lot of those comics that were made back then were very prescient. And you could say the same thing about Star Trek or any kind of science-fiction or fantasy material, where if you put ideas out there, they start to materialize. Like our phones. We went from dial phones to, like, a flip phone from Star Trek. Anyway, all of these comics would impart these future ideas, which, little by small, start to come true.

So why create a world of heroes and villains called New Brooklyn?

So, [years ago] I’m sitting in a studio in Gowanus, Brooklyn, sharing a space with six other artists because we can’t afford individual studios anymore, and then those studios start to become too expensive. And buildings are getting bought and sold to the highest bidder, who then sit on a space and do nothing with it, because they’re waiting for the developers to turn the neighborhoods into Gardens of Earthly Delight — I mean, the Gowanus Canal in my lifetime is never going to be a place to swim in. Why would you want to do that? — but that’s the kind of thing they’re trying to do. The building the studio was in two years ago, which then got bought and sold, is still sitting there, they tore down all the walls, and I saw some plans, where underneath the Smith and 9th Street station they were trying to show a huge patio garden where they’re serving food and beer while the F and G trains run over you. On the one hand, it’s a fun idea, but realistically, it doesn’t work. They [builders] buy these 99-year leases, and sit on them for 10 years, and kick out all the artists. It’s too expensive. New York City is no longer underwriting the avant-garde, or interested in performance spaces. They’d rather build another bank or another pharmaceutical grocery store.

And how did that translate into the story you’re telling with The Red Hook?

It was inspired by something that happened in 2014. I’d already invented the Red Hook in 2012 but I didn’t have a story for him, but what I discovered [narratively] happened the day the American flags got replaced by white flags on the Brooklyn Bridge. And that really happened. And it took about a week to discover that some German artists had done some art prank or stunt. But what it made me think about: Whenever I see a white flag, I think about somebody giving up. And I thought, “Oh my God, Brooklyn gave up. It finally gave up.” And that’s why I anthropomorphized Brooklyn and the Brooklyn Bridge. What if it was sentient? What if it was alive? And what if she decided, “You know what? I’m done with all of y’all. I’m out of this.”

You have some striking images of the Brooklyn Bridge having ripped itself away from Manhattan.

I didn’t worry too much about the nuts and bolts of what would happen, except, when you pull the bridge apart, it snaps in half, a bunch of subway systems will flood…but what kind of beauty will rise from it? And you know, I love superhero comics, so I thought, there’ll be superheroes and supervillains, I’ll get to have fun with those tropes. But at the same time, I myself want to be able to trade or sell or barter my artwork that I do as actual commerce. I remember going to the dentist, and I couldn’t afford the root canal. And I discovered that the dentist was a comic book fan, and I basically got commissioned to draw him as a superhero in trade for a root canal.

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Is that a real story? That’s amazing.

That happened to me. So with that in mind, I put that in my comic. And I know other people have traded art for services. It happens. So I put that all into the backstory of The Red Hook Volume One: New Brooklyn.

You have all these wonderful characters in the comic, named after Brooklyn neighborhoods. Benson Hurst, the Green Point, the Coney. In what sequel can I finally see a heroine named Carol Gardens?

I do want to bring out a Carol Garden at some point! That might be something I do in the third story, but I’m not sure yet. [The second volume of the Red Hook saga, War Cry, is currently online at Line Webtoon, and the third volume, Starcross, debuts in early 2019.] That’s definitely on my to-do list. There have been a couple of other ones that people have thrown at me. [The Red Hook Volume One also includes the Flat Bush, and a radioactive fish creature named the Sheep’s Head.] It’s a lot of fun. Part of what’s great about serialized comics and serialized television is that what was really cool about waiting seven days for the next episode is that it activated the writer in me. “What’s gonna happen next?” And you start to create this writers’ room with your friends. And it’s a real creative process. It was so much fun to engage that way, and I don’t know if people engage like that anymore. As a creator that [anticipation] was so important to me.

So where can we find you on this very Brooklyn-heavy tour you’re on? I see that you have art from The Red Hook at the New York Transit Museum right now.

 The Transit Museum called me a year ago, and they were curating this show, showing comics from their origins, from the newspaper strips from 1907 through the modern day. There’s a lot of indie/alternative stuff, there’s a lot of stuff I’ve never seen in my life from back in the day. Marvel and DC is presented. The show is beautifully put together. And one level down is an actual train station with one car representing each era of the subway. They cover it all, from memoir to horror to superhero, all related to the subway system. Four pages of The Red Hook are there, which take place in the Smith and 9th Street subway station.

