Dots and darkness

Known primarily for his absurdist comics and the satirical cartoons he’s contributed to magazines and newspapers over the years, Michael Kupperman is entirely unfunny in the mostly three-paneled black and white pages of All the AnswersThe nonfiction graphic work examines his father Joel’s life as a child prodigy and the most famous regular guest on NBC’s trivia contest radio program “Quiz Kids” as well as the implications of that history.

Joel Kupperman never discussed his childhood stardom when his son was a kid—it was a forbidden subject to talk about in their home. All the Answers looks at exactly what went unsaid and lays bare the trauma that the elder Kupperman would come to endure as a result of his having been ushered into the spotlight and ultimately exploited by a fame-obsessed stage mother (Michael’s grandmother). She kept the “five massive, crumbling scrapbooks” that Michael scoured for material to support his book. The artist reproduces snippets of newspaper articles and photographs to break up the chapters here and to present a textured chronicling of his father’s youth.

Michael Kupperman graphic memoir answersJoel became symbolic as a Jewish superstar on “Quiz Kids.” As his profile broadened, he was utilized as a propaganda tool to help sell the US war effort, particularly when America was “a country still struggling with its feelings toward Jews,” writes the All the Answers cartoonist. Over the course of his research, Michael discovered the outsized role his grandmother played in Joel’s nonstop schedule and routine of forced mingling with celebrities who were completely meaningless to a child. A chilling scene in the comic illustrates the one-on-one meeting that Joel’s mother arranged between her son and dangerous anti-Semite Henry Ford, just as the businessman was rebranding himself as suddenly tolerant of Jews. Due to this component of Joel’s history, the Kupperman Jewish heritage was added to the list of taboo discussion subjects when Michael was growing up. 

The author’s work on All the Answers had him exploring the conditions of his upbringing. In doing so, he gained a greater understanding of how his father’s childhood—and the ongoing suppression of it—contributed to Joel’s inability to foster any kind of substantial relationship with his own kids, and the effects that it would have on Michael’s adulthood.

A powerful All the Answers sequence has Michael recreating a scene from his life in the early 1970s. He’s in a pool with his father. The figures appear to be still. Each is given his own panel, and the background is rendered in a sea of dots, while single lines mark where the surface of the water meets the pool’s walls. The dots make up backgrounds everywhere in the book—this pattern emphasizes the dark blacks in the action at the fore. The ubiquitous dots also feel like nostalgia for the Ben-Day printing process, but they’re representative of the grainy physical artifacts behind the work, such as the musty photographs and newspapers that the All the Answers author pored over in putting this book together. It’s as if we’re being invited to dig in alongside Kupperman and help magnify every record of the past until the most minute, granular details become vast and important.

The cartoonist and his father are drawn from the shoulders-up in the pool. They look like carved marble busts, floating in nothingness. 

“Daddy, do you love me?” asks a young Michael. 

“Some of the time,” his father answers.

Michael Kupperman graphic memoir answers

The third panel here could very well be (Michael) Kupperman’s positioning his father as having had looked directly at his son during the exchange—as if a camera cut back to him during a dialogue between two actors in a film—but the outward-pushing motion lines to the back and left of Joel that appear behind him suggest otherwise.

In page’s final panel, the sparsely adorned “child Michael” floats in the far left, so that the void around him, comprised of Kupperman’s tide of closely spaced dots, is amplified and speaks with frankness and efficiency to the cartoonist’s fragile connection to his detached father, who is of course out of the frame completely. When Kupperman revisits this memory briefly later in the book, the final panel shows up again. It’s a wider establishing shot, and his father is in fact in the frame, to the far right. His back is to his son.

As a result of the undertaking that yielded All the Answers, Kupperman found himself examining the person (and parent) he’s become, wrestling with the trauma that his father suppressed and the gulf of emotional distance that has been between he and Joel his whole life.

“Everywhere in his behavior, past and present, I now see the mark of the show,” writes the cartoonist. “And, through him, on me.”

Michael Kupperman graphic memoir answers

The visual style of All the Answers and comparatively minimal reliance on copy is striking—Kupperman emphasized in an interview with The Paris Review the importance of his sharing information visually, as opposed to what he’s seen in most comics memoirs. All of the silhouettes and swathes of black negative space in Kupperman’s pages, in addition to the sparse visual characterizations of the players, feel well-suited to subject matter, particularly because the author has only just begun to look at his father’s history and the impact that it’s had on his life. The contextual material is obviously indebted to photo research, while depictions of Joel’s facial features are illustrated sparingly, so that just a handful of short lines represent the contours of his cheekbones. The harsh black frames of his horn rimmed spectacles in front of his eyes—two small dots—are the meatiest components of Kupperman’s rendering of his father. The process of finishing the book—and even drawing his father—wasn’t without significant emotional breakthroughs for Kupperman.

“What became apparent was that it had been a point of trivia in our family for so long that he had been on this quiz show and something we weren’t supposed to bring up because it was clear that it would cause him pain,” the All the Answers author told Gil Roth on The Virtual Memories Show podcast.

“But when I started to think about it, it became obvious that it had influenced him far more than any of us had recognized, and that it had reached through him and influenced me, certainly. There were things he carried over from the show that could almost be described as ‘traumatized responses’ that he then imprinted on me.”

Images © 2018 by Michael Kupperman. All the Answers is available from Gallery 13.