One of the many great gags in Tales Designed to Thrizzle: Volume 1—comprising the first four issues of Michael Kupperman’s comic of the same name—is a three-panel strip featuring the Head, who is what his name suggests: a disembodied head. In the first panel, he declares, “Someday I will rule the world!” In the second, he admits, “But for now, I have been reduced to flipping burgers with my telekinetic powers! Bah!” In the third, he’s on a couch, watching Three’s Company, and muttering, “Bah! Such foolish television!”
The lurch from comic-book supervillain cliche to boob-tube homage nicely encapsulates Kupperman’s methods and influences. While alt-comics creators try to cadge some credibility by putting on literary airs and their mainstream peers pray for a movie deal, Kupperman has other burgers to flip. On the one hand, he’s steeped in the conventions of comics past—barmy sales pitches (“Men! Is your penis a urine-leaking, chronically unreliable threat to your mental well-being?”), breathless pulp-adventure titles (I Bothered a Big Fish!), and doofy superheroes (e.g., Underpants-on-His-Head Man). But his essential rhythms seem to be borrowed from another medium entirely. The way he turns narratives into advertisements, ends stories with some wacko randomly barging through a window, and abruptly drops gags only to pick them up and drop them again suggests that Kupperman takes his cues from the surreality of the small screen—especially Monty Python’s Flying Circus and its animated heirs on the Cartoon Network.
TV/comics crossovers aren’t new. The movie-turned-TV-series Buffy the Vampire Slayer lives on as a comic book, for instance. But Kupperman is unique in the extent to which he’s absorbed TV’s form as well as its content. In part, this may be the Monty Python influence: the Flying Circus was, in many ways, meta-television. Each show was cobbled together from a melange of genres—newscasts, sports, sitcoms, dramas, documentaries, cartoons—and much of the humor lay in watching them knock into and over one another. A drawing-room mystery ends with a scoreboard (constables 9, superintendents 13) and wildly cheering fans, or the BBC end credits get dropped into the show halfway through.
Monty Python’s Flying Circus, in other words, replicated TV’s heterogenous feel: the sense of switching from show to show and channel to channel, of narratives fractured by commercials. The concept is fairly familiar now on TV, but it’s still unusual in comics—and it’s rarely done in any medium with the panache that Kupperman brings to it. In one strip, for example, he segues vertiginously from boy-band infomercial to nature special: “Tony is the fun one of the group” runs up against “Primo is an Australian desert frog,” which is answered by “Alan is too small to be seen by the human eye—but he becomes visible in this close-up view of the human sneeze!”
That bit is an honest-to-God TV parody. It plays with documentary genres, and the jokes are predicated on quick shifts between panels that are deliberately analogous to camera cuts. But many of Kupperman’s pieces go a step further, adapting the style of surreal juxtaposition to the comic-book context through their use of layout and space. A mostly text outer-space adventure is illustrated with random drawings that have nothing to do with the story. An advertisement for 4-Playo 3000, a robot that provides foreplay, takes up most of a page—except for an unobtrusive banner at the bottom that reads, “Let’s All Go to the Bathroom! A message from the Bathroom Council.” As in Chris Ware’s early comics, many pages are designed as a carefully arranged clutter of fake ads, strips, text blocks, and random gags. The result is a clanky, retro tribute to the days when comic books, like TV, constituted a mass art form, and so had more in common with TV’s hucksterism and variety. These days, most comics carry few ads that aren’t for their own publisher.
But not every Kupperman layout looks like an old comic. One of the most impressive things about Tales Designed to Thrizzle is the versatility it shows. Kupperman’s art is instantly recognizable; his drawings are intentionally stiff, and his figures are posed oddly against his backgrounds so that everything looks like collaged clip art. Yet within those self-imposed limits, he manages to generate an enormous range of variation. On some pages he uses a detailed, black-and-white cross-hatch style that creates moire-esque patterns; on others he applies stencils; on still others he places simplified color figures against plain backgrounds. His designs, too, are varied, from full-page splash panels to fake text ads with faithfully reproduced fonts to the beautiful wallpaper patterns at the end of each section.
Tales Designed to Thrizzle is a monument not only to silliness, but to craft—which is perhaps the way in which it most clearly departs from its TV inspirations. With few exceptions such as Terry Gilliam’s Flying Circus animations, TV doesn’t pay attention to visual aesthetics the way Kupperman does here. His ad for Indian Spirit chewing gum—with its patterned background, bizarre conflations of scale (a tiny Indian about to be swallowed by a giant Caucasian), and stark cutout feel—has a constructivist look that flirts perilously with high art.
Several of Kupperman’s lyrical Cousin Grampa strips do a good deal more than flirt. In one, “Old King Grampa,” the titular monarch watches a bird fly out of his pie and then out the window. The bird hatches an egg, inside of which waits a tiny king. In the last panel, the little king and two baby birds sit in a nest, mouths gaping to receive a worm from their mother. The way in which deferred oral pleasure leads seamlessly to infantile fantasy is queasily Freudian, and the strip’s wordlessness gives it a serene wrongness that Gilliam’s cartoons—with their aggressive muttering and laugh tracks—never managed. Further, the drawing is in Kupperman’s vivid cross-hatched style: you can almost feel the baby birds’ beaky cheeks pressed up against the king’s bearded jowls. In the panel where the mother bird is hatching the egg, Kupperman shows her beak parted and motion lines behind her head—she’s giving a small, silent squawk of joy as her bearded devourer/child is born. In that detail, the surreality of Monty Python becomes the surreality of Un Chien Andalou or Kafka. Not that Kupperman needs to reference film or literature. Why should he, when he can turn TV into art?