Mark Twain died in 1910. That's one, "factual," way of looking at it.
The other (much more whimsical) way involves a wizard's spell keeping the celebrated American author alive indefinitely, and continuing to have colorful adventures to this day.
Michael Kupperman's Mark Twain's Autobiography 1910-2010 is a first-person account of exactly what the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn author has been up to for the past century, including serving in World War I, dabbling in adult film, exploring outer space and constructing multiple rafts out of whatever debris is readily available.
The book, available for order now through Fantagraphics, is driven by prose but also contains chapter illustrations and comic sequences similar to material found in Kupperman's anthology series Tales Designed to Thrizzle, the book that first introduced the author's distinctly daft take on Twain.
Newsarama talked to Kupperman — whose comedy skills have been praised by Conan O'Brien himself — about the origins of the autobiography and his own history with Twain, plus news on the next installment of Thrizzle, which includes an homage to America's favorite TV medical examiner of the late '70s and early '80s.
Newsarama: Michael, you will surely be asked this — or already have been asked this — many times while promoting this book, but since I haven't yet read an interview on it yet I feel OK about asking it: When did your interest in Mark Twain start?
Michael Kupperman: He's just always been around as a character. I grew up not far from Hartford, Connecticut, and they have a Twain industry — in fact, I'm appearing at the Twain House on October 1 in Hartford. You'd see TV commercials of Twain, theatrical shows of Twain. There are some unbelievably awful Twain-inspired children's play sculptures at the Buckland Hills mall I've got to get some pictures of. So he's around. He was kind of an industry.
Nrama: Your version of Twain is kind of like Will Ferrell's impression of George W. Bush, in terms of exaggerating a real person to the point where it becomes its own thing.
Kupperman: It's pretty loose. One other character I frequently think of when doing Twain — writing that book, or doing him in Thrizzle — is Dave Thomas from SCTV doing Walter Cronkite. Which in some ways is very similar — this kind of roguish, semi-self-befuddled character, roaming around having adventures.
Nrama: The Autobiography is mostly prose. What motivated you to take the book in that direction?
Kupperman: I wanted to go for it and do a mostly prose book. I think from here on I may go and do a completely prose book sometime soon. I've been wanting to do mostly prose for a while. I just started doing it. I was doing a few chapters, and I put them on my blog, and I decided I was having a good time, and why not go on and do a whole book?
Nrama: There are still several comic sequences in the autobiography. Was that important to you to include? Kind of act as a bridge between the two forms?
Kupperman: I just like to break it up a little, and make it overtly cartoony instead of just somewhat cartoony. I thought that would give it a bit of a sense of fun.
Nrama: And the comics scenes in the Twain book are actually a lot more conventional in format than most of the stuff in Thrizzle.
Kupperman: They're less post-modern. They're done in a style that's not so labor and effort-intensive. I wanted to see how easily I could carry the joke. While doing the transcripts, I was thinking of comic artists who I admired from the past who had very light styles, like Jules Feiffer or Thurber, or Ed Subitzky. His stuff was extremely minimalist and was just extremely funny.
Nrama: You said you'll be appearing at the Twain House — have you encountered any hardcore Twain enthusiasts yet? Have you experienced anyone appalled at your depiction, or do most get the joke?
Kupperman: I would assume so. I think that's about to happen. I think I'm going to be meeting a lot more Twain enthusiasts, especially as I get invited to appear at Twain-themed events. I'm probably going to learn more about Twain.
But I think although he's an outlandish character, and a lot of what he does is utterly ridiculous and out of sorts with the real Twain, I think there are threads in that character that are very much Twain. One of them is the journeying aspect — the idea that he can build a raft at any riverbank and just travel down it. I think that's very American and very Twain.
Nrama: There's even a resemblance in the text itself. Did you put much thought into trying to replicate his writing style?
Kupperman: Not really. It's been a little while since I read Twain, and I didn't want to go back, because once you start being conscious of that stuff it never stops. So I didn't want to go too far with being influenced by reality.
I have read Twain to the extent that most college graduates have. There's a certain kind of phrasing that I think we're all familiar with, which certainly crept into the book.
Nrama: In a lot of ways, the book is sort a travelogue of major 20th century events as experienced by Mark Twain. How did you pick what to include?
Kupperman:I didn't want to do an "A, B, C" and do every single historical event, but I was trying to get the high point of most of the decades in there.Mark Twain and
Einstein.I tried to think like a prospective reader who might look at it and say, "Hey, why is this not here? " I don't want anyone to be left with any questions.
Nrama: Though the last 20 or 30 years aren't really touched upon much in the book.
Kupperman: It's true. It's more of a challenge, because of 9/11, and the war against terror. It's hard to make light of, especially in the last few years. News has been such a downer. It's hard to want to write about it.
Nrama: This is being put out by Fantagraphics, who also publish Thrizzle. Was the plan always to go through with them, or did you ever consider a more conventional "book" publisher?
Kupperman: Fantagraphics is really great. They're so much better than most publishers. And they're into my stuff. So it was really a no-brainer, because they'll print what I do without giving me any hassle, and they'll be happy to do it. Which is not normal in publishing.
It makes life very easy. I called them up and said, "I want to do this Twain book, such-and-such percentage writing, and such-and-such percentage comics and illustrations," and they said, "Yep, OK," and that was it.
Nrama: And speaking of Fantagraphics, a new issue of Tales Designed to Thrizzle is on its way, right?
Kupperman: No. 7, yes, in November. I just finished it a few days ago. [Laughs.] I'm pretty wiped out.
Nrama: Anything in particular readers should be looking forward to in the issue?
Kupperman: There's certainly a lot of challenging material in there for me. There's a dream story with Quincy M.E. that goes on for — I don't know, 18 pages? — and there are photo comics, which I've never done before. There's definitely some different material.
Nrama: There was a Quincy reference in the Twain book, too.
Kupperman: Yes, there's a Quincy reference in the Twain book. And then Klugman, not as Quincy; as his Odd Couple character.
I watched an episode of Quincy to do this book — I had, to get the reference — and it's so boring. Maybe I wasn't watching a very good episode, but it was not fun. It was amateurish, and puzzling, and some plot threads just went nowhere. I mean, Jack Klugman is always good, don't get me wrong. He saved it. Because otherwise it stunk.
So I have no idea why I just did a huge comic about it. It's intimidating delivering to Fantagraphics, because you go to their FTP site, and of course the files in there are the names of some of the most brilliant cartoonists, living and dead, and here am I, dropping in my delusional babble. There's never been a Quincy comic book before, I do know that.
Nrama: And there were a lot of comic book adaptations of live-action TV shows back then.
Kupperman: I think by then they weren't doing it so much. In the '60s, they did a lot of comic book adaptations — Gold Key, and Dell, and whatnot. But by the late '70s they weren't doing them so much. I don't think there was a Rockford, or Quincy, or McCloud. Any of those guys. Baretta.
Nrama: So, plenty of material for upcoming comics.
Kupperman: Yeah, one of these days.Got a comment? There's lots of conversation on Newsarama's FACEBOOK and TWITTER!