Transcript and photos from my talk at Google New York HQ on December 11, 2018:
Hello! I’m very excited to be here. My family uses Google all the time, and my son is obsessed with it, in particular Google Street View. He’s always telling me he’s just seen the Google Street View car, and sometimes he turns out to be right.
Google is also part of the story I’m about to tell you, the story of how I created my book All The Answers, which came out in May of this year (2018). On the cover it’s called a graphic memoir, but I sometimes think a better description might be graphic auto-noir. In some ways it’s a detective story, one in which an individual (me) investigates the past of a member of his family, but in doing so discovers the hidden limitations that have dominated his life.
My name is Michael Kupperman. For most of my career I’ve been a humorous underground comic artist and illustrator. You might have seen my work in or on The New Yorker, Fortune, The New York times, Adult Swim, Vice, Saturday Night Live, Heavy Metal, Playboy and many other places. Until recently all my sequential work has been humorous, until this book.
In 2010 my father, Joel Kupperman, retired from the University of Connecticut, where he had taught for fifty years. He seemed more relaxed than he had ever been. Things that used to bother him didn’t trouble him at all, or so it seemed. And when I asked if he’d talk to me about his childhood, he said he wouldn’t mind. This was huge. His formative years had been a forbidden subject in my family for my entire life. All the way through my childhood, any mention of them would visibly upset him. I was astonished that I might have a chance to finally hear something from him about his life when he’d been a quiz kid.
Quiz Kids was a show that was on national radio and then on national TV. On it, five children would compete to answer questions sent in by listeners. My father had first appeared on it when he was five years old, and he had stayed on it until he was sixteen.
I’m going to play you two quick excerpts of the radio version. I’ve edited these way down but even so you’ll be able to tell that entertainment back then moved at a different, more leisurely pace. This is how the show opened:
And this audio is my father, answering a question. He’s six and 3/4 here. The celebrity judge on this show was Jack Benny.
My father had a reported IQ of 219 and could do sophisticated math tricks in his head. The press promoted him as a genius equal to Einstein and Socrates. During most of WW2 he was a household name and universally beloved. Everybody wanted to meet him, everyone wanted to hear the cute and wise things that came out of his lisping mouth.
He was huge. He played himself in a movie, 1944’s Chip Off The Old Block, starring Donald O’Connor.
The stars of Quiz Kids toured America every month making appearances and selling war bonds. This is my father’s schedule:
They put on shows where they’d compete with senators, ballplayers, movie stars, professors, scientists. They toured military and naval institutions, visited hospitals, posed for pictures, and sat on stranger’s laps—a lot. By the end of the war they had raised more than 120 million dollars for the war effort.
I had not understood how famous he really was. I had known—we all knew—that he had been on radio and then TV for years, and that it hadn’t been fun for him. I’d heard his name mentioned on Rocky and Bullwinkle, I’d seen him mocked in Radio Days, I’d been told he’d been an inspiration for JD Salinger.
But all these are just details. I’d never understood the context for his fame, and fame without context is meaningless. His fame had seemed meaningless to me. This was one of the things I wanted to understand, and I wanted to try to make a connection with my father. We’d never had a real relationship as adults, and I thought maybe this would bring us closer together.
As it turned out, now that he could tell me his perspective, he couldn’t remember most of it anyway. He’d had experiences that seemed fantastical and impossibly glamorous, but all he’d wanted to do was forget them. He remembered that he thought Jack Benny genuinely didn’t like him. Everything else was vague, a memory of a memory. The one thing that he was emphatic about was this: he wasn’t a real prodigy, he’d been built up by the producers of Quiz Kids as pro-semitic propaganda. Once he’d said it out loud, he repeated this to me every time I saw him for the next few months: it was the war and they wanted a cute Jewish child. He’d obviously been thinking about it, that one aspect of it, for decades.
This idea took a long time to sink into my mind, partly because I’d been raised not to think of myself as Jewish. My mother is Scandinavian, and when we’d gone to churches they’d been Lutheran. But when I started to think about my father’s Jewishness, and I plugged this idea into his story, it suddenly made so much more sense. The sentimentality which surrounded him took on a more charged, symbolic tone. A fairly cute kid who can do math quite well has never been such a big deal at any other time in American history. It could only have happened with a Jewish child, during a war that many people saw as a fight to save Jews. I think there were other things going on—a lowering infant mortality rate and the spread of media meant that children could be appreciated for their adorableness instead of being grimly shepherded into adulthood—but the Jewishness was definitely a big part of my father’s appeal.
I still wasn’t sure what kind of story I would be able to tell, but after my father was diagnosed with dementia in December 2012, I decided I was going to try. I thought maybe I could do research and confront him with truths I had discovered, and this would unlock memories, or perhaps even slow or reverse his dementia. I didn’t know then that this wasn’t possible.
