Michael Kupperman, All the Answers (Gallery 13, 2018). $25, hc.
For those who are familiar with Kupperman’s previous work, All the Answers will be a very different thing in terms of both style and substance. Compared to the belly laughs (and spit-takes) of his Tales Designed to Thrizzle, this is a fairly sombre and deeply earnest book. And where visually Thrizzle is often dense and layered, in All the Answers Kupperman deploys a more minimalist style, one that opens up extensive fields of negative space.
That space—the blacks and whites that remain unmarked and unreadable—is appropriate in a work that struggles to get its questions answered. Unlike his father, Joel—former child prodigy and star of radio and TV—and despite the book’s title, Kupperman does not have all the answers, despite having access to the man himself. Part of the reason for this is his father’s deep repression of his decade as the star contestant on Quiz Kids. So deep has he locked away this part of his life that, even when he is finally prepared to talk with his son about it, he finds he cannot remember much of the experience. Compounding the challenges for both father and son is the fact that Joel Kupperman has developed a rapidly accelerating dementia, making the answers the son is hoping to find both harder to get at and vanishing even as he seeks after them.
The child in search of the secrets of their parent has become something of a subgenre in graphic memoir: Alison Bechdel’s journey after the secrets of her father’s life and death in Fun Home; Bill Griffith’s discovery of his mother’s long affair with a famous cartoonist in Invisible Ink; and Nicole Georges’ discovery that the father she had been told was dead was very much alive in Calling Dr. Laura to name three excellent examples. At its outset, All the Answers seems like it is going to be in that mold, as Kupperman early on uncovers the hidden scrapbooks Joel’s obsessive stage-mother had maintained throughout his career as a child celebrity. But these scrapbooks prove as unforthcoming as his father: clippings of other peoples’ reports on the wunderkind, without even an annotation to suggest what mother or son thought about it all.
For me, this book works because it fails. As a portrait of a son trying to get to know his deeply private and emotionally unavailable father when—due to new illness and longstanding trauma—it is already too late, this book is powerful and at times devastating. The final section of the book where Kupperman explores both his father’s trauma and his own loss is especially moving.
This is not to say that there is no information about Quiz Kids. In fact there is tons of it, as Kupperman tries to compensate through research for what he no longer can access through his father. Perhaps because I already knew a fair amount about the show from my own obsessions with radio and early television history, this aspect of the book was not as engaging for me personally, but it is good stuff and will be of interest to many readers.
But it is the juxtaposition between the life the father lived as he was coming of age (performing math tricks on new mass mediums and serving as an unwitting representative of Jewishness at a time when America was trying desperately to disown its own deep antisemitism and when Jews were struggling after the privileges of “whiteness” that had previously been denied them by the majority culture) and the life the father lived after (struggling after ethical and philosophical questions that by their definition eluded pat answers) that is especially moving. Almost as moving, in fact, as the quest of the son in search of all the answers that were already gone before he knew how to frame the questions.
Jared Gardner is the editor of Inks and a professor at Ohio State University, where he teaches comics, American lit, and film. His books can be found at https://www.amazon.com/Jared-Gardner/e/B001KHO9K4/