Simultaneously sophisticated and deliberately crude, Michael Kupperman’s comics are crammed with fragmented ideas and abrupt non sequiturs. In the pages of Tales Designed To Thrizzle, whose first four issues are collected in a new Fantagraphics hardcover, Pablo Picasso appears as a permanently vexed figure who constantly threatens to chop things into “leetle cubes,” and a retro-futuristic robot offers to relieve underwhelming lovers of the cumbersome business of foreplay. Kupperman’s most enduring characters, if that’s the right word, are Snake and Bacon, a laconic duo who manage to solve crimes and engage in sundry adventures in spite of their limited vocabulary: The former only hisses, and the latter’s words are limited to such self-descriptions as “I’m real bacon,” and “Pat me with a towel to remove excess grease.” In spite of appearances by the likes of Kristen Schaal and James Urbaniak, the recent 15-minute Adult Swim pilot of Snake ’N’ Bacon recently aired on Adult Swim looks to be all we’ll see of their animated adventures (more on that below), but Kupperman remains active, especially on Twitter, where he cranks out dozens of off-kilter one-liners a day as “MKupperman.” The A.V. Club caught up with Kupperman at his home in Brooklyn, with occasional interruptions from his 5-month-old son, Ulysses Kupperman Dougherty.
The A.V. Club: One of the things that’s immediately noteworthy about your work is how obsession-driven it is. There are so many recurring characters and motifs that recombine in different ways. Do they grow organically? How do you choose a subject to obsess upon?
Michael Kupperman: Be specific. Which ones do you mean?
AVC: Let’s say hobos and robots. Or Mark Twain.
MK: Hobos and robots are comedy cartoon staples. They’re part of a supporting cast that I think every comedian or cartoonist has. Mark Twain is a little more—I think the idea of people being reduced to a stereotype is amusing, and when it’s a great writer being reduced to a loveable fuddy-duddy, I find that hilarious. I grew up near Hartford, and they really pimp Twain out—they have for years—with one-man-shows and musicals. I remember even Buick commercials with Mark Twain. So I’ve always just found that idea really funny. And then when you get him with Einstein and make them sort of indistinguishable—sort of the same but slightly different—then there are all sorts of possibilities.
AVC: Even more so when you combine Pablo Picasso with a talking cheeseburger.
MK: Right. Sometimes they’re hard to write. I haven’t had any good Picasso ideas lately, but Twain and Einstein sort of took over, at least for a while there. I’ve been writing lots of the Einstein material. It just comes flowing out.
AVC: You’ve had some text pieces on the website. Those ideas come faster than you can draw them?
MK: Yes. I’ve got some more strips that are ready to go.
AVC: How much of your writing is free-associative? Do you do a full script first, or do you go panel by panel?
MK: It depends on whether I think I can build something out of what I’ve got or not. Sometimes I’ll come in and think there’s something I really want to do with this character and this framework. But other times, it just builds from a sentence or two, and then I try to decide whether that deserves a story built around it, or whether it can be presented as-is, as just a fragment. I’m sure you’ve noticed I do quite a bit of that.
AVC: In one of the strips in the book, you do this two-panel jump cut to 15 years earlier, where a guy is sitting on a therapist’s couch saying something like, “I feel like my whole life is just a digression in someone else’s story.” Was that an idea you had floating around that just dropped in, or at that point did you just not know what to do with the next panel?
MK: It’s an idea that was just floating around in there. It’s just a gag. I think it’s one I thought of earlier and wanted to use. Just a classic situation where somebody suspects they’re not the main character.
AVC: Are you one of those comedians where every idea goes on a note card or file somewhere, or are they all just circulating in your head?
MK: I have a notebook, and I try to go for a long walk every day. Usually during that long walk, some ideas magically resolve themselves. Frequently, they’re hard to solve, so I go for a walk and they work themselves out somehow in my head. But I developed the skills so I can work an idea out logically, figuring out where I am and where I need to be. In the beginning, I could only work in a magical way, which I think is true of a lot of people, where the inspiration comes to you or it doesn’t. But I’ve developed the skills so that I don’t need inspiration anymore.
AVC: There can be sort of a fine line between the Dadaist or situationist free-association approach, and being simply incoherent. How do you negotiate that?
MK: That’s a tough one. I’d say I keep an eye on that line and try not to step over into it. I came out of first a fine arts background and then underground comics, so certainly there have been choices that I’ve made in my approach along the way, and one of the first was to try to be funny rather than bizarre. Certainly I enjoy the outré and I enjoy artistic comics and surrealism in comics very much. But the decision I made and have stuck with and refined was the decision to try to be funny and communicate humor. Once you put that ahead of everything else, it resolves those other questions for you.
AVC: One of the things that’s interesting about the Thrizzle books as opposed to the Snake ‘N’ Bacon collection is that it allows you to create an entire comic from front cover to back, which not only allows you to employ a range of different starts, but also to create bizarro versions of the self-improvement ads that you see in comics from the ’50s and ’60s. Was that part of the impetus for doing a longer book?