And these pages do not depict a bougie patio below the F and G trains.

And they never will.


Dean Haspiel will be appearing on July 5 at Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene, in conversation with Josh Neufeld, and on July 25 at Bushwick Book Club at Barbés in Park Slope, in a musical performance inspired by The Red Hook


5 New Graphic Novels to Help You Survive the Summer Months

It’s summertime in the city, a season and a setting that are usually only considered by indie comics creators who are writing humorous and/or erotic stories about sweat, sex, and subway delays. There aren’t many essential entries in that ignoble subgenre of quasi-autobiographical comics and comic strips , unfortunately (though the Hugo Pratt–scripted and Milo Manara–drawn sexy Native American drama Indian Summer is sorta fun in a sleazy and very dated kind of way). But if you are in the market for a good comic book this summer, you’re probably looking for something light enough to stow in a carry-on, breezy enough to match your seasonally diminished attention span, and high-concept enough that you can devour it in one poolside sitting. Worry not, socially maladjusted readers: We made this list of cool, zippy graphic novels just for you.

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Supergirl: The Silver Age Omnibus vol. 2, written and illustrated by Various Artists
It’s easy to forget how charming superhero stories can be when they’re not weighed down by Frank Miller’s and Alan Moore’s by-now well-loved creative hand-me-downs. But this collection of blessedly surreal, self-contained, and brief Supergirl stories is a welcome reminder that light and silly is often better than grim and gritty in a modern world that seems to be perpetually on the brink of collapse. See Supergirl use elaborate disguises (including a stilt-enhanced Superman costume that she hides in a hollow tree) and ridiculous powers (super-ventriloquism and super-hypnotism!) to fend off evil wedding suitors, rotten foster parents, and mysterious alien strangers. Marvel at ludicrous plot twists and adorably bratty supporting characters, like Comet the Super-Horse and Streaky the Super-Cat. Gasp reverently as frequent Super-creators, like writer Leo Dorfman and penciller Jim Mooney, cram in more entrancingly weird ideas in a twelve-page backup story than most modern comics artists can in a six-issue-spanning, twenty-two-page-long story arc. Fun for most ages.
Supergirl: The Silver Age Omnibus Vol. 2 is out now.

Bad Girls, written by Alex De Campi and illustrated by Victor Santos
De Campi and Santos’s bubbly and bloody thriller follows three nightclub performers on New Year’s Eve 1958 as they fight to escape Havana before Fidel Castro’s revolution topples dictator Fulgencio Batista’s crooked but familiar bribe-fueled status quo (think Casablanca meets The Wild Bunch, only set during The Godfather II’s New Year’s Eve in Havana sequence). De Campi and Santos bring out the best in each other’s work. De Campi (No Mercy, Twisted Romance) characteristically excels at psychologically complex characterizations, and never once overburdens readers with padded backstories, or pedantic history lessons. And Santos (Filthy RichThe Mice Templar) brings an infectious dynamism to every action scene with clean line work and bold panel layouts that bring to mind formative draftsmen like Jim Steranko, Darwyn Cooke, and Bruce Timm. De Campi and Santos should work together more often.
Bad Girls is out July 17.

Vs., vol. 1, written by Iván Brandon and illustrated by Esad Ribic
This winningly gory, character-driven sci-fi/action story often feels like a reboot of Rollerball, in that it also follows a grim, over-the-hill athlete whose career is manipulated by media executives, commercial sponsors, and fellow players. The biggest difference between Rollerball and Vs. is that Brandon (EscapeBlack Cloud) focuses more on the world outside of lead protagonist/space gladiator Satta Flynn’s head, since Vs. is also about humble heroine Major Devi and the systemic conditions that keep her down in order to better prop Flynn up. Colorist Nic Klein — penciller of the Brandon-scripted Drifter — brings out the best in Ribic’s ink-intensive hand-painted art, making futuristic skylines and battlefields jump off the page with a vibrant mix of purples, greens, and oranges. Maybe the best-designed book on this list.
Vs., vol. 1 is out August 8.

