Michael Kupperman, admired by comics readers for surreal, screwball series such as Tales Designed to Thrizzle
, takes a sharp turn into nonfiction with his 2018 graphic memoir, All the Answers
. The title is ironic
. Kupperman’s father, Joel, achieved celebrity status in the 1940s as the brainy, know-it-all child prodigy on radio’s “Quiz Kids” game show. As an adult and father, however, Joel silences any discussion of his childhood stardom, providing limited answers as to why. In an interview with The Paris Review
, Kupperman explains, “My father’s story had been a kind of skeleton in the closet for so long. […] And I started to see the effect it had had on me.” His memoir documents in stark black and white boxes his research into his father’s past and his emerging convictions about parenthood.
The book unfolds in single sentences separated by square panels that sometimes contain dialogue bubbles and other times, Kupperman’s minimalist reproductions of photos from his father’s boyhood. Kupperman attempted to interview his father about his experiences, but his habitual reserve combined with the onset of dementia made him less than forthcoming. These interviews open and close the memoir. In between, Kupperman shares his father’s “Quiz Kids” days as he has pieced them together from scrapbooks and media archives, occasionally punctuating these with his own memories of his father.
Panels featuring Kupperman’s vision of his Connecticut childhood home begin the memoir. Then the narrative turns back to Thanksgiving 2004. He and his father watch television while his mother cooks dinner. When Abbott and Costello appear on the screen, Joel suddenly divulges that they once gave him a dog. Michael is surprised, not about the dog, but by his father’s voluntary reference to his childhood.
At the dinner table with his parents that evening, Michael breaks down in tears. He considers himself a failure. At age thirty-something, he’s single, has few friends, and lacks a sense of purpose. His parents ignore his outburst. He collects himself, and they continue dinner as if the episode hadn’t happened.
Several months later, Michael meets a wonderful woman. Eventually, they marry and have a child. Michael settles into a good life, but lingering questions about his emotionally detached father nag him. Joel agrees to sit for “interviews” with Michael about his wunderkind past. When Michael remarks that Joel scored exceptionally high on an IQ, assessment, Joel shrugs it off. He acknowledges that as a boy he was good with numbers and had a strong memory, but insists he wasn’t extraordinarily intelligent.
Unexpectedly, Joel launches into a cynical interpretation of his “Quiz Kids” fame. He tells Michael that the show’s creator, Louis Cowan, had an agenda. In an era of escalating anti-Semitism, Cohen disarmed the American public with a group of cute Jewish children who proved their worth performing feats of intelligence week after week. With apparent bitterness, Joel claims he was “manufactured” and “exploited.”
After Joel is diagnosed with dementia, Michael feels a greater urgency to rescue his father’s past before it sinks into oblivion. As Joel’s willingness and ability to recollect are limited, Michael searches his dad’s library. He stumbles upon five scrapbooks of Joel’s “Quiz Kids” career compiled by Joel’s mother, Sara Kupperman. Relying on these, as well as Internet research and published histories of the show, Michael assembles the story of his father’s celebrity childhood.
The “Quiz Kids” radio program was first broadcast from Chicago in 1940. Its premise was simple: a personable host pitched questions to five kids who tried to outdo one another with the speed and accuracy of their answers. Five-year-old Joel Kupperman wowed audiences with his rapid mental math computations and soon became the darling of the Sunday night show. Sara was the definitive “stage mother.” Joel became a national sensation, and his mother seized every opportunity to promote his fame.
As the “Quiz Kid” genius, Joel received piles of fan mail and even gifts from established celebrities. He and other kid contestants were recruited for the war effort. They took the show on the road to sell war bonds, mingling along the way with Hollywood stars such as Orson Welles, Marlene Dietrich, and Chico Marx. Bob Hope referred to Joel in one of his gags, and industrialist Henry Ford – an outspoken anti-Semite looking to redeem himself– requested a personal meeting with Joel.
The war ended in 1945. Other “Quiz Kids” contestants aged out of the show and were replaced with younger kids. Nevertheless, Joel remained, as his mother wished. When the show transitioned to TV, Joel went with it, but he was no longer a cute, precocious child. Instead, his television performances smacked of smugness and annoying perfectionism. Joel’s private life suffered for it. His peers couldn’t stand him, and at one point, a pack of bullies attacked him. They tore off his clothes and smothered him with garbage.
At age fifteen, Joel escaped the show, as well as his mother’s domineering influence, to study first at the University of Chicago and then at Cambridge. After graduating from college, Joel appeared on television’s “The $64,000 Question” to make some money. When revelations surfaced that this and other quiz shows were rigged, Joel was shocked and abandoned the business entirely. He became a philosophy professor specializing in ethics and stifled any mention of his past.
Joel’s repression of his manipulated boyhood affected his relationship with his children. His emotional detachment is conveyed through several panels that depict Michael’s memory of a childhood exchange with his father. Standing in a pool, the young Michael asks, “Daddy, do you love me?” “Some of the time,” Joel replies. And near the end of the book, Michael confronts Joel about having been an aloof father, and Joel explains, “[I]t didn’t occur to me that I should take a hand in steering you.” As a new father himself, Michael concludes that his son’s success as an adult is more desirable than any childhood successes.All the Answers
uses the visual language of classic comic books to address questions about identity, success, and the complex bond between parents and children. It joins a growing collection of graphic memoirs that includes such titles as Maus
by Art Spiegelman and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home
. Publishers Weekly
praised the book as “an electrifyingly fast-paced, yet intimate memoir about family secrets and the price children can pay for their parents’ ambitions.”