MK: Certainly. What I’m trying to do with Thrizzle is create the experience of a humor magazine, even if it’s just one person. So that’s involved me trying to simulate different styles and create a feeling of some contrast and variation, which is obviously very different from Snake ’N’ Bacon. The material in Snake ’N’ Bacon’s Cartoon Cabaret, a lot of it was actually redrawn. A lot of the pages of the Picassos and so on were drawn in a much more eccentric style and in fact were not always rectangular. So I redrew a sizable amount of them to make them more readable and less crazy. So that’s been the track my progress has taken, making the visual part more pleasant. More controlled, I guess.
AVC: There are logistical decisions as far as a book goes; it’s a certain shape, and things have to fit that shape, more or less. But as far as redrawing the artwork, visually, your style is very clean as opposed to the very tangled narrative.
MK: Well again, it’s about getting the joke across. If I can get across the joke that I’m presenting, then I’ve succeeded.
AVC: Going back to the book being like a humor magazine, are you drawing inspiration from specific things from that era, the ’40s and ’50s?
MK: There’s a lot of material I look at for inspiration. College humor magazines up until the 1960s were just amazingly funny and well crafted. There were the Monty Python books: hugely entertaining and well designed. I think Eric Idle was mostly responsible for those. There’s also the English humor magazine Viz, which I haven’t looked at in a while, but was insanely funny at times. I’d search it out at the one newsstand in New York that had it and pay too much for it, simply because it would make me laugh, reliably, at least a couple of times an issue. All this went into my thinking for Thrizzle. It’s odd, because there isn’t much humor in comics right now. It’s not in the mainstream, and in some ways, it’s not where the people who want comics to be legitimized, it’s not what they see as proper.
AVC: That’s one of the more translatable ideas in the book, the “Are comics serious literature?” fistfight.
MK: We did a print of that for the book opening. Someone on Twitter suggested it. So, great system.
AVC: You’re active on Twitter, and you’re one of the few who seems to be using it as an art form. Is that just another outlet for you, and are the ideas just popping into your head as quickly as they turn up? There will sometimes be four or five of them in the space of a few minutes.
MK: That means they are popping up in my head that fast. If I was writing them down, I would take my time and parcel them out. I’m just typing into the “What are you doing?” box.
AVC: So you’re just in the zone at that point?
MK: Yes. Just very focused and enjoying the process. I thought I would hate Twitter, honestly. I’ve never enjoyed online interaction very much. I guess I’m a little old-fashioned, and always thought of interaction as something that is not what you do on the computer. That sounds so fusty. But my friends Graham Linehan and Peter Serafinowicz were very involved in Twitter, and were urging me to join. They use it both as a tool to experiment with humor and to interact with people. So that’s been part of my inspiration for my M.O. But I also just really enjoy the interaction. There are so many funny and interesting people on there. And it really is a way to meet and interact with them, which can be so difficult these days. Illustration for comics can be so solitary, especially since the invention of the computer and the Internet. It’s not unusual for me to see no one outside of my wife and child all week. So for me, Twitter has been rewarding on several levels at once.
AVC: It also seems that one of the wellsprings of inspiration for you is a lot of things from the college-humor-magazine period that weren’t so good. There were a lot of crudely drawn, bizarrely written comics which people have not seen fit to reprint. They have a sort of unintentional surrealism that seems to feed into your work.
MK: In early comics, you see this amazing awkwardness and bizarre reasoning in the storyline, and it’s because comics hadn’t really been invented yet. There was no format for them to follow. They were just making it up. So I try to incorporate that kind of awkwardness in my comics quite frequently, which is odd. In some ways, I can’t be as awkward as I’d like. But I do think that’s one way in which my comics are unusual, because I will try to make the artwork look bad, occasionally. I can’t think of any other artists who really do that.
AVC: You’re in the process of reviving an almost totally forgotten character called Marvex from that era. How did that come about?
MK: I only hope I did it justice. But it was the idea of Alejandro Arbona—he’s also on Twitter—he is an editor at Marvel, but before that, he was at Wizard Magazine, which has been very enthusiastic about me for years now. It was completely his idea for me to do Marvex, and it just seemed like a perfect coming-together. I was supposed to do two more stories for the other Marvel anthology, which is having alternative artists tackle superheroes, but I haven’t decided what I’m doing yet.
AVC: With Marvex, it’s a man made out of metal whom no one notices is a robot. Is that about right?
MK: Until he takes his clothes off. I only saw two stories. They’re not widely available. But in both of them, a woman shows romantic interest, and he takes his clothes off to show that he is a robot and therefore cannot get involved. That’s the one consistent thing about the character, actually, because his appearance was completely different in the two stories. And his actions really didn’t add up to anything; there are no real coherent conflicts or drives for him. But the one thing that does happen in both stories is that he takes his clothes off to show a woman that he is a robot and cannot date her, can’t be more than friends.
AVC: It seems like all you have to do is tweak that slightly to make that funny, rather than just utterly bizarre. How much of that did you work with?
MK: I had him do it twice. And then I threw in some other odd elements. I tried to mimic the feeling of those early Marvexs and their kind of inconsequential, “Let’s just have an adventure” feeling.
