Sunday, October 21, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #294: All the Answers by Michael Kupperman

Anyone who does a graphic novel about his father's secrets and history has a long shadow to contend with. (It's art spiegelman's Maus, in case you've forgotten.) The closer that father was to WWII, the clearer the parallels. If the father was Jewish...even more so.

Now, a creator doesn't have to engage with that at all: it's probably best if they don't, actually. But it'll be there in the back of every reader's head, just like any story with a  whale will evoke Moby Dick and a guy wandering around Dublin Ulysses.

Michael Kupperman's father Joel was a child prodigy, nationally famous at the age of five for appearing on the radio show Quiz Kids. He was shoved into it by a domineering mother, and basically lost his childhood to performing as a child genius. And, once he got out, he tried to ignore it for the rest of his life, never talking about his time in show biz. And, obviously in retrospect, Joel Kupperman was guided and "controlled" in his career as a boy genius in part because it just made a good story and partly because he was Jewish.

Michael always wondered about that history, and finally dug into it in the last few years, as his father retired, slowed down, and slid into dementia. All the Answers is the result: as much as he could pull together fifty years later from the memories of a reticent, failing old man, from yellowing hidden scrapbooks, and from his own research.

Kupperman has a stark, almost blunt art style, with a look of being based closely on photos and other reference. That gives a documentary air to the proceedings most of the time, though he draws himself subtly differently than the other characters, with hooded, staring eyes. (Is that just how he draws himself? Or is a particular metaphor for this book? I'm hoping the latter, since it's a subtle, ingenious device if deliberate.)

There's a framing story set in the current day, but most of All the Answers tells the story of young Joel during WWII and the years right afterward. Since Joel never did talk about those days, Michael was left to piece it together from news reports, family stories, and the scrapbooks he discovered while searching his father's office. That also adds to the documentary feeling: this isn't a story Joel is telling us -- he couldn't tell it to anyone, and spent his life trying to forget it -- but a story that had to be figured out by others. This is a reported story rather than an eyewitness story.

What Joel had seems pretty nice from the outside: adulation, minor fame, hobnobbing with the  famous and glamorous. But he seems to have hated it almost from the start, and did any of it purely because of his mother. And then there's the whole question of how honest any of those early quiz or game shows were -- Quiz Kids seems to have been on the relatively honest side, which is to say they didn't actively hand answers to the kids they preferred. But all of those shows had things that were more important than honest games -- making a good show, excitement, promoting the right kind of people -- and even Quiz Kids fell into that.

All the Answers isn't the story of who Joel Kupperman was as a kid: that's lost forever. It's not personal; Michael Kupperman had to pull this all together from secondhand sources. Joel is himself the hole at the center of his own life, the thing his son is trying to fill and understand. So this book will tell us what happened, and something of what it might have meant. But it can't tell us what Joel felt; there's nothing in the world that can tell us that anymore, since Joel himself is incapable of it.

But this book will tell us what we can know. And that's going to have to be enough.

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