The basic story was obvious: my grandmother was an ambitious stage mother who’d pushed my father into show business. He’d been a sensation on Quiz Kids when he started but he stayed on the show too long, until he was an awkward teenager and on TV where everyone could see him.
I’m going to show you you a short clip of him answering a question on the TV version when he was fifteen. The guest host is Fran Allison. The show was on NBC at 8:30 pm on Fridays.
Other kids hated my father by then because their parents had all told them to be more like him. After finally leaving the show, his life had been hell until he left the country for a while. I wanted to know more.
During 2013 and 2014 I spent countless hours researching. In the real world I visited Paley Center and their library, where the librarian, Jane Klain, showed me the typewritten notes that were kept on index cards of early NBC broadcasts, and Columbia University, where I went through the bequested papers of the Quiz Kids producer.
But most of my research during that time was done online, and Google was the net I used to pull material from the vast ocean of the internet. I’d follow basic search terms for hours, discovering new facts or details that I’d use to refine my next search. I’d discover a hint of something, follow it to a certainty, hunt for the evidence. I scoured old radio sites, news archives, auction sites, and anywhere that had information. I searched Google News and Google Books, sometimes quite frustrated by the cryptic “snippet views” of 70 year old books. But I found out quite a lot.
To give an example: I noticed a quote by Orson Welles that suggested he had met my father. I searched obsessively until I found an entire newspaper column about my father meeting Marlene Dietrich and Orson Welles.
I kept searching and I never found a picture of my dad with Marlene Dietrich, but I did find this picture on an auction site of Orson Welles doing a magic trick for him. My father looks delighted but if you follow his eyes, you can see he’s looking off to the right. Because of the newspaper account of this moment I know that at this exact moment someone off camera to the right has told him Orson has rabbits and he can pet them. He wasn’t interested in or impressed by Orson Welles and his magic at all, although Orson didn’t take it personally.
There are kinds of research you can do now on the internet that would have been, at the very least, extremely difficult in the past and very likely impossible. You can trace the history of an idea—for example, the idea of child prodigy, first used in the second half of the nineteenth century—and you can trace the origins of untruths. A lot of the cute things my father said were obviously made up, and in fact I’ve been able to trace some of them to scripted dialogue my father delivered in radio shows. Sometimes another Quiz Kid will say something clever and within a few weeks it’s being reported as something my father said. It definitely feels, looking at all the evidence, that my father’s specialness was being deliberately exaggerated by some columnists and reporters.
One person I became aware of though the Internet was the brilliant producer of Quiz Kids, Louis G. Cowan, who, as it turned out, was one of the people in charge of American radio propaganda during the war, which seemed like a huge coincidence, given what my father had been saying and everything I had noticed.
Louis G. Cowan, born Cohen, was a fascinating person. A very smart man, he later invented the television game show with $64,000 Question and became president of CBS’s television division. After leaving Quiz Kids and the country, my father came back to television one more time, to appear on the spinoff of Cowan’s show, The $64,000 Challenge, a CBS TV program. Apparently the show had been rigged, although my father claimed barely to remember—he insisted only that I shouldn’t tell anyone.
Louis G. Cowan had had an enormous amount of influence on my father’s life, and my father didn’t remember him at all. But, as I was starting to realize, my father’s pre-dementia memory gaps meant more than I had seen. To not remember your crazy showbiz experiences when you were six or seven, that could be said to be normal. But he’d claimed not to remember a lot of stuff form when he’d been a teenager and in his twenties that it seemed would have been impossible to forget. Being violently bullied by your roommates at college, for instance; I found descriptions online by a former roommate who’d become a passionate racist and white nationalist, but my father denied that the bullying had ever happened. The racist seemed quite crazy but I believed him. My father had erased memories from his mind because they were too much for him to handle.
The real story was beginning to appear in front of me and the story was: trauma. Even if I couldn’t find details of his experiences, I could see their shape in the imprint that had remained on him. And I couldn’t stop thinking about how the kid I kept reading about and listening to in old radio recordings was in some ways a very different person form the father I knew. The kid loved baseball, he loved comedy and could be extremely funny himself, he could play the piano. I had never seen or heard my father mention baseball, perform comedy or play the piano, or even let on that he could.
Decades earlier he had told my mother his game show experience, and between what she remembered and my research I was able to put together how the game show had tricked my father into feeling dishonest. He’d come back this one last time because suddenly game shows were paying big money, and he thought he’d be smart and do what he’d done for a decade one last time and make some money for his future. He’d only made $18,000 from Quiz Kids, and people were easily making ten times that in one week on the bigger shows. He didn’t know that the sponsors had seized control of the process and demanded the right to choose the winners through dishonest means. His first appearance on the show went smoothly and the sponsor must have liked him, because before the next show another contestant approached him and showed him facts in a book that turned out to be the answers to that night’s question. There’s no recording of the show, but I’m quite sure that my father only realized what was happening when he was live on air, answering the question. He would’ve gone ahead and answered it, and then he left, making it clear he wouldn’t be back, with the producers almost certainly begging him not to say anything.
