Is This Guy for Real?: The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman by Box Brown is a graphic novel that should work, but on many levels does not. Which is perplexing as, given Brown’s previous work and his predilection for professional wrestling, it is clear that this is a project of his own choosing and not his publisher’s. Central to the problem is that this graphic novel tries to take on too large a life to encapsulate in the book’s over 250 pages. Brown is even further hamstrung in this case as the life of Andy Kaufman is well documented. Posing the question of why adapt this story to a new medium without giving it a unique focus?
Where Brown best succeeds is in the early part of the book where we follow Kaufman in his youth. Here the focus is small and consistent as Brown builds incident after impressionable incident, showing the entertainers in Kaufman’s life shaping him into the performer he would later become. The care given to young Andy imitating “Nature Boy” Buddy Rodgers and Elvis, as well as drawing the parallel between the two, is a perspective rarely seen when discussing Kaufman. As Kaufman’s early life is less well known there is far more room for the reader to perform the closure necessary to get them invested in the character within the panels.
The same can also be said of the portions that deal with the youth of Kaufman’s on-screen rival Jerry “The King” Lawler. It is almost ironic that Brown renders Lawler far more compellingly than he does Kaufman. This is also true for all of the over-the-top side characters in the book as Brown captures well the arrogance of Buddy Rodgers, or the pathetic heinousness of Tony Clifton. The women Kaufman wrestles are rendered with equal care and vitality in a way that recalls Brown’s earlier teenage dirt-bag comics. A motionless panel depicting heel wrestler Tojo Yamamoto in profile is near perfect in telling the reader all they need to know about the man through the combination of narration and the performance on his face. These moments between are where some of the best work in the book is seen. The sweaty performance given Kaufman as he puts on a kids show for his college’s TV station or the way Lawler climbs the stairs to the ring perfectly capture both men’s passions for their craft.
Where this falls apart is when Brown tries to capture the better known Kaufman performances. Anyone who has seen Kaufman as Foreign Man on Saturday Night Live, or in his wrestling persona from I’m From Hollywood, or even as performed by Jim Carrey in Man on the Moon will already be spoiled from enjoying the reproduction of those performances in this book. Much is lost without Kaufman’s voice and delivery and Brown’s diagrammatic cartooning isn’t really up to the task of filling in those gaps. The book almost seems to rely on the reader being familiar with those performances, but then lingers far too long on replicating them instead of reframing them in a different context.
This lack of a new context is perhaps the work’s most fatal flaw. The events are presented flatly and the narration feels tin eared. An intriguing perspective is introduced early on in the story with Kaufman and Lawler presented as parallels, but this is then dropped in favor of simply recounting beat-by-beat the events of their onscreen rivalry. In this recounting the narrative could have zoomed in even farther, examining all the intricacies of two master performers at work. Instead, their infamous appearance on David Letterman is presented in a documentary-like fashion capturing none of the ecstatic truth of the intense improvisational theater both men were engaged in. As with all the rest of the performances recounted in this book, it would be far better to simply watch the video.
As Brown has both the writer and artist credit on this work, it becomes difficult to point the finger as to where things went astray. If First Second intended the work to appeal to a larger audience unfamiliar with Kaufman it needed to be broader in scope hitting on more of the highlights. If the book was intended for readers who are knowledgeable on Kaufman, then a more behind-the-scenes look could have proved valuable. Both the beginning and ending sequences offer Kaufman’s brother Michael’s perspective on Andy, and are perhaps the most revealing moments about the man. Brown’s talents are properly put to use in translating Michael Kaufman’s stories of his brother into a new medium, making this previously unseen Andy exist foremost in the reader’s mind as the version Brown renders. There was perhaps a far better balance of rendering the unseen and the widely seen in Brown and First Second’s own Andre the Giant: Life and Legend. In that instance only the most well versed wrestling fan was privy to the majority of the anecdotes relayed allowing Brown to give them life.
On one level it is a good thing that as prolific and talented a creator as Brown is getting the opportunity to work on projects at this level. On the other, it is frustrating to see those talents used ineffectively. Much like Kaufman’s performance loses something in its translation to another medium, so to does Brown’s unique cartooning when put to the task of the mass-market biography. Both exist is purer, more vital forms elsewhere.
Box Brown (W/A) • First Second, $19.99
Review by Robin Enrico