A Big Think Interview with Michael Kupperman
Michael Kupperman is an American cartoonist and illustrator. His work has appeared in publications ranging from The New Yorker to Screw. He has two books published, Snake’N'Bacon’s Cartoon Cabaret and Tales Designed to Thrizzle.
Question: What made you want to be a cartoonist?
Michael Kupperman: I took a really circular route into comics. I went to school for fine art, which in retrospect is one of those decisions that just confuses me. But I just had no idea what was involved in any kind of artistic production. So I did that and then I kind of, you know, hung around doing drawings for a couple of years and I started doing comics for a Zine that was being done out of Williamsburg called Hodags and Hodaddys and it was Xerox with a laminated cover and, you know, was handed out to all my friends and neighbors and I started doing stuff for that and, you know, the response I got convinced me that maybe this was something I should follow. So, you know, because I liked getting a response. So I got into it and then a couple of years later, I started doing illustration as well.
Question: When did you decide to be a cartoonist?
Michael Kupperman: Oh, I was 25, 26. Yeah. It was a little late. I might have started doing comics a little earlier, but yeah, I was in my mid 20's before it really started to solidify. I was a bit of a late bloomer.
Question: What about your earlier career?
Michael Kupperman: I had a lot of jobs when I was younger. I worked in an art gallery, I did construction very briefly. I was a waiter very briefly, because I was extremely bad at it. I worked in offices finally, that was what I seemed to settle into when I worked at an artist licensing place and then finally my last job was at Life Magazine, which was kind of a shambles at the time. It was during the Gulf War and that was an interesting experience. I finally begged them to fire me and that was my last job.
Question: Who are your influences?
Michael Kupperman: Well, I first got a Tintin book for a present when I was 8 years old, and the stories it tells are just so simple and compelling that I just fell in love with them and I read every book and actually I translated a couple from French into English that weren't yet translated, I was so fascinated. Unfortunately, my French education didn't continue past that. But just, Herge created such a compelling complete world, he was absolutely perfect in every detail, so it wasn't much, until a lot later that I knew about his career and about the workshop, of assistants he had, and he would actually go through the books and update the look of, you know, cars and machinery sometimes, just redo the whole book so that it would stay fresh. And he was just a unique artist, I don't think there's going to be anyone else like him soon.
Question: Is there a specific era you draw from creatively?
Michael Kupperman: Oh no, I'm fascinated by all ephemera from the past, comic books, magazines, children's books, I have a large collection of children's annuals at my studio, mostly from the '30's through the '50's, and some extremely bizarre children's books, some that seem more calculated to produce nightmares than not. I love any kind of ephemera that really is alien, because it's from the past, if you know what I mean. Something where the attitudes and ideas are so strange to us, merely because, you know, we've moved on.
Question: What did you study?
Michael Kupperman: What I got from art school mostly was about attitude, the attitude you would take towards your work. I don't think I really took anything away in terms of craftsmanship. And I, in fact, didn't attend any illustration or comics classes, so I'm pretty much untrained, and I think in some ways I'm barely competent, you know, I'm not even sure I'm a cartoonist some weeks, because I don't have that facility that I think a cartoonist is supposed to have where, you know, as a friend put it, they just do three strokes and it's a tree. I tend to be very obsessive and very rigid and, you know, it's in some ways an amateur approach I have going.
I also, I'm of the age so that I was educated before computers were everywhere, so that I've had to learn facility with computers and I'm still, you know, only okay. And I think younger artists today, they know computers and marketing and those are two things that I'm just hopeless at.
Question: What inspires your work?
Kupperman: For material, I look to the absurd. So I'm looking for, in some ways, the bad, you know, or the material that's a little off key in some way. There are lots of writers that I enjoy for their excellence, but I wouldn't say they really influence me, you know, in what I do. I love Patricia Highsmith and Phillip K. Dick, Stanislaw Lem, you know, writers, writers like that. But as far as influencing me as a writer, certain kinds of humor, more like. I'd say my writing is actually more influenced by other veins of humor such as television humor, the kind I grew up with, I guess, like SCTV or Monty Python, or certain other kinds of printed humor like, I don't know if you know Viz Magazine, but that was a bit of an influence, you know, there's a tone to it that is just completely beyond any serious consideration of things that I find very appealing.
Question: Why hobos?
Michael Kupperman: Hobos. Well, hobos are kind of a romantic archetype of a way of life that doesn't really exist any more. You don't hear about people riding the rails so much. I mean, I'm sure there are people doing it, but the whole romantic idea of hobos wandering the country, it's a very depression-era, romantic thing, you know, like Little Orphan Annie, or something.
Question: Can you explain where Underpants-On-His-Head-Man came from?