He was never on TV again, and refused all interview requests for the rest of his life. He became a philosopher and devoted himself to studying character, morality and ethics.
It had definitely been his mother that had set up that last, disastrous TV appearance. Who knows if she knew it was rigged, or would’ve cared if she did? She still dreamed that he could become a television personality, even after it was clear he was really not suited for it and hated everything about it. This was something else online news archives showed me: that my grandmother had maintained friendships with newspaper columnists and was feeding them items about my father, in hopes of stoking interest. She couldn’t stop, she couldn’t let it go.
A couple of years after his quiz show experience the whole enterprise came crashing to the ground, as shown in the movie Quiz Show (a movie my father refused to see). During the hearings, Quiz Kids was brought up as a show that had maybe not been completely honest; the kids had been soft-balled questions about subjects they knew very well. And again my grandmother was eager to talk to the press. After all this I don’t think he ever really forgave her and yet I don’t think he could ever admit this to himself.
Now I know that I should’ve been able to see the size of his fame reflected in the size of his trauma. And now that I could see the effects on him, I couldn’t stop noticing the effects on me. The man I’d thought of as a mild-mannered and repressed professor was a traumatized ex-child star. The timeline of my life suddenly looked very different. I interviewed my father one last time, trying to get some reaction out of him with everything I’d learned. I couldn’t stop myself from asking him why he hadn’t helped me with homework like his father had—what he said next still rings in my ears: “Nobody told me I was supposed to build a relationship with you.” In a way, he was more honest than he’d ever been. This was our last coherent conversation.
Let me be clear: I did an enormous amount of research on this project but one of the main things I did was think, really think, about my father and my family. Obviously by this time I was wrestling with a lot of emotions about it but: I felt ready to start trying to make a book.
Between 2013 and the middle of 2015 I produced three drafts which weren’t good enough. This was a very painful period as I tried to shape this story and wrestled with my feelings. What was doing wasn’t working and I couldn’t figure out how to fix it.
The thing that really saved me was cleaning out my parent’s house in Mansfield, Connecticut. My wife and I had, by this point, spent years in cleaning out the house, which they’d largely abandoned, partly out of filial obligation and partly because we were trying to use it as some version of a vacation house, but it was uncomfortable, too far away from New York, and always more work than it was worth. It was horribly full of stuff. My parents had never thrown anything away. I threw mountains of junk away, recycled it, burned it, filled dumpsters and there was always more.
But finally it yielded results. In a corner of my father’s studio (this is after cleaning), well hidden in a secret space behind other books, were five scrapbooks that my father had obviously hidden decades earlier and then forgotten. Even when he’d wanted to help me uncover his past he hadn’t remembered them. They turned out to contain an exhaustive record of my father’s Quiz Kid career. Newspaper clippings, itineraries, tickets, scripts, photographs, passes, autographs—an avalanche of paper.
One of them turned out to belong to his sister, my Aunt Harriet, who had briefly been a Quiz Kid herself. It hadn’t lasted though and she’d been given the role of being a housekeeper for her father so her mother and brother could go touring around and meeting Hollywood stars. She obviously hadn’t wanted her scrapbook and it was easy to understand why.
There was a lot of withheld emotion in these scrapbooks, a lot of frustrated hopes, and they were full of information and insights. The way that they’d been so well-concealed and completely forgotten was very telling. They brought new life to the story I was trying to tell, and in fact their discovery provided a narrative jolt that starts the engine of the narrative. It was an incredibly lucky find.
By now, I could see most of the book, and set about doing a new draft. The price I was going to have to pay was becoming obvious. The story was my discovery of how my father’s fame had traumatized him, and it had made a real relationship between us impossible. The whole process had changed the way I saw him but also the way I saw myself, because I now saw how I’d been shaped by his trauma. And I was going to relive those feelings nearly every day as I worked on this book, because I had to feel them in order to express them.
The main goal was: I wanted to people to read this book and feel some of what I’d felt and not be bored by it. My goal was to create a graphic novel that could be very easily read, that would not be boring, and would convey emotion. From this point on, there were multiple drafts, and drafts within drafts, as I tweaked and reworked elements and removed excess material. By now I knew: this was not really a book about old show business, or the war, or TV. This book was about fathers and sons. I had my theme and the story was coming into focus and everything extraneous had to go.
