By Zack Quaintance — I’ve had an interest in enigmatic comedian/performance artist/professional wrestler Andy Kaufman since I was a child. Kaufman first came to my attention via the promotional blitz for the 1999 biopic, Man on the Moon. Jim Carrey (a massive star at that time) played Kaufman. I was a pre-adolescent then, absorbing my news through the daily paper and via TV. Carrey, and by extension Kaufman, were all over the entertainment coverage for weeks.
I asked my mom about Kaufman. She’d been a fan of his in the ‘70s and ‘80s (although knowing what I know now, she didn’t get him, not really), owing to his slapstick role on the TV sitcom Taxi and some brief appearances he’d made pantomiming the theme to Mighty Mouse on Saturday Night Live. My mom bought me a biography of Kaufman—Lost in the Funhouse: The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman by Bill Zehme—for Christmas that year, and probably thought little of it thereafter.
I, meanwhile, devoured the book at a too-young age, learning all that I could about Kaufman and internalizing his deep commitment to his art, to honoring his formative childhood interests even if doing so was only entertaining to him (this is perhaps why I obsessively edit a website about comics I created in my spare time, but that’s another story…). This is all a verbose introduction to last year, when I came across writer/artist Box Brown’s latest original graphic novel, Is This Guy for Real? The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman.
I found it at the Laughing Ogre comic book store in Columbus, Ohio (a fantastic little shop), and snapped it right up. As a long-time Kaufman devotee, I was absolutely delighted to not only find the book, but to read it cover to cover in a single sitting, so engrossed was I in Brown’s simple-yet-thorough rendering of the late performance artist’s life.
In my opinion, there are two ways that stories about Kaufman and his life should be approached. Kaufman was famously devoted to his characters and bits, maintaining kayfabe (as they call it in the wrestling world) and often only showing his true self to his closest family and friends. He was, in other words, always doing a bit. So, the first way a work about Kaufman can handle things is to embrace that no-winking meta aesthetic (the excellent Netflix documentary Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond does this to an extent). The other way is to be the straight man, so to speak, sorting through the reality of Andy’s life.
Brown opts for the latter, which proves extremely effective for his no-frills illustrative style. Brown also makes a rare choice in terms of the greater body of post-death Kaufman stories: he focuses most-heavily on Andy’s dabbling in pro wrestling. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that Brown’s most famous work is still arguably Andre the Giant: Life and Legend, in which he gives similar autobiographical treatment to the late massive wrestler in the excellent 2014 book, which was also published by First Second. This is not to say that Brown only focuses on Andy’s wrestling (Elvis and bongos and Tony Clifton are also there), but it is noticeably more prevalent in his telling than in other Kaufman biographies, so much so it’s pretty clear it was a deliberate choice.
What most impressed me about this choice on Brown’s part was that not only did he focus on the dabbling in professional wrestling that eventually marked most of Kaufman’s life (even if the vast majority of post-mortem films and books tend to focus on SNL and Taxi, same as casual fans like my mom), but he also drew through-lines in the rest of Kaufman’s life that connect directly to the eventual participation in wrestling.
In Is This Guy for Real? we see Kaufman as a wrestling fan at a young age. We even learn that he injured his neck somewhat seriously practicing moves with his brother (this tidbit was new to me). We see how his comedic style overlapped with wrestling, how rooting for the villains made him almost indifferent to the reactions of his audience, and how his practice of transcendental meditation encouraged him to embrace his pure personality (I also practice TM and can attest to it doing that). This last point is a significant one because it also enables Brown’s story to show flaws and a bit of darkness in Kaufman (important for any biographical work so as not to feel like polishing a halo), specifically in how the performer often derived sexual pleasure from wrestling with women.
Overall, the focus on wrestling feels like one that Brown settled on early. It even factors into his title. The era during which Kaufman performed was one wherein the zeitgeist itself was still asking whether wrestling was for real. Brown (rightly) in my opinion zeroes in on that idea and uses it as a roadmap through Andy’s life, complete with a diversion here or there into the life of Andy’s in-ring wrestling foil (and real life good buddy) Jerry “The King” Lawler. This wise and savvy decision is what, in my opinion, leads to Brown doing such compelling work in Is This Guy For Real?
This OGN would be especially compelling for a total Kaufman newbie, but even for someone who has read and watched as much about Kaufman as myself, this proves to be one engrossing read, a refreshing and sensical way to understand a comedian who worked so hard to obscure his true self. Much credit is owed to the writer and artist for not only deciphering the larger strokes of Kaufman’s life but for also finding the more nuanced influences that others who’ve sought to tell his story have missed. I’m not sure it’s possible for there to be a definitive biographical work about Kaufman’s life, shrouded in confusion as it was (some still insist he faked his own death), but I think Brown’s graphic novel is firmly in the upper echelon.
Is This Guy For Real? The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman
Writer/Artist: Box Brown
Publisher: First Second
Price: $19.99 US / $25.99 CAN
Released: Feb. 6, 2018
Zack Quaintance is a tech reporter by day and freelance writer by night/weekend. He Tweets compulsively about storytelling and comics as BatmansBookcase.