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Graphic ‘Autobiography’ fails to capture Twain

By Sean Fabery

Section: Arts, Top Stories

October 7, 2011

In his lifetime, Mark Twain was the foremost satirical chronicler of American life thanks to the many articles, essays and novels that he published. William Faulkner dubbed him “the father of American literature,” and it’s not hard to see why—you can still find “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “The Prince and the Pauper” in virtually every bookstore, even if their author died in 1910.

But what if he didn’t? After all, previous reports of his death had been, to quote Twain, “an exaggeration.” What if his death was all one big, wacky misunderstanding?

That’s the premise of Michael Kupperman’s new graphic novel “Mark Twain’s Autobiography 1910-2010.” Kupperman is no stranger to Twain—in his “Tales Designed to Thrizzle” series, he depicts Twain as half of a crime-fighting duo with Albert Einstein—but here he gives Twain the full-feature treatment.

In the foreword, Kupperman describes encountering Twain on a “craggy, forbidden isle,” where the humorist gives Kupperman the manuscript of his autobiography. Twain hurriedly explains himself to Kupperman: “If you publish it under your name, then people will be free to not believe a word of it … You should decorate it with your silly drawings, to further undermine the credibility. Perhaps a few comical strips as well.”

That’s just what Kupperman has done, complementing Twain’s 36 chapters with playful illustrations (and a few comic strips) depicting the man’s adventures.

Those adventures are certainly stranger than anything seen in “Huck Finn” or “Tom Sawyer.” In those hundred years, Twain becomes a stand-up comedian, drops acid and stars in the hit TV show “Murder, He Painted.” His experiences bring him into contact with familiar figures; most notably, he starts a detective agency with Einstein and beds several important women: Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe and even Mamie Eisenhower. Not content just to encounter actual people, he meets Dracula, Frankenstein and the Mummy after parachuting into World War II-era Switzerland.

Unfortunately, these adventures prove much more interesting in summary than in the actual book.

That’s not to say that “Mark Twain’s Autobiography” lacks some obvious strengths. When Kupperman opts to present Twain’s story in the comic strip format, his deadpan visual style works perfectly with his madcap subject. There are also some deliciously funny lines and observations on Twain’s part. At the dawn of the new millennium, for instance, Twain can only “marvel at the advances in sandwiches.” After guest starring on an episode of “The Six Million Dollar Man”—a ’70s TV drama focused on astronaut-turned-“bionic man” Steve Austin—he observes that he “always respected Steve for his mechanicalness, but he smelled faintly of motor oil.”

In some cases, the situations are so outrageous that you can’t help but find his descriptions funny, such as when he stars in a porno as “a professor of literature named Dixton Mulberworthy, who … tell[s] a group of assembled co-eds that they would receive extracurricular credits for doing the simplest of all acts that humans can do with their conjoined nether regions.”

Alas, Kupperman simply can’t sustain Twain’s comic voice. In the prose chapters, Twain only occasionally produces the kind of humorous asides for which the author became famous. While the illustrated Twain sports the trademark mustache and white suit with which the real man is associated, Kupperman’s creation is a mere cipher. Every now and then he says something Twain-like, but most of the time you get the sense that this character could be anyone and has only randomly been assigned Twain’s identity. The historical Twain was quite a character, giving Kupperman a lot to potentially work with. Instead, Twain here acts like an immortal Forrest Gump, bumbling his way into one major event after another.

Many of the book’s problems could have been solved by presenting the entire story in comic strip form. In the rare instances when Kupperman employs that format, the visuals and the dialogue work perfectly in conjunction. Instead, the prose chapters lack spark, reading more like a rough outline of a funny book than anything else. The visuals, while expertly executed, can’t maintain interest in the story.

When I first read a blurb about Kupperman’s book, I was instantly excited: How had no one come up with idea before? Oh, well, it looks like the perfect fictional, illustrated Twain autobiography may have to wait for another epoch.

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