In 1897 a reporter for the New York Journal tracked down Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, to check on his health. The papers were filled with rumors of Twain having taken ill and sitting close to death. Much to the newsman’s surprise, he not only found Twain in good health but ready with the now-famous reply, “…the report of my death was an exaggeration.” Humorist and cartoonist Kupperman takes this idea of Twain’s mistakenly reported death and pushes it to the extreme.
While Twain did eventually die in 1910, Kupperman’s version lives on through WWI, WWII, and into the present day. How, you might ask? By a magic spell, of course! Mixing illustrated text pieces with short comic strips, Kupperman uses this oddball conceit to deliver a wacky, adventure-filled romp that sends you laughing your way through the twentieth century.
Literary nerds and historical curmudgeons will likely be letdown here. This is not one of those stories that plucks a famous person out of time so they can comment on modern life from their unique perspective. The wacky, near-abusrdist escapades that fill this short book have little to do with the actual historical person of Twain. If, however, you’ve always wanted to see Twain trip on LSD, hypnotize a baker to score free doughnuts, sword-fight Santa Claus, or enjoy a torrid affair with Mame Eisenhower then this is the book for you.
The thick, precise lines of Kupperman’s drawing style bring a much needed dead-pan expression to a book that might otherwise feel out of control. The text pieces are often well-used, giving Kupperman more room to play with Twain’s voice and toss in frequent verbal puns. But as funny as the illustrated text pieces are, it’s a shame more of them aren’t stretched out as full-fledged comics. The comic strip pieces really grab the attention, making it all too easy to skim over the text pieces.
This is not Kupperman’s first time playing around with a cartoony version of the author of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Twain makes frequent appearances in Kupperman’s ongoing humor series Tales Designed to Thrizzle, also put out by Fantagraphics. These short strips often pair Twain with the equally puffy-haired Einstein, throwing the two into bizarre stories across time and space. I imagine this book came about by someone pointing at Kupperman and saying, “Hey…I bet you can’t write a whole book around that Mark Twain!”
Thumbing his nose, Kupperman would have retorted with, “Oh, yeah? Watch me!”
With the Thrizzle books he has other concepts to fall back on, giving him room to play around with a wide variety of crazy ideas. But here he only has the one main joke and he hammers it home again and again. And. Again. It unfortunately lacks any real connective tissue linking the stories beyond the character of Twain himself. After reading for a while it numbs your brain like one of those Saturday Night Live skits that goes on three minutes longer than it should. Taken in small steps—a vignette at a time—-it works much better. Sadly, without the connective tissue to tie the wackiness into something bigger it also makes it rather forgettable.