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The Best of Witzend, written and illustrated by Various Artists
God bless the good folks at Fantagraphics Books for celebrating witzend, an odds-and-ends underground magazine that was originally compiled and published by mega-influential cartoonist Wallace Wood in 1966, and then by long-standing editor Bill Pearson from 1968 to 1985. This streamlined collection is worthwhile just for gorgeous illustrations and one-off stories from titanic creators like Vaughn Bodé, Steve Ditko, Frank Frazetta, Archie Goodwin, and Wood himself. Pearson also notably provides down-to-earth historical context in a couple of interviews and essays, where he credits Wood with inspiring artists to focus on creator-owned work as opposed to work-for-hire projects (none of witzend’s contributors were paid, but each retained his work’s copyright and reproduction rights). Pearson’s also refreshingly honest about why there’s so much naked lady flesh crammed into witzend’s pages: Many featured artists imagined that they were rebelling against the sanitized, generic constraints that were imposed on them when they worked on Marvel and DC Comics’ superhero and monster-intensive titles. Come for the dimpled asses, stay for the oral history article, featuring choice quotes from Pearson, Ditko, and others.
The Best of Witzend is out August 14.

Exit, Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles, written by Mark Russell and illustrated by Sean Parsons, Mark Morales, Howard Porter, Mike Feehan
Russell (PrezThe Flintstones) delivers another extraordinarily good melodrama based on a questionably absurd high-concept premise. Here, he reimagines Hanna-Barbera’s goofy pink mountain lion as a troubled, openly gay playwright living in 1950s New York who, when asked to testify at the House Un-American Activities Committee, struggles to remain loyal to his neglected wife, his human male lover, and his estranged childhood friend Huckleberry Hound (now a closeted alcoholic and a blue puppy dog–man). Russell’s dialogue and knack for seriocomic plot twists gives this bizarre project a shockingly sturdy emotional resonance and sensitivity. Highly recommended for anybody who’s open-minded enough to read a story about queer talking animals who congregate at the Stonewall Inn, daydream about putting on a show, and contemplate the vital necessity of outsider art at a time when too many Americans considered otherness to be the nation’s greatest threat (Heavens to Murgatroyd, talk about contemporary relevance!).
Exit, Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles is out August 22


Comics Great Michael Kupperman on Fame, Family Trauma, and All the Answers

With the arrival last week of his graphic memoir All the Answers (Gallery 13), Michael Kupperman, the cartoonist and deadpan pop Dadaist, has become the rare artist whose work has stirred from me both kinds of tears: I’ve laughed until I’ve cried, and now I’ve simply cried. His searching, dead-serious new book — Kupperman’s first extended narrative work — follows his investigation of a story that shaped his family’s life but that his family rarely discussed. His father is Joel Kupperman, who was perhaps the most famous boy in America in the 1940s and early 1950s, when he dazzled the country as one of the “Quiz Kids,” those whip-smart young know-it-alls on radio and then TV. Joel Kupperman’s feats of improvisational mathematics charmed millions throughout his youth, but we know today a truth that wasn’t readily apparent back then: Fame has a cost, especially for the young.

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All the Answers dives deep, with clear eyes and some touching uncertainty, into the years that Joel Kupperman spent a lifetime not speaking of, digging up a continuity of family trauma but also many fascinating, surprising connections, inviting us to witness young Joel with Orson Welles and Chico Marx and to marvel at the possibility that the young boy’s fame was engineered, in a way, as a sort of positive propaganda to counter international anti-semitism.

The book arrives eighteen years after the publication of Michael Kupperman’s first, the riotous collection Snake ’n’ Bacon’s Cartoon Cabaret (still in print! still impossibly funny!). I’ve bought three copies of that Dada miscellany over the years, because everyone I’ve ever loaned it to finds an excuse not to give it back. The Brooklyn-based Kupperman, a father himself and just past fifty, has also published the marvelous goof Mark Twain’s Autobiography 1910–2010 (Fantagraphics, 2011) and collected editions of his comic Tales Designed to Thrizzle. All are strange and gorgeous works, funny as hell but also committed to the painstaking parody and reproduction of musty twentieth-century pulp and comics and pop culture. Kupperan’s attentiveness to what Forties comic covers and newspapers actually looked like has paid off here in All the Answers’ painstaking reproductions of family scrapbooks collecting news clippings and mementos of Joel Kupperman’s reign as America’s smartest kid.

I spoke to Kupperman in mid May.

You seem to be getting more attention with this serious, autobiographical work than with the funny comics that established you as one of the medium’s greats.

