Thursday, September 29, 2011

Mark Twain's Autibiography 1910-2010

The rumors of this book's awesomeness
are not exaggerated!
Written by Mark Twain
As told to Michael Kupperman
Illustrations by Michael Kupperman
Fantagraphics

Mark Twain dead?  As if!  It seems he's been hanging out in the fringes of the 20th Century, influencing it in ways that go far beyond his literary canon.  By strange circumstances, he's chosen Michael Kupperman to tell the true story of Twain's last 100 years, as he moves from imagined ghost to being part of some of the 21st Century's most notable achievements--instilling fear and scamming people.

This is not the Mark Twain who smiles kindly at you from the visage of Hal Holbrook.  It's a man who uses his wits for his own gain, not unlike one of his timeless characters.  As he moves from place to place and from time to time, watch as the history of Mark Twain unfolds before you in pictures and words, as only Michael Kupperman could tell--I mean re-tell it.

I think the most important thing you need to know about this book is that it made me laugh out lout not once, but close to a dozen times.  At one point, during an exchange with a famous cartoon strip writer, I think I laughed for a solid minute.  It might have been longer, except the neighbors threatened to shoot me.  And if they'd done me in, I'd never have gotten a chance to review this and tell you that this is one of the best books--if not *the* best book--I've read all year.

Mark Twain, by virtue of his iconic nature and status as a dead public figure, shows up in a lot of fiction.  He's even made it on to Star Trek.  Not only is he someone people instantly know and recognize, his visual appearance makes him a natural to include whenever you are telling a story that can incorporate the late 19th or early 20th Century.  Twain worked hard to create a brand for himself--so hard that he suppressed quite a few of his own writings until after his own death--and it's no surprise that he shows up in odd places to add some additional attention to a project.

It's very easy to include the late Samuel Clemens into your story.  It's quite another to include him in such a way that it feels authentic to someone who's read beyond Huckleberry Finn and can debate the merits of "What is Man?" or the irony of "Is Shakespeare Dead?" (to say nothing of little ditties like "On Masturbation", where Twain takes to task anyone who likes to take themselves to task).  Most of the time we get a kindly if a bit sarcastic older figure who dispenses wisdom.  Basically, Mark Twain speaks lines that could just as easily be given to Morgan Freeman, James Earl Jones, or the late Paul Newman.

That's why this book is so amazing.  Unlike everyone else, Michael Kupperman has taken the time to sit down and figure out what makes the writings of Mark Twain tick, right down to the nature of his sentence structure, word choices, and person to person dialog.  Despite the use of many terms that Twain himself would never have known, from the first few pages on to the end of the book, Kupperman absolutely nails Mark Twain's speech patterns.  If I hadn't been laughing and smirking so much, I'd have been reading in rapt silence because of the nature of Kupperman's craft here.

Perhaps the most interesting thing here is Kupperman's choice to use illustrations sparingly and let Twain talk directly to us, with only a few visual clues here and there--all of which pack a large punch as a result.  Kupperman takes the iconic Twain look and puts it through its paces, whether it's as a James Bond wanna-be or an astronaut or as a radio DJ.  Given his comics background, you'd think that Kupperman would play to his perceived strength and make this a full graphic novel.  Instead, he plays to Twain's strength--the written word--and I think it makes this book all the stronger.

There is just so much that is great about this book.  I love that Kupperman has chosen to make Twain a less-than-stellar character.  When writing about his own adventures and experiences, Clemens never attempted to make himself look perfect, and Kupperman exploits this to the fullest.  Here Twain is often trying various ways to get rich quick, going boom and bust in this book almost as often as he did when he was alive.  (That's yet another nice touch from a man who clearly admires his subject.)  Just like any good character with flexibility and no set continuity (think the Marx Brothers or maybe the Three Stooges), Kupperman can easily slip Twain into whatever situation he chooses.

And oh, the situations!  Twain walks across the 20th Century--and into the 21st--like a giant, striding across  moments both important and mundane.  He's shown doing everything from accidentally ending up on the moon to giving advice to movie and TV moguls.  Both are given equal weight, because it's the adventure that matters, not the scope of said adventure.  If you know your history, this book is a pleasure just trying to guess what moment in the recent past Kupperman is both homaging and skewering, all at the same time.

Perhaps the most inspired choice, however, is to pair Twain up with another man who actually lived during the bulk of the 20th Century and also is a frequent fictional icon.  I won't say who it is, because that would spoil the fun.  All I can say is that they have many a hair-raising adventure together.  The buddy movie nature of their hijinks is one of the many highlights of the book.

Interestingly enough, the book's tone gets more cynical as it moves towards the end, just as Twain himself did.  The final adventures really show American culture in a bad light, and deservedly so.  By the end, Twain is heavily involved in scamming people--because, as we all know, that's what the American economy is driven by today.  It's a sober swipe at what we've become that the end of this book isn't so much funny as it is sad.  Like Clemens' commentary on lynch mobs in Huckleberry Finn, Kupperman knows when to slam people full in the face with their own hypocrisy.

This may not be the book I expected when I first heard about it, but that's okay.  It's so much better than I could have hoped.  Satire is so hard to pull off successfully, but Kupperman shows he's a master of the genre.  If you were afraid this might not be funny enough--don't worry.  I rarely like humor books, and I read this one cover to cover without stopping for so much as a sip of iced tea.  If you are concerned that it's not a "true" comic book, well, I just can't help you other than to say don't get caught up in terminology.

Mark Twain's Autobiography 1910-2010 is one damned good book.  That's all you need to know.

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