AVC: You were talking about how serious, or self-serious, comics are these days. That approach is almost a relief by comparison.
MK: That’s a lot of what my work is about. What I’ve been inspired by is work that gives me some feeling of release. And by that, I mean a feeling of, “This is possible. Or that’s possible. You can laugh at this. You can have these thoughts. That’s fine.” Something that gives you permission. Something that lets your mind go in a different direction, I guess.
AVC: How do you look back on the experience with the Snake ‘N’ Bacon TV pilot? Is there any chance we might see further episodes, either on Adult Swim or somewhere else?
MK: I don’t think the show itself is going to end up somewhere else. For one thing, whoever bought it would have to assume the production cost of the pilot. But for me, it was a great experience. It all lined up for me very well, because in May of that year, Robert Smigel had me draw a TV Funhouse cartoon for Saturday Night Live.
AVC: Which one was that?
MK: It was Churchill with boobs, and Einstein with boobs. Before that, I had only adapted two of my Snake ‘N’ Bacon stories for TV Funhouse, so that was my first real experience in animation. I had never, for instance, used a light box before. Basically, the TV Funhouse was a huge crash course: three weeks in basic animation. So when the Snake ‘N’ Bacon show came along, I wasn’t completely at sea. Basically, I decided to draw the whole show myself, and I did. I didn’t think I could, but I did. For me, it was an amazing experience, drawing a whole thing of animation and realizing it.
AVC: What technical tools were you using?
MK: I don’t know animation. What I had learned was only how to set up the drawings. But John Kuramoto was the person who did the animation. He’s also animated Chris Ware for This American Life, and Kim Deitch, and he works in book production a great deal, too. He helped lay out a Thrizzle book.
AVC: The biggest question for me before I saw the pilot was what Bacon’s voice was going to sound like.
MK: How did you feel about it?
AVC: It was different. It wasn’t how I pictured Bacon’s voice. But it was an interesting choice. In the comic, it reads very deadpan and affectless, which might not work on the screen.
MK: Perhaps that would be the way we should have gone. It was my choice, because I’ve been doing slideshows, that are now PowerPoints, of my comics for years. James Urbaniak used to do voices for them whenever he was available, and he did Bacon. He did that Bing Crosbyish voice at one performance, so when we were doing the show, I thought, “Let’s have him do that.” But in retrospect, I’m not sure I made the right choice. In some ways, the feedback I got was that the live action was not as pleasing to people as the animation. That’s certainly the feeling I got from Adult Swim. But we are talking about doing something else different now. So we’ll see.
AVC: Is that just in the devising stages now?
MK: It’s just in the talking stages. I do have something a little more definite with another network, but not quite definite enough to say yet. But another show is in development.
AVC: It’s hard to talk about your illustration, because there’s so much of it. It’s a real pleasure looking through the pictures on your website—the depiction of Laurel and Hardy as just two bowler hats floating in a pool of water is particularly wonderful. Is that what you spend most of your days doing?
MK: Yeah, that’s how I’ve made a living for years: doing illustrations for comics and magazines. And I’m still doing it. Though I’m really trying to make efforts to have other career choices, because it’s just so unstable.
AVC: One of the less surreal things you wrote on Twitter was, “Working in magazines these days is like one of those horror movies where people keep leaving the room and not coming back.”
MK: That was barely even a joke. It was funny because it was literally true. I was just talking to a magazine in Canada, and they’re like, “We can’t afford to print you yet this year.” They’re not even giving me that much money, but they were saying, “We’ll see if we can afford to print you in October.” I’m not even sure how many issues they’re putting out. But it’s like that. Nickelodeon Magazine just went out of business. And there are some others I suspect are on their very last legs. Basically, magazines have been bad since 2000, the Internet crash, and they just haven’t gotten better. It’s been obvious for a few years. The writing’s on the wall; it’s all going away. I don’t think that kind of illustration or graphic work will continue, actually. It’s just not going to be the same on the Net. In the post-nuclear world of magazine publishing now, it’s just gotten too hazardous to even contemplate going into illustration.
AVC: So where does that leave you? Where do you want to go?
MK: Well, either I increase my sales so it actually becomes possible for me to be paid to do comics—but that’s very unlikely—or I think my best possibilities are in writing or animation. TV, Internet, or movies. So that’s what I’m trying for.
AVC: What about comics-wise? Is there another Thrizzle in the works?
MK: Right now, there’s a lot of stuff in the air, so I’m not really sure what’s going to happen next. I’ve got some ideas, but nothing firm. I am going to try to have a new Thrizzle out before the end of the year. They’re going to be in color from now on. I have some ideas that are certainly going to go into the next Thrizzle, but may go somewhere else. I’m sure you noticed I was working on a lot of ventriloquism ideas on Twitter recently, and that’s because I’m thinking very hard about ventriloquism.
AVC: Is there a lot of crossover between what goes out on Twitter and what you’re writing elsewhere?
MK: I’m sure you’re going to see a lot more of it. Twitter is just a great joke laboratory. You go in there and there are so many witty people that I know any joke I make is going to have a response with at least 10 great jokes coming back.