To be honest, that was one of the problems with doing the funny stuff, rarely getting written about or interviewed. My older, funny work involved the absence of meaning. There was nothing particularly strongly thematic about it or about me. That gave people nothing to write about, really. They could say This is funny or not, but there were no other angles to latch onto. The dissection of humor does not drive the news cycle.

As a cartoonist who has worked for so long in unmeaning, was it scary to attempt to stir in us feelings beyond laughter?

Oh, yeah. It was terrifying and very difficult and wrenching every single day. One of the most important things was to tell the story in a way that seemed honest and was not inflated in anyway. Writing the book was a process of reduction, removing material, taking out stuff that was only interesting as trivia.

Characters in your work always are boiled down to a perfect cartoon essence. In the new book you draw yourself as a man who seems to have a perpetual headache and exists in a state of near-panic. Is that what you were intending?

It’s fairly accurate, so yes. When you get to know me you find that I’m not a barrel of laughs all the time. I can be a pretty intense personality. The character I came up with looks a little like a sad, intense, middle-aged Tintin.

Usually, though, there’s some warmth in your caricatures of real people. When I look at your Michael Kupperman, I think, for possibly the first time while reading you, here’s someone he maybe doesn’t like very much.

Frankly, I feel the likeness is nicer and cleaned up from what I could have gone with. In some ways I do have a pretty negative self-image, and it can be a struggle to combat that.

Nothing could seem more benign in mid-century American culture than being the kid genius on TV and radio. The book suggests that it’s taken you a lifetime to fully understand what a traumatic experience that must have been, and that we still don’t quite understand what fame like that can do to a person, especially at that age.

Absolutely. The Quiz Kids experience went, along with the rest of my father’s childhood, into a kind of locked box. It was understood that talking about it would cause him pain, so we didn’t bring it up. It wasn’t until I started really examining it that I started to see what it had done to him — and through him to me and the rest of the family. His generation and the generations surrounding it were about not talking about stuff and not dealing with trauma. So it just went unexamined for years. Things that I really struggle with in my life come directly from this. I have a need to avoid attention, to be anonymous, to not be noticed, which goes very strongly against other aspects of my character. I have a modesty and pessimism about myself that’s so intense that even when things are going very well I can paint myself as a loser.

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Are you able to feel, right now, with the book’s release, that you are doing well? Are you able to enjoy it?

It’s so recently that I’ve finished the book – it’s just been six or seven weeks since the last piece of working on this. I never went through therapy, so this was like an accelerated course of it. And now, going into this interview cycle, I realize I’m going to be discussing it over and over again, which is almost like continuing through therapy. Then there are all these open questions from the book. There’s a lot of things I open up, and I already have received some feedback and new information. It’s like I started a process. I feel a little punch-drunk waiting to see what happens next.

The book is the rare work of autobiographical art that concludes with the question of should this work exist.

Yeah. I do feel like I had to do the book. It was a very necessary thing in some ways. But I couldn’t help feeling that by asking these questions and by focusing on this I pushed him further into dementia, which I know a lot of people will tell me is completely ridiculous —

Of course we will. We’re all nice.

But I still feel it. But once I started looking into it, it was impossible to stop. It’s changed how some other people in the family see our family dynamic, including my mother.

You shared on Twitter a while ago an appealingly odd video your son shot of a fire hydrant. Then you said that if his YouTube channel gets too much attention you’re going to shut it down. Was that a joke?

Completely serious. I keep saying to him, “You read the book. That’s my statement on children becoming famous. I don’t want you getting too much attention.” Anything a child gets at that age is drawn from an account marked The Future that’s drawing on their future success and will affect them later.

Earlier you mentioned your “older, funnier” work. That phrase, of course, once seemed owned by Woody Allen. One panel in the book finds you, young, watching Allen’s Radio Days, a film that features a parody of your father. Did your father see the movie?

It surprised him and upset him. He was very hurt by it. After that he avoided any movie that might be dealing with quiz shows or that era, so he never saw Quiz Show or Magnolia. He was a very sensitive person, and was very hurt by mockery, especially public mockery.

I’m hung up on older, funnier. Are you retiring from comedy?

There just aren’t that many incentives. There’s a lot of humorous material being produced every day. We’re all used to getting it free on Twitter. It’s increasingly hard to get people to pay attention or to pay for it. It’s just not a good career path anymore.

All the Answers: A Graphic Memoir
By Michael Kupperman
Gallery 13
224 pp.


Living in the Dark: A Graphic Novela

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Living in the Dark: A Graphic Novela