Is This Guy for Real?: The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman published by First Second Books is Box Brown’s latest foray into biographical comics that show a deeper perspective into some of the most famous, yet mysterious, figures of the last few decades. After Andre the Giant, Brown is tackling Kaufman, whom many might only know as a stand-up comedian or the “foreign” guy from the ‘70s sitcom Taxi. As Brown shows, there is much more to Kaufman, perhaps more than anyone actually knows.
In Is This Guy for Real?, Brown follows Kaufman’s life through its purest anchor: television. Kaufman grew up on it, from Mighty Mouse cartoons to Elvis music shows and, especially, professional wrestling. But Kaufman does not just watch television, he lives it. Brown expertly juxtaposes panels with similar postures showing young Kaufman emulate his newfound heroes. Rather than picking the heroes of the wrestling ring, however, Kaufman is fascinated with the villains as they trash-talk, strut, and make arrogant claims, particularly famed bad-guy Buddy Rogers. As Brown summarizes, “The wrestling fans hated Buddy Rogers. Absolutely abhorred him. But as much as they hated him, he was by far the biggest star in wrestling.”
The inspirations for Kaufman’s later performances are thoroughly portrayed in Is This Guy for Real?, as one can expect from a graphic novel with a five-page bibliography, in addition to electronic sources and personal interviews with those who knew Kaufman. The book contains details that might surprise readers, such as Kaufman turning away from alcohol and drugs early in his career to focus on meditation or his pseudo-monogamous relationships the ladies at Nevada’s Mustang Ranch, which he calls “more real to me than dating… no games. No acting.”
While revealing those details, Is This Guy for Real? can only shed so much light into Kaufman’s own perspective. He strikes many as a mousy individual with quirky acts, such as his famous pantomiming of the Mighty Mouse theme in his character of a newly arrived immigrant or doing terrible impersonations leading up to an impeccable Elvis Presley imitation. Perhaps even more famous is his mean lounge singer character Tony Clifton, often played by Kaufman’s cohort Bob Zmuda to keep up the charade that it wasn’t Kaufman. Each act has layers upon layers that fascinate and rile the audience to the point of absurdity. Much of the book explores Kaufman’s venture into pro-wrestling with his villainous performances continuing outside the ring. David Letterman asked Kaufman, “Are you two really enemies or is this a scam?” just before a seemingly legitimate on-air fight gave soaring ratings and headline publicity.
The complex story of Andy Kaufman’s life is made approachable through Brown’s clean, cartoon style. Everyone is a perpetual audience, and Kaufman plays them just as a crooning wrestler. Yet there is something pure inside it. Kaufman’s brother, Michael, tells the story of a boardwalk with a poor guy whose high striker game is ignored by everyone. Kaufman makes a big show about how powerful he is, utterly fails in his attempts to ring the bell, and walks away from the crowd of people he built with his performance, all now lining up to play the game themselves.