Michael Kupperman: It came from the idea that someone could put their underpants on their head and that would be a kind of disguise. I did it for the Nickelodeon magazine, actually, which sadly just went out of business. And I did a strip for them and then they waited about a year and a half before printing it and didn't seem that enthusiastic for more. But later they did ask for more, but by then , it was too late.
Question: What shaped “Tales Designed to Drizzle?”
Michael Kupperman: Well, my idea was to do kind of a one-man humor magazine and to try to give it a sort of kaleidoscopic feel as if different people were involved, you know, different pieces. So the thing about my comics is they're not really that character based. I don't have that kind of character at the center of the action that a lot of cartoonists do, I mean, I wish I did frankly. I think, you know, if I had characters, I could market those. But some of my characters that have become best known, like Snake 'n' Bacon, they're really anti-characters, there's nothing you can really do with them beyond having them just be passive, like repeating the same phrases every, you know, panel or so.
It is a little bit like certain sit-coms where there's just, yeah, a repetition of the same kind of beat back and forth. But as far as other characters in Thrizzle, there's Pagus, who's the half-brother of Jesus and the god of Paganism, he's been a fairly popular one. Who else? Oh, the tiny, 4playo, the tiny foreplay robot that, he has his fans.
The Mannister has a lot, actually someone who I've made friends with on Twitter recently sent me, they had carved a tiny Mannister for their dollhouse and they sent me pictures of it both standing and installed as a banister. And for those who don't know, the Mannister is the man who can become a banister, which is useful if someone steals the banister.
Question: Do you identify with any of your characters?
Michael Kupperman: No, I don't have any characters that I really identify with. I've toyed with the idea of creating a character that people could identify with in a different way, kind of sarcastic every man. There's an old strip called, The Outbursts of Everett True, which is from, about 100 years ago, or a little more. And it's basically a two-panel set up where someone does something that annoys the main character, who is a stout man, you know, in a hat. And then the second panel is Everett True yells at them and tells them how awful they are. If I was going to do a character that I would identify with, it would probably be something like that.
Question: Have your cartoons ever gotten you into trouble?
Michael Kupperman: Well, early on I had a, when I was working in these office jobs, I did a character called Mr. Bossman and that was very much inspired by, you know, working in an office and having a boss. And unfortunately, my boss at the time saw them and he was not happy at all. In fact, I was fired very shortly afterwards.
Question: What did he say to you?
Michael Kupperman: I had also done a strip called, what was it, "The Anchorage of A Saboteur," it was a long time ago. And he called me into his office and he said, "I saw that strip and it's about you, I think, because you're sabotaging yourself and you're sabotaging this office," and yeah, we didn't, we weren't simpatico.
But I found, once I had lost the job, I found Mr. Bossman so hard to write, I just didn't have the kind of, you know, impetus any more, you know, to write them.
Question: What puts you in a creative mood?
Michael Kupperman: Boy, that's a tough one. I mean, right now we have a baby, so creating the perfect environment for myself is well nigh impossible. But it's also just trying to stay in a frame of mind. You know, where what you're creating is worthwhile. I think that's the biggest problem most people have is getting into a state of mind where you feel that creating things, you know, is worth the effort. So that's the tough state of mind to stay in.
As far as coming up with humorous, you know, observations or material, being exhausted all the time and, that kind of brings it out, you know, just brings out absurdities. Like Pagus, I think one, I thought of one Easter morning when I was just exhausted and I just woke up and I said, "They're celebrating for Pagus," you know, it just came up. And there you were, you know. So exhaustion, long walks, you know, and trying to stay lighthearted. Those are the things I do.
Question: How does anger make you funny?
Michael Kupperman: No, it's true. There is something about, sometimes anger can really pull the funny out of you. There's a piece in Snake 'n' Bacon about a crazy undertaker, and that was inspired by a family controversy about one of my grandparents and how they were going to be buried. And I think I just sat down at that kind of appeared, you know. Definitely anger can play a part of inspire me. I don't like just expressing anger, though, that doesn't suit my tone, which I think is more detached and ironic. Yeah, I mean, anger can definitely fuel humor, but I don't, what's the word, I don't put it in the foreground. I guess that's what I'm trying to say.
Question: How has the economic crisis affected your business?
Michael Kupperman: I'd say things are in a crises state right now. Publishing is obviously collapsing. But for people who do what I do, comics and illustration, that's been happening for a while, I think since 2000, things have been fairly lousy. And I just think the situation we're all facing right now is that it's easier than ever in human history for people to produce material of any kind, films, writing, art. And they can disseminate it very easily on the internet. The big question right now is how will people get paid? I think business kind of doesn't want to pay for, you know, things any more, for, you know, certain kinds of artistic production. So I think we're all kind of facing a crises point right now. Making a living from illustration is, I'd say just about impossible these days, and making a living from comics, it's not going to be a very good living, let's put it that way.
