ALL THE ANSWERS
Simon and Schuster, 224 pages, $25
Michael Kupperman grew up in Connecticut, hidden away in suburbia along with a family secret; Kupperman’s professor father, Joel Kupperman, had been a child star, one of the most popular and recognized child stars of his generation.
As the “genius” boy Einstein of the largely rigged show “Quiz Kids,” Joel Kupperman had been cast as exemplar to a less objectionable popularization of the Jewish people. His son, who characterizes his own childhood as isolated and singular, came of age in a manner nothing like that of his doted-on father, and his career could be best categorized as “graphic novelist,” a profession undreamable to the psyche of 1940s and ’50s network television, and a profession that promises, to the most successful practitioners of the oeuvre, near-anonymity. Even as a “graphic novelist,” Michael Kupperman’s published work has tended toward outliers; until now, Kupperman has been more concerned with off-kilter humor and parody than with narrative.
“All the Answers,” Michael Kupperman’s graphic memoir, is graceful and Spartan; Joel Kupperman’s life, complicated and layered in mistruths, is articulated and choreographed with Platonistic simplicity. Through the eyes of his son, his deep sorrow is expressed, with beautiful clarity, as inexplicable. “All the Answers” is a departure from Michael Kupperman’s high-concept mash-ups, such as his 2013 Will Eisner-winning story, “Moon 1969: The True Story of the 1969 Moon Launch,” which was included in “Tales Designed to Thrizzle #8.” In “All the Answers,” Kupperman’s humor, surreal and oddball blimey (Kupperman lived in the United Kingdom as a child), is dampened but not altogether absent.
“Quiz Kids” aired first on the radio, in 1940, before the United States entered the fighting in World War II; the last episode of “Quiz Kids” aired on television in 1956 — long after the war was over. Disproportionately casting Jewish children as its prodigies, the conceit of “Quiz Kids” saw its audience through shifting attitudes to the Jewish populations of the world and the United States. Louis Cowan (originally Cohen), the show’s creator, went on to launch numerous, similar game shows.
Later the president of CBS, Cowan accurately gauged what direction the nation was going in and what it needed to get there, and fashioned entertainment to suit. “The $64,000 Question,” his megahit, sired a litter of topical contestant shows that, like “Quiz Kids” were also fixed. Cowan, who was also the creator of the Peabody-award winning show “Captain Kangaroo,” was committed to civil rights, and he never lived down the scandal — and neither did the talent that made the shows compelling. Cowan’s foremost legacy, to this day, is to bequeath American culture with a fathomless disgrace.
Stage-managed by his mother, young Joel did his homework, reading the books and boning up on the subjects of future episodes. He was an unwitting party to the charade of “Quiz Kids,” and the historical imprint of his celebrity evidences a participant who was bizarrely oblivious. Palling around with the sports and movie stars of the day, even starring in his own movie, “A Chip Off The Old Block” (he’s there still, on the internet, forever), Joel was wooden and exhausted, and “All the Answers” captures the whirl and vapidity of fame with tender immediacy. As a grown-up he went on to become a well-regarded philosopher and the author of numerous books, many concerned, not too surprisingly, with the philosophy of ethics.
To his son, Joel Kupperman was a man devoid of something critical to selfhood. The elder Kupperman didn’t have much memory of his past, and when he arrived at the forgetfulness of aging, he embraced it; he had lived with justifications and denial of his part in a charade for so long that he found relief in dementia. As a work of historical investigation, “All the Answers” is weightless; we feel the time and the place but not the research that went into its creation.
Memoir takes on the impossible task of recollection, and biography takes on the equally impossible task of ascribing interiority to other people. Michael Kupperman approaches this dual challenge of family history and portraiture with a love and patience significant of a fatherly presence. He resists facile redemption — it’s exactly that slick storytelling that laid claim to his father — and his perspective is mature and un-pandering. And nevertheless, the pages flow easily, accessibly, and “All the Answers” is as ageless as a testament can be.
John Reed is the author of the novel “A Still Small Voice.”