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‘All the Answers’ an illustrated inquiry

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What happens to people when fame is thrust upon them too soon? What if they can’t handle the spotlight, yet neither are they allowed to escape it? And when that shine finally does fade, what if they want to forget? Can they forget?

These are the sorts of questions that writer/illustrator Michael Kupperman asks in his new graphic memoir “All the Answers” (Gallery 13, $25). It’s the story of his father Joel Kupperman, who in the years during and immediately after World War II was one of the most famous figures in the country, thanks to his childhood participation on a wildly popular radio program. It was a past the elder Kupperman fought to forget, but when the specter of dementia loomed, Michael sought to learn more about this time in his father’s life before it was lost to the rapidly-blooming cloud of oblivion.

Young Joel Kupperman was brilliant, a child prodigy who shot to national prominence courtesy of a radio program called “Quiz Kids.” The show featured a number of incredibly intelligent young people answering questions live on the air. Joel’s specialty was an uncanny ability to perform complex mathematical equations in his head with tremendous speed and accuracy. That ability – along with a precocious and awkward charm – made him a fan favorite; he was beloved by people from across all social strata.

But fame wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Joel was never truly comfortable with his place on the show, though his mother drove him to continue. Eventually, he was no longer viable as a Quiz Kid and he was able to fade from the national consciousness; he went on to become a professor of philosophy and a noted academic – one who never spoke of his years of celebrity.

Joel’s son Michael wanted to know more – more about what it was like to be a Quiz Kid and more about what it meant to not be one anymore. After years of simply ignoring the past, a chance remark by Joel while watching an old movie opened the door for Michael to start asking questions. The result of those conversations is “All the Answers.”

It’s a fascinating look at the entertainment landscape as it appeared during the crossover from radio to television, as well as an exploration of the realities of Jewish identity in the postwar years. It’s a portrait of the layered nature of identity both public and personal. But mostly, it’s a powerful examination of the relationship between fathers and sons.

Kupperman is an incredible talent as a visual storyteller; when you marry that talent with the intense personal connection inherent to this kind of narrative, you get something that is truly special. There’s an idiosyncratic starkness to Kupperman’s art that manages to feel both simple and complex; his drawings elicit a striking depth of detail.

What “All the Answers” does so beautifully is tell an intimate story through a much larger lens. By engaging with his father about these long-ago events, Michael is able to feel that much closer to Joel in the present. He gets to see life breathed into what was heretofore little more than whispered legend. He gets to know his father in a manner that he never could before – and reaches a level of understanding with regards to who his father was … and why.

“All the Answers” is a marvelous example of how transcendent the graphic novel form can be. While there has been a growth of sophistication as far as audiences are concerned in recent years, too many people still dismiss the graphic novel as “merely” a comic book, little more than a childish diversion. “All the Answers” is far from childish. It is a heartfelt gift from son to father, a thoughtful and wryly funny story conveyed in both word and image because that is, quite simply, the best possible way to tell the tale.

“All the Answers” is unquestionably exceptional.

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