Question: Are you concerned about being too strange and not funny?
Michael Kupperman: Yeah, I'm fairly conscious of that, of trying to be funny in a way that communicates so that it's not just a strangeness, but if it's, if there's strangeness, it's pointing to something. You know, there's a lot, I was very influenced by Raw Magazine, which is very design heavy and, you know, used a lot of amazing artists, Chris Ware came out of that, you know, who used beautiful design, and, you know, or who had very artistic styles. And I made a decision years ago to go more for the funny and let the style come afterwards.
Question: Are there any television shows or publications you enjoy?
Michael Kupperman: Well, I think there are some shows on American TV that are incredibly smart, like 30 Rock, I think is very smart. We enjoy The Office, my wife and I. Southpark, I think is still very smart. Although we don't actually have TV and every time we're around it, it's just horrifying what it's become. I said on Twitter the other day, it's like an old friend who was always a little flaky, but now they're just a gibbering, crack-addicted, masturbating maniac, you know. Having said that, we also love Lost, and we have a weakness for reality shows, which, and we sometimes indulge. We just watched, what is it, Scream Queens, on VH1. They really know what they're doing with their crappy reality TV, it's just compelling.
But then also in England, thanks to the internet now, it's very easy to watch a lot of English stuff, so I've been watching Peep Show, which is great, the IT Crowd, Stuart Lee's Comedy Vehicle, The Thick of It. There's a lot of really amazing stuff coming out of England.
Question: Do the British always lead in comedy?
Michael Kupperman: I think they have the lead in verbal wit, in, you know, sarcasm, irony, and so on, I think the British are the world leaders, yes.
Question: Does American comedy lead in any areas?
Michael Kupperman: Well, I think Americans are better at the brash and the noisy, and that's not always a bad thing. I think Southpark, for example, can be noisy and brash, but when it decides to make a point, they really make their point, you know? They can, you know, really go overboard sometimes, but I think it's what they do best.
Question: How does Twitter help you?
Michael Kupperman: Twitter is like an old little, kind of Petri dish of comedy. And I'll make jokes or I'll throw things out that are kind of deliberately not even finished thoughts or that are suggesting other things, because then I know that people will come back with all these great jokes or additions or versions of their own, sometimes better than what I thought of. So it's fun and it's very interactive. I just became a father, which is why I'm so exhausted, but I really started using Twitter in the month after my son was born, because I was staying indoors all the time, I was awake nearly 24 hours a day and, you know, I just felt so isolated, it was just amazing to start talking to these people all over the world and really feel some sense of connection with them.
Question: Are you interested in any other mediums?
Michael Kupperman: Well, I have plenty of things I'd like to do, as, you know, I've learned, it depends who gives you the opportunity. I really would love to do some more animation. You know, I would like to do a graphic novel at some point, but I'd also like to go in the other direction and do a book with not so many drawings and maybe no drawings, you know, at some point, yeah.
Question: Which comedians have influenced you?
Michael Kupperman: Over the last few years and with the help of the internet, I've been able to become friends with a lot of English comedians, performers, writers, actors, and that's been amazing to me. Peter Serafinowicz, who was in, who did Look Around You, and Graham Linehan, who does the IT Crowd. And they're doing humor, especially Peter, and his partner, Robert Popper, are doing humor that I feel very close to, it's very close to my vein of jokes.
Question: What programs shaped your sense of humor?
Michael Kupperman: Look Around You is an amazing show, it's an education, mock-educational show, done in a style, well, the first season was done in the style of educational programming of the '70's. and the second was done more in the style of the '80's. But it was just bizarre, surrealist humor, a whole show about ghosts and a competition at the end that was for the best song that was judged by Prince Charles, who they digitally laid in from, you know, '80's footage, really amazing. And Graham Linehan, he produced the IT Crowd--sorry, I said that. Graham Linehan has produced, directed--no, no, no. Graham Linehan has written and produced the IT Crowd and Father Ted, both of which are amazingly funny shows.
Question: Who are your heroes?
Michael Kupperman: Who are my heroes? Well, among people I actually know, I wouldn't say hero, but I look up a bit to Tony Millionaire, for example, who is a little bit older than me and I think is just one of the most amazing artists around, truly a classic version of a cartoonist.
As far as heroes from the past, I don't know. It's tough to say because I feel like we're living in such a different landscape now and I feel like people judge themselves by the yardstick of the past all the time and it's just not possible any more. When you look past at the lives that these people led, they're just so outlandish, I mean, I'm thinking of the big strip cartoonists who were very popular in the 30's, 40's, 50's, who lived these huge, outlandish lives full of color and event. And that's just not the same any more.
I think we really are in a different version of life now and we're living a different version of what it means to relate to each other and be human. And art is judged by very different standards of what it used to be.
Question: Are we living in a strange age?
Michael Kupperman: I do think it's strange because the technology keeps improving and yet what can be done with it keeps degrading. For an example, in print, if you look at magazines from the past printing and the production was just immaculate. And magazines today, even the best of them, can't match that. You know, animated cartoons, very similar. I think the production in the 30's and 40's is just incredibly beautiful, and with the exception of Pixar now, I'm not seeing anything that's that powerful.
Question: What can be done to encourage good art?
Michael Kupperman: I think we're in a funny time now, we're in a kind of shift. The new technology has really affected the way people see the world and relate to each other, and so I think we're in transition. I would think that very few people like the way things are now, but maybe I'm just projecting. I think what needs to happen is an examination of why people exist, is it really just to work? You know, is working for someone else your whole life the sum of what there is? I think these are questions people are going to be asking more and more often since no one will be paid that well any more. You know?
Question: Is the creative class in crisis?
Michael Kupperman: I think there is a crises of the creative class. I mean, among people I know in the theater and all kinds of arts, the funding is gone, the money is gone, and the spirit is not so strong, you know? It's very hard for people to keep wanting to produce material when they don't feel like the audience is there or there's any reward at all.
Question: If you could have dinner with anyone, who would it be?
Michael Kupperman: Oh, no. I think it would be Groucho Marx, yeah. I'd love to meet him, although I know he could be quite prickly and difficult and even abusive, I would still like to have dinner with him.
Question: What’s the worst career advice you ever received?
Michael Kupperman: The worst career advice I ever got was to drop the pseudonym I was using, P. Revess, and just use my real name. I severely regret taking that advice, I wish I kept that pseudonym, but I think it's too late now.
Question: Would you ever use a pen name again?
Michael Kupperman: Oh, of course, yeah, if the opportunity arose or if it seemed like a good idea, yes.
Question: What was your biggest career mistake?
Michael Kupperman: Oh, there have been so many career mistakes in my career, sometimes it seems like it's nothing but. I would say going into comics at all is a profound mistake and anything that follows that is just compounding it. But you know, now I'm stuck with it. As they say in the Godfather, "This is the life that I chose."
Question: What advice do you have for aspiring cartoonists?
Michael Kupperman: My advice to any young aspiring cartoonist would be to gain some other skills, you know, to have some other things you can fall back on or rely for income. But again, any younger artist is probably going to know computers and marketing, which are really the two things you need to know.
Question: Why are cartoons important to society?
Michael Kupperman: Cartoons and comics are important for two kind of opposite reasons. I think for reading material, they're very compelling, they're a marriage of the visual and the narrative and in my work, what I hope to achieve is art that takes you outside of your normal perception of society, of reading, or power relationships, it takes you outside of normalcy. But cartoons and comics started as the sister art of film and for a while there, I think in the '40's, they were actually leading, the comics like Dick Tracy, the comic strips would be, I think more shocking and more dynamic than most films being made at the time. And so for a while, I think comics were actually leading the culture. Now, they're in more of a follower status, they're following film, they're following, you know, personality and celebrity, and so on.
But I think comics are important also because, I mean, to me, part of the attraction was you could do a drawing on a page, reproduce it, you know, at the time for 5 cents a page, and just hand it out. It's one of the most democratic art forms there is. All you need is a pen and a piece of paper, you know, and you're in business.
Question: Are cartoons important politically these days?
Michael Kupperman: No, I think political cartoons, at least in this country, are kind of a mess. I'm still seeing, there are still cartoons working in England, who I think are doing interesting work in that vein because they're allowed to be as venomous as they like. In America, all I see is either this kind of wishy-washy, you know, joke-making thing, or else it's someone whose venom has taken over their brain and they're no later capable of making a coherent cartoon.
You don't have cartoonists any more like Thomas Nast, I think that's really a specific period in history and he was exceptionally vicious in a lot of ways. I think Horace Greely, the presidential candidate who kind of killed him, you know, he drove him to his sick bed and then shortly after that he died, you know, Nast could just be extraordinarily vicious guy, just really go after people. And no publication now here is really going to encourage that.
Question: Has fear of libel suits hurt cartoon quality?
Michael Kupperman: Yeah, I think every publication is terrified of being sued, to a ridiculous degree, they really are. And what's said is, I don't think the people in magazines even have a knowledge of the first amendment. You know, they don't even know what they could be sued for, so they just avoid anything that has the appearance of potentially inviting a lawsuit. It's extraordinarily weak behavior.
A conversation with the cartoonist, comedian and author.
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