The late, great Andy Kaufman’s offbeat comic sensibilities remain a source of fascination decades after his death…which some very hardcore fans still debate as another of his “performances.” But whether you knew him as the loveable Latka on TV’s Taxi or from the Jim Carrey biopic Man in the Moon (or the R.E.M. song that inspired the title, or the more recent Netflix documentary Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, about Carrey’s in-character performance as Kaufman when the cameras weren’t rolling), Andy Kaufman is to this day associated with groundbreaking comedy that often blurred the line between performance and reality, long before things such as YouTube even existed.
Now, cartoonist Box Brown, who’s already done the graphic-novel biographies Andre the Giant: Life and Legend and Tetris: The Games People Play, reunites with the publisher of those books, First Second, for Is This Guy For Real?: The Unbelieveable Andy Kaufman. Out this week, Is This Guy For Real? explores Kaufman’s life with a specific focus on one of the oddest parts of his oddball career - his fandom and participation in professional wrestling, including his many bouts with women and long-term in-character rivalry with legend Jerry “The King” Lawler - which, like so much of his work, combined performance and reality into something unique and unforgettable.
Newsarama talked with Brown about his Kaufman fandom, why he chose to tell this particular part of Kaufman’s story, the challenges of adapting a life into comic books, and much more.
Newsarama: Box, what made you want to do Andy Kaufman's story as a comic book?
Box Brown: I really wanted to study a comedian. It's weird, because Andy is really not a comedian, in that he didn't really tell jokes. He was a performance artist. He just wanted to get reactions from people.
But, really the reason I wanted to do Andy was because of his ties to pro-wrestling, which is another passion of mine. I think a lot of these other looks at Andy's life missed the true connection between his act and pro wrestling, and his overall impact on pro-wrestling. His impact is completely underrated, and he's not in the WWE Hall of Fame.
Nrama: How did you first encounter Andy's work? I remember in the 1990s, Nick at Nite had Taxi reruns and there was an NBC special about his career, a few years later there was the Jim Carrey movie...
Brown: It was definitely flipping through the channels in the mid-nineties. I was probably 15 or 16 and searching for pro wrestling to watch. Then I saw pro-wrestling, but it was on Comedy Central. Of course, I checked it out. Then, I remember watching his stand-up special after the wrestling part.
The next day at school, I was trying to explain to my friend why it was so funny, and I couldn't really put my finger on it. You'd have to just imitate his act, and even then, it was hard to relay.
Nrama: This is the third biograph you've done for First Second. What do you think this one has in common with Tetris and Andre the Giant? What draws you to these kinds of stories?
Brown: I really have an obsession with the early ‘80s. It's when I was a child and I have nostalgia for it, even though I barely remember it.
I kind of think we all have small obsessions with the eras of our youths. You give the art of the time a pass because you love it so much. There's so much bad wrestling I look back on with love, because I watched it when I was a kid.
Andre and Tetris fall squarely in that moment for me. Andy is a bit before my time, but my parents’ generation loved Andy. When I was getting started with the project, I just asked them about it. It was a good starting point, just getting their perspective on it.
Nrama: Obviously, you have a background with wrestling stories, but why did you want to emphasize that aspect of Andy's career?
Brown: I think it's important to understanding the rest of Andy's career. I really believe pro wrestling influenced him in a profound way. It's in all of his acts.
Nrama: What kind of research did you do for the book?
Brown: I was able to do a bunch of first-person interviews for the book that I was happy about. Right as I started, I was able speak with Andy's brother Michael, who is generous and sweet. It was really touching to hear him talk about his brother. He clearly admired him, but he also was completely open about a lot of aspects of Andy's life. It was a great starting point. The best, really.
I also got to talk with pro-wrestling manager (and etc.) Jim Cornette about his experiences as the ring photographer during Andy's stint in Memphis wrestling. Jim later became a pro wrestling manager, and I've watched him on TV for years. It was a thrill to talk with him, really, and he's a total character.
Lots of stuff like that. Lots of reading of wrestler biographies and Andy biographies. Watching a ton of YouTube. It's all-encompassing for a while.
Nrama: What was the most challenging aspect of putting the book together?
Brown: I always struggle with making sure I'm being true to the subject. I want to make sure I'm not like lionizing them, or overlooking parts of their personality. I really want to try to craft a depiction of the whole person, while getting the details right. I feel like I'm constantly panicking about it, but maybe that's just my personality.
Nrama: And what's been particularly rewarding about telling this story?
Brown: I was really happy to shine a light on Andy's influence on pro-wrestling. I feel that he's gotten short shrift in that regard. I always feel rewarded in just making comics. It makes me feel good.
Nrama: Obviously, you have a good working relationship with First Second - why do you feel this is?
Brown: I like to work a lot, and they help support my habit. I really love working with everyone there and I really trust my editors there. They take things seriously and I like that.
Nrama: Why do you think people are still so fascinated with Andy Kaufman, more than 30 years after his passing?
Brown: Because he was so awesomely weird. I think there's been a few people that have tried to emulate Andy, but have always missed the mark for me. He had this innate silliness that his imitators never do.
Nrama: Who are some other real-life figures you'd like to do comic books about?
Brown: I'm kind of obsessed with Ronald and Nancy Reagan right now...
Nrama: What's next for you?
Brown: I just finished a piece for a sci-fi anthology SelfMadeHero is publishing. I hope to do more fiction.