The next draft, which is the one my agent sold, was different from the finished book in some ways. The original art was much larger—at least double page size—and I was portrayed realistically. This was intensely difficult for me. I am one of those people who has a lot of trouble with their self image. I cannot see a photograph of myself without getting upset with how ugly I am, how poor my posture is, or how fat I am. This is an issue I’ve struggled with but never overcame. I was determined to try, though, to come up with a realistic likeness of myself. Of course, I could photograph myself but I still had problems with realizing my physical shape. So first I drew my shadow, my shape, and I started to work from there. Ultimately, though, I decided it would be best to come up with a version of myself that would seem more universal and the reader could identify with more easily. It was a boundary I struggled with and ultimately this book involves my feelings but it’s not about me. It’s about him. That’s what I decided but there’s a later point in the book’s development where that was underlined more decisively.
This draft of the book was delivered to my agent in July of 2016 and sold by the end of August to Gallery 13, a subsidiary of Simon and Schuster. I was given an advance that would’ve seemed enormous ten or fifteen years earlier, but not now with a family, and a deadline less than a year away. The task of creating this book seemed literally impossible. I had never, ever created a work of this size, or pages at the rate that were now required. I was stricken with terror. Plus, the advance was not large enough that I could afford to simply concentrate on the book—I would have to do other work at the same time. I can still taste the fear. It all seemed impossible. Adding to the terror was the fact that I was determined not to use the computer so much this time around; I wanted to do the art, and every bit of the lettering, by hand. I’d been using a computer font and other assists for a while, but I felt they never looked as good, or as real.
I adjusted my attitude, and saw that all of of my challenges were also opportunities. I wanted the art in this book to look spontaneous and loose and feel immediate, not tight and fussed-over and distant. If I took my original art size down, much closer to print size and worked as quickly as possible, maybe it would actually work better for the feeling I wanted. It was also an added incentive to keep images as simple as possible. I created model sheets of some characters, and backgrounds I could use, including my own home-made zipatone.
I was also doing weekly comic strips for two websites, Adult Swim and Vice, while I created this book, but that too felt like an opportunity to keep my hand practiced. I tried to hypnotize myself into becoming a machine of comics creation. I probably drew close to 300 pages of comics during 2017, and I lettered them all by hand. This was an intense challenge physically and mentally, and adding to this was the psychic trauma that I was essentially living in every day. I had to make the reader feel the emotions I felt about my father and the trauma I now saw I’d inherited, and that meant I had to live in those emotions. I’m lucky to have a loyal and supportive wife.
The book had been due in June, but that was a soft deadline, and I actually delivered the close-to-finished draft in August. But there were problems with it. There literally wasn’t an ending yet, but also the final chapter focused much more on me and the kind of person my upbringing had created. As my editor pointed out, it had an angry tone and was at odds with the rest of the book. I told him I would fix it. I took the book back, thought a lot about it as quickly as I could, and then I completely removed the last two chapters and reworked them. I removed most of the material about myself, leaving only a few moments that I felt summed up our relationship. I moved our final, painful conversation—the one where he says nobody told him he should build a relationship with me—from chapter nine to chapter eight, and instead constructed a more emotional, elegiac ending that, I felt, brought the book full circle. I submitted this new, final draft in January 2018.
At this point, obviously, I was well past deadline, but I had made the original deadline less relevant by taking on the responsibility of doing every piece of it myself. After editing, the book was then copyedited a couple of times, and nearly all the mistakes were caught & fixed. The interior of the book was completley finished on February 26th. The cover was finished at the end of March. Just as with the insides, every bit of the cover was done by my hand except the bar code.
I wanted the story to pull the reader forward, to feel like an experience, and I had to leave out a thousand details and anecdotes in service of the narrative flow. One thing that got left behind was the idea that my father came from the pre-war reality, where dynamic individuals dominated the news and created the inventions that changed the world, but then was caught in the post-war reality, where committees and organizations, like the men who developed the atomic bomb, became the norm.
Computers took the place of people in doing calculations. The first programmable computer in the United States, the Mark I, was built by IBM in a Harvard basement in 1944, and according to the press at the time, it was nicknamed “Big Joel.”
I’m very proud of the book, and I think I hit most, if not all, of my goals. I think that the story has an urgency that makes people want to read it all at once. I believe I’ve created a relatable story with recognizable emotion. I’m receiving responses from people all over, people I’ve never met, who identify with this story. But there’s one way in which this book has failed. I really hoped I could build a connection with my father before dementia took him, and I wasn’t able to do that. Maybe I understand him now. But ultimately, although there is hope in it, that’s why this is a story of frustration and loss. Which may be, at least partly, why it resonates with others. We’ve all felt that with our families. Many of us have tried to repair our families and given up. It’s the human condition.
My son is now nine. His school sends us emails complaining about his behavior, and it’s exactly the same behavior that was described in glowing terms by the reporters who wrote about my dad. What was encouraged is now discouraged. If my father had been a child now, he wouldn’t have been a celebrity. He would have been drugged so he would sit down and shut up. America tends to extremes.
Thanks for looking! Watch the full talk at Google here.