Views and opinions expressed on this website are solely those of the individuals expressing them. They are not necessarily the views and opinions of all of the contributors, A Little Nonsense, its editor, or its sponsors. So, if you disagree, don't get all flibbidy-jibbit. Rather, join the conversation and share your thoughts.

Friday, September 23, 2011

REVIEW: Mark Twain's Autobiography 1910-2010

Michael Kupperman just may be the one of the funniest people planet. At least that’s what Conan O’Brian thinks, he wrote it as an endorsement for Kupperman’s latest book, Mark Twain’s Autobiography 1910-2010.

It just so happens that I agree with Conan. Kupperman is a comedic genius. Filled with deliberately odd syntax, wizards, snarky dialog, vampires, outer space adventures, car chasing UFOs, and nearly every significant event of the past one hundred years Mark Twain’s Autobiography is easily the funniest thing that I have read in a very, very long time. Come to think of it, I don’t think I have ever read anything funnier. Nearly every page had me rolling. It wasn’t just a chuckle or even a hearty guffaw, either. It was maniacal,  hysterical, snorting, crying, temporarily not breathing, and contorting my body into uncomfortable shapes type of laughing. It’s that goddamn funny. So funny, in fact, that I would be entirely satisfied if Kupperman went ahead and decided to write the biographies of everyone else, ever.

Published by Fantagraphics, the book is a mixture of prose, comic art, and single panel cartoons that guide us through Mark Twain’s amazing life after his alleged death in 1910. The book’s forward informs us that Kupperman received a mysterious telegram, via FedEx, that he could not ignore. It demanded that he come at once to a secret and mysterious location where he met Mark Twain in person. Twain forced a manuscript into Kupperman’s hands and commanded him to publish it; because Twain felt that the story must be told, but his non-death had to remain a secret. Twain knew that no one would believe Kupperman anyway, so he was a perfect candidate to publish the work. Twain even encouraged Kupperman to utilize his cartooning skills in the book saying, “You should decorate it with your silly drawings, to further undermine the credibility. Perhaps a few comical strips as well.” Kupperman, naturally, obliged. What came after that is an incredible journey.

I’m hesitant to quote from the book any further than that, because it’s really something that readers ought to experience for themselves. The humor has a bizarre, unique tenor to it that is very much what one would expect from Michael Kupperman; however, it also is reminiscent of that unique flare that Twain brought to his work, which really stops this book from just being humorous and makes it brilliant. It’s unfair to the reader to spoil that experience here. It simply must be experienced.

Fans of Mark Twain’s actual writings will not only recognize Twain’s certain influence and love of the absurd, but they will also recognize the parallels between Kupperman’s bizarre tales and the outrageous, false, news stories that Twain wrote during his time as a newspaperman in his younger days. Twain’s hoax articles were just as convincing as they were absurd and were often bizarre claims or involved a fictitious murder of some sort. He was forced to flee San Francisco because his satire/works of fiction/hoaxes were taken as true accounts, which left police officials none too pleased. With that in mind, it’s hard for me to imagine that Mark Twain would not approve of this book.

The book’s prose pieces make up the bulk of the work and are written in a sort of semi-essay format. They’re not fully detailed chapters, rather just one or two pages briefly explaining a story—not dissimilar to what you would read as a blog or message board post. There are lots of run on sentences and odd syntax, but both are clearly deliberate and add to the humor of the story being told in each chapter. If you prefer an older way of thinking about these things, they read as letters to the editor, or as crazy lies that your grandfather may tell you in a drunken haze, or like the type of stories that you would hear from “Open Line” callers on Coast to Coast AM. It’s as though, in Kupperman’s world, Abe Simpson is playing the roll of Mark Twain.

Kupperman’s sequentials and single panel cartoons are presented in his clean, deceptively simple, style that has a certain everyman appeal to it. What I love about Kupperman’s art is his mixture of loose details and the almost cut ‘n paste nature of the way certain actions are drawn or costumes are given to characters—there’s a sort of paper doll quality to it. It’s really a brilliant maneuver on his part that captures the absurdity of the scene in a way that a more standard style of cartooning could not. Additionally, the limited color pallet of just blues and grays is well played as it maintains the “authentic” feel of the tales. Using only the black and white line work or a full color pallet simply would not work here and would detract from the humor on the page. Leaving it uncolored, the line work would ask the reader to fill in too much information. Using a full color pallet here would eliminate the unique experience that a limited pallet brings. A full color pallet would also negate any sentimental feelings readers had towards older prose books that they may have encountered in their childhood that contained monochromatic spot illustration. It’s that semi-unconscious sentimentality that makes this work feel the way it “should”; as well as heightening the humor.

The seamless blending of the prose and cartooning make the work a unique experience that is distinct to Kupperman and his style of humor. 

Humor, like all other forms of art and literature, is difficult to objectively quantify. Frankly, it’s not even worth trying to objectively quantify it because, even if rationally possible, the beauty of humor, art, and literature is the experience that the reader and observer take away from it. It is often those experiences; however random, absurd, or infrequent they may be that allow us to connect with others. They allow us to connect with the creators of a specific work; they allow us to connect with historical figures in new and exciting ways, and, often, they force us to think about our opinions. It’s often the comedian and not the philosopher that will cause us to truly reflect on our actions and what we think of the world; and sometimes the comedian is the philosopher. I certainly think that is true for Mark Twain, and Kupperman’s work here emphasizes that point in a brilliantly absurd fashion.

Mark Twain's Autobiography 1910-2010
Michael Kupperman
Fantagraphics Books
SRP: $19.99

1 comment:

  1. Great review. And thanks for bringing attention to a book that I must have and didn't previously know existed!