‘Is This Guy For Real?: The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman’ – Advance Graphic Novel Review

Andy Kaufman was for real. He was born in 1949 New York City – a member of the baby boomer generation – and raised on a modern invention: the television. Rather than a passive receptacle of the programming he was watching, he ingested images of Mighty Mouse, Elvis Presley, and wrestling, and he was inspired. A natural showman and impersonator, he liked to entertain. The writing was on the wall for Kaufman: an entertainer in the making.

For most people today, Kaufman is not a known household name. More likely, he may be known from Jim Carrey’s portrayal as Kaufman in Man on the Moon (1999, dir. Milos Forman) or perhaps R.E.M.’s song by the same name from 1992. Or, perhaps through visits to YouTube to watch segments of Kaufman’s performances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Saturday Night Live, The David Letterman Show, and others; however, thanks to writer/artist Box Brown, the award-winning cartoonist who wrote Love Is a Peculiar Type of Thing and Tetris: The Games People Play, he’ll have a new book out this week from First Second Publishing, titled Is This Guy For Real?: The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman which will shed light on this puzzling individual.

In this biography, Brown traces Kaufman’s career from his formative years watching television to developing on-stage comedy club personae such as Foreign Man. It was this character that led to Kaufman portraying Latka Gravas for the sitcom, Taxi (1978-1983). Brown spends much of his time documenting Kaufman’s story outside of stage and television, with only passing glimpses into those aspects of Kaufman’s life. Rather, Brown focuses in on Kaufman’s deep interest (passion) for and involvement in the world of wrestling. Brown, who is no stranger to the subject – he wrote Andre the Giant: Life and Legend – conveys the showmanship aspects that captivated Kaufman that included his claim as “Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World” and his fake, ongoing feud with Jerry “The King” Lawler. In fact, Brown spends some time narrating Lawler’s rise in the sport which provides context and background for when Lawler and Kaufman’s paths eventually crossed and intermingled for the rest of Kaufman’s life.

The black/white flat aesthetic of Is This