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Is This Guy for Real?
The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman
by Box Brown
FirstSecond, $19.99, 272pp
Published: February 2018

I haven't read Box Brown's previous graphic novel biography, 'Andre the Giant: Life and Legend', or his take on the video game, 'Tetris: The Games People Play', but I'm very interested in taking a look, even though this take on media personality, comedian and peripheral wrestler, Andy Kaufman, is simply-written and simply-drawn.

The whole thing is in black, white and grey, with a little red to emphasise the cover. The art is reminiscent of a newspaper strip cartoon rather than a graphic novel, a far cry from the French translations I've been reviewing lately from First Second, also the publisher here. What's more, the story didn't let me in on much more than I already knew about Kaufman, even though I'm hardly an expert. It focuses very deliberately on certain aspects of his career at the expense of others.

Now all that sounds highly dismissive, I'm sure, but I am impressed by this book and that's because Brown isn't interested in the bare facts about Kaufman's life, he's interested in what made him tick. And that's a much more elusive target. I got the impression that he really didn't care too much about the what, because he cares instead about the why. Why did Kaufman, arguably the least likely famous person in history, become famous, so much so that he got a mainstream Hollywood biopic about his life, even though he died at the ripe young age of 35?

Everything here is about why. Why did he do what he did? Why did he keep doing it? And, above all, why do we care and, indeed, still care today, over thirty years after his death? What Brown does here is jettison the ephemera, which to him includes the things that Kaufman is perhaps best known for today, such as the TV show, 'Taxi', or his brief film career in movies like 'Heartbeeps'; discover the things he truly cared about and figure out how those influences shaped his career.

What's most valuable of all comes after the last page is closed and we think back to just how simple it all was. If Brown is right, and I have no reason to doubt him, this cult icon's entire career can be boiled down to a few frames of a young Kaufman watching television in Long Island. Everything stems from Mighty Mouse, Elvis Presley and infamous wrestling heel 'Nature Boy' Buddy Rogers, with a side order of famed Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji, who performed at Kaufman's school, and an unnamed drunken lounge singer he saw later in life. That's it. The revelation comes when we realise that those are merely the ingredients but nobody except Kaufman could have mixed them up into the recipe that became his public persona.

So, if you want to know about 'Taxi', this isn't the book for you. There's more Jerry 'The King' Lawler here than Danny de Vito or Judd Hirsch. In fact, whole section are devoted to Lawler, because he parallels Kaufman well and the two became inseparable parts of the same story as time moved on, not least through their profane fight on the David Letterman Show, which is explored in detail here. I knew about much of this already, but Brown's strong research bulked up my understanding of it and fleshed out the background magnificently.

Usually I'm a subscriber to the wisdom of Betteridge's Law of Headlines which states that any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered with the word 'no'. This book's title also ends in a question mark but Brown does his level best to answer it with the word 'yes'. Was Andy Kaufman for real? People are still trying to answer that question today, which is why there are Andy Kaufman sightings every year, even though, unlike the other King who influenced him, Elvis Presley, there simply aren't Andy Kaufman impersonators all around the country conducting weddings and fuelling urban legends.

What Brown explains here is that, deep down, Kaufman wasn't a wrestler or a comedian, he was a performance artist at a time when America's medium of choice was television and television didn't have a single clue how to handle a performance artist. Half his act was sheer ineptitude, whether it was Foreign Man, bad impersonations or Tony Clifton, his lounge singer. The other half was quality, from his pristine Elvis to his capable drumming and decent wrestling. Linking the two halves was Kaufman the carnival huckster performing in a place that few would even have considered a carnival huckster remotely viable.

So yeah, Kaufman was real. He was real when he was playing Elvis or wrestling women in the ring or throwing David Letterman's coffee at Jerry Lawler, even though all of those things were fake, too. He was real because he was building a persona that was utterly unique, crafted from his childhood influences but used to sell himself to the disbelieving public. He wanted to be Elvis. He wanted to be Buddy Rogers. He even wanted to be Mighty Mouse. This persona was how he could be those characters and make a living at it.

And to use the wrestling term that he epitomised, he never broke kayfabe. He was Sacha Baron Cohen at a time when the public hadn't even figured out that professional wrestling wasn't real. How were they going to figure out whether Andy Kaufman was real or not? They didn't have a chance, but he was the only one willing to go to such degrees to build that persona. Brown takes his story all the way up to his death, pointing out that wrestler 'Classy' Freddie Blassie stood with his family at the gravesite but nobody from the cast of 'Taxi' even showed up; Marilu Henner explains later to the press that none of them believed he was dead and it had to be just another one of his put-ons.

Usually I'm wowed by First Second publications. I'm wowed by the artwork or I'm wowed by the storytelling, but I'm wowed by something. This isn't a wow book. It's deceptively simple but it captures an elusive essence and it resonates. It's a graphic novel to consume quickly and then savour. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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