In this second part of our interview with the Blammo author, we discuss the difficulty of comedic storytelling, cartoonist work ethic, and how Lincoln is like Buddy Bradley.
Is it hard to put your own stamp on autobio comics, after someone like Harvey [Pekar] made such a definitive document?
I don’t really consider myself an autobiographical cartoonist.
You’ve definitely done strips that would fall into that category.
Yeah, I’ve do a lot of it. But I’ve never thought, ‘I should really do something different with autobiographical stuff.’ Sometimes I feel like writing a comic about what a giant pussy I am, so I’ll draw a comic about that, or I’ll express something I hate. But I’ve never really thought of myself as that. I don’t know…
It’s nice having that in the arsenal, not being someone like Joe Matt who seems to always be going back to that well.
Yeah, exactly. But I love Joe Matt. People used to compare me to Joe Matt, and I don’t understand that at all, because I’m not really like that. I can’t really draw as well as him. I miss Joe Matt. I wish he was still around.
He’s still around, right?
I don’t know. Where is he? What’s the last thing he put out?
Spent? A couple of years ago…
That was what, five years ago?
I interviewed him when that book came out, and he spent a lot of it complain about how lazy he is.
Yeah. But isn’t that how he makes his living, making comics?
I don’t know how he survives.
Get to work, man! If you’re poor all of the time, and that’s your source of income, get to fucking work.
It sounds like you don’t suffer from that same problem. You’ve got a pretty solid work ethic.
Yeah, I draw a lot. In fact, I was drawing when you called me [laughs].
You’re working on the Lincoln book.
Yeah, I was actually working on a page right now.
Are you at liberty to talk about that?
It depends on what you want to know about it.
Abstractly, it’s a straight biography of Lincoln?
Yeah, it’s an unpolitical biography of Lincoln.
It deals more with what he was like as a person—his problems with depression and his relationship with Mary Todd. And then they get married in 1842 and it ends, and that’s the end of the book. So it doesn’t go on to him becoming president, or anything like that.
You don’t have to worry about all of that slavery nonsense.
Well, people talk about all of that stuff in everything else. I have all of these Lincoln books, and I read the first chapter to grab whatever I need out of there. They talk so little about his early life. That’s what’s interesting to me. That’s what I want to know about.
Is his early life mostly interesting because of what would happen later?
No [laughs]. I don’t even think about that. I think about this guy who is dirt poor and comes from this really shitty farm. He has these really high aspirations and works really hard, but he’s such a loser, you know? It’s weird, because I’m sure that when this book comes out, I’ll probably get attacked, or something.
What makes him a loser?
Everybody looks down on him and makes fun of him. He starts hanging out with Mary Todd, and her whole family is telling her, “don’t hang out with that guy. He hasn’t even risen from the dirst floor that he came from.” I think she was attracted to him as a rebellion kind of thing, because she came from this super upper class family in Kentucky. She came to Springfield to meet a well-to-do suitor, and she met Lincoln. It was kind of the opposite. He had a law practice, but he was still kind of learning law even as he had this practice, and sleeping in a bed with his best friend. They slept above a store in this one bed.
Sounds like the Buddy Bradley story, only he becomes the president in the end.
Yeah, yeah. Totally.
It has something of a happy ending, closing out with the wedding.
Yeah, it has a happy ending, I think.
A more happy ending than at the end of his life.
That’s true, yeah. His life didn’t really have a happy ending—even when he was the president, it was one of the most turbulent times in America. He was really a poor bastard.
He was hated by half of the country.
Exactly. Even in my book, when he was new to the legislature and passed this bill, The Internal Improvements Law, which was going to help Illinois build roads and canals and hopefully put it up to speed with New York, Illinois just went broke. There was this huge panic, and people really looked down on him for that, because the first big thing that he passed became this huge disaster. He was a failure.
Does slavery really factor into those early years? I know he really grappled with his own feelings on the subject, prior to the Emancipation Proclamation. He didn’t know what to do with the slaves once they were free—though I suppose a lot of that happened during his presidency.
Yeah. I don’t really talk about it that much. My book is set in a free state. There wasn’t slavery in Illinois. I think mostly he just wanted to stop the spread of slavery and not abolish it completely—that wasn’t until later.
Is part of the appeal of reading this book about a poor bastard the knowledge of what will eventually happen to him?
Maybe. I don’t know. I just wanted to explore a part of his life that hasn’t been explored before. That’s the appeal to me. But if you’re a big Lincoln fan, maybe that’s what it is.
Was it always Lincoln for you, or were you shopping around different historical figures?
Naw. I was working on Blammo #5, and I was going to do a story about Lincoln in a duel with James Shields, who was a state auditor. I was going to do it as a short story, but I got more interested in it. The further I went back in the story, the more I realized that I could do it as a whole book, and just have the duel be a part of it. That’s how it started. I stretched it out and took it on as a separate project outside of Blammo.
Were you actively looking for a subject for a longer piece?
Yeah, I started a couple of things. I was going to do a book about my parents’ divorce, and then I was going to do a book about growing up Mormon. I would start it, get three pages into it, and then realize that I didn’t want to do it. For the most part, growing up Mormon—doing that as a book is really depressing to have that on my mind for a long time. My parents’ divorce is the same thing. I don’t know if I can put myself through that.
Does the longer work need to be funny? Will the Lincoln piece be humorous at all?
No. I mean, it’s got a few parts that are funny, but it’s not going to be, like you were saying, Buddy Bradley or anything.
Yeah, it’s not going to be Blammo—which, I don’t know, Blammo’s not as funny as it used to be. It’s getting away from that.
Are you becoming more serious as you get older?
Maybe. I just want to know that I can do that. I don’t want to be Johnny Ryan.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
No. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I want to be able to whatever I feel like doing, and not just be the funny guy. I like all of those comics from the 90s, not just Angry Youth Comix. I also like Optic Nerve, so I want to write like [Adrian Tomine], and then the next story can be funny, or whatever.
Is it important to main consistency in theme when putting out an issue? Or is it more of a grab bag of things you’re working on?
It is a grab bag, but it can be consistent as a grab bag. Even Blammo #6, which is the most popular issue that I ever did, there’s funny stuff and then stuff that wasn’t necessarily so funny—I guess that one was more funny than this newest issue. But I don’t want to be like, “here’s Blammo! It’s the funniest comic in the world! It’s Michael Kupperman!”
Does the humorous stuff tend to resonate better with people?
That’s really hard. I get a lot of people saying, “oh my god, that’s so fucking funny.” But I get just as many people saying, “that was the best story you’ve ever written.” “Abby’s Road” was one of my most popular stories. The new issue’s “Because I have to is also pretty popular.”
Is it hard to tell a story when you’re trying to be funny?
Yeah, sometimes. If you’re only thinking about doing something funny, it can be rambling. That’s how “Chicken Strips” was in the early Blammo. It would be this rambling thing and I would send it to Eric Reynolds and say, “would you publish this in Mome?” And he’d tell me it was just rambling. He was right. It’s just joke after joke.
You did get something in Mome.
I’ve had a couple of things.
Are they funny?
No. The first thing they published was “Denver Spider-man” from Blammo #4. And then there’s one about my roommate coming out in the next issue. I had this terrible roommate that I hated so much.
[Continued in Part Three]