Monday, October 5, 2009

Tales Designed to Thrizzle: Volume 1

Tales Designed to Thrizzle: Volume 1
by Michael Kupperman
Fantagraphics 2009

Hillary Brown: It's going to be difficult to talk about this book because whenever you start analyzing humor, someone always pops up to say, "Why can't you just leave it alone and let be funny? Explaining it ruins the joke!" At least it would count as a comment, though, so I'm going to proceed to try to unpack Michael Kupperman's awesomeness. This larger version of Tales Designed to Thrizzle doesn't have a huge variety of jokes, despite its size. In other words, if you don't think he's funny, I'm not sure this book is going to convince you, unless your convictions are worn down by repetition. I know that I happen to find minor variations on the same joke almost endlessly hilarious if I like the joke at all to begin with, but that premise is important. So what do we have here? 1. Unexpected vulgarity, which I love. It's hard to do well, but Kupperman's "nut bra" strip in particular milks the device extremely well. 2. Surrealism. Some strips don't really go anywhere. Some (many) result from throwing together two or more unexpected things, almost at random. 3. Obsessions. We all think some things are inherently funny. Kupperman likes the word "grandpa," historical characters, shout-outs to the silliness of the past in general (there's going to be another whole category about this in just a second), and so on. 4. Both nostalgia and the mocking of nostalgia. There is a great affection for the past in these pages, as well as a grasp of its weirdness and also, to some extent, a grasp of how weird it is to be nostalgic about this stuff. 5. Verbal humor. These strips are beautifully drawn, all full of patterns and a commercial art look, but Kupperman's humor would come across almost as well without visuals at all (as witnessed by his Twitter feed, which you convinced me to subscribe to and which features at least three or four good jokes a day). I'm sure there are more categories. Let me turn this over to you and let you ramble on for a bit.

Garrett Martin: You just ruined every single joke Kupperman's ever told. Or written down and illustrated. Or whatever. Maybe not. You're actually right, as usual, and probably too damn right. Kinda like Monty Python, Kupperman's comics are smart and absurd and fascinated with the past, but have yet to be destroyed by decades of recitation by unsavory high schoolers. It is hard to do nonsense well, to make it genuinely funny and not just some desperate ploy to seem weird or quirky, but Kupperman is nonsensical in the best possible way. You can often suss out some form of logic if you need to, but even at their most abstract Kupperman's ideas and language somehow tend to be inherently hilarious. Not every gag succeeds, but the failure rate's surprisingly low. He's maybe a little too obsessed with a few things; I feel bad saying anything even remotely negative about the mostly brilliant Twain and Einstein strips, but Kupperman maybe relies on them a bit too much. And even though it's his most famous bit, Snake 'n' Bacon's far from the best thing here. Speaking of which, did you see the Adult Swim pilot?

HB: I did, and I kind of understand why it didn't get picked up. I mean, it was late, and I was drunk, but it wasn't really clicking in the same way as the strip, and I don't know exactly why. Maybe it's that the specific absurdity of Snake 'n' Bacon works much better when they don't have real voices. There's something about the static nature of their conversations, which consist of repeating the same thing over and over again, no matter what they've been asked, a la the popular definition of insanity (but also, of course, a realistic interpretation of crazy detective pairs; logically, a snake and a piece of bacon can't be detectives or travel through time or have thoughts, so you can see this recurring strip as a bit of the real world interacting with Kupperman's silly concepts), that translates much better in the flat medium of the comic strip than to TV. On TV, it all seems very Robert Smigel, whereas in comics it seems very much his own thing.

GM: Not that being like Robert Smigel is a bad thing. And obviously there's a kinship there; Kupperman did shorts for TV Funhouse back in the day. Which I really regret not watching when it was on.

Now that I think about it the word "obsession" doesn't quite fit. Okay, yeah, it's easy to assume that's the case, but I'm thinking it's maybe more procedural, like he's running through all the different variations he can think of on a legitimately funny concept. Whereas other creators edit more and keep some ideas on the drawing board or sketch book while searching for the best possible expression, Kupperman's unafraid of overdoing it, or appearing obsessive. Of course most people struggle to make up one good joke, much less dozens about the same subject, like Kupperman.

I'm struggling to think of anything to say other than "hey, it's funny!". Okay, it's smart, too. What else?

HB: What I want to know is if there's anyone out there who doesn't think this stuff is funny. I've done a quick Google, and I can't find anyone who's expressed articulate objections, so maybe it's only the cranky and stupid who don't like it. Everyone else seems to react with glee whenever he has something new. Um, we could talk about black and white versus color too, maybe?

GM: People who wouldn't find it funny would never pick it up in the first place. I'd like to think the audiences for Kupperman and, say, Batman & the Outsiders are mutually exclusive.

I wouldn't say the black & white is absolutely vital, but it does strengthen the nostalgia factor. It wouldn't feel as much like old commercial art if it was in color.

Oh wait, he colorized the stuff for the book? I've got the single issues. Well, shit, tell me, was the color a good choice?

HB: Ha! Yes. It's in color. I don't think it adds a ton (except that it maybe makes some of the background patterns more noticeable), but it certainly doesn't detract. The thing is, there's very little to talk about there either. Michael Kupperman: squelching debate.

GM: Oh wait, we can talk about his structural gimmicks, like the issue where you're supposed to read one page every hour. Uh, I didn't do that. Did you?

HB: Pssh. No. I like them, but I also completely ignore their instructions. Isn't that what you're supposed to do? i.e., be amused at the device and proceed in your own fashion?

GM: No, I think it's absolutely pivotal that everybody follow his directions with complete fidelity. Maybe we should go back and reread that issue one page an hour just to see what difference it makes.

HB: It would make the book last longer. Which wouldn't be bad. The only real problem with Kupperman is that I read this book in no time at all.

GM: Thankfully it's all highly rereadable.

Is there a funny comic renaissance going on right now? Kupperman, Onstad, and Gurewitch are all funnier than anything I remember reading in the '90's.

HB: It's like it's okay to chill out again. I just got R. Sikoryak's Masterpiece Comics in the mail yesterday (due to the awesome Drawn + Quarterly sale that's been going on), and I assume that's another example--it looks like it's going to be awesome. I do feel like more and more different kinds of comics are getting published, as sales continue to do pretty well, and that leads to funny books as well as to whatever else.

GM: Okay, Bagge was pretty funny, and some of Dorkin's stuff, but on a totally different level than the three dudes I mentioned. Maybe it's not that there's more comedy happening, but smarter and artier comedy? And yeah, maybe the medium's hit a point where sales and respect are big enough to let some humor through.

HB: Or that more comedy includes smarter and artier comedy. Maybe you can now make enough money off being a comics dude or dudette (although still, you know, basically nothing) not to have to be angry all the time?

GM: You still get angry when you're rich, just about different stuff. Some day Kupperman will make some totally hilarious strips bitching about taxes, welfare, and illegal aliens.

HB: I have no doubt that someday, when I'm a cranky old person listening to talk radio and hating on some Mexicans, I'd love those strips as much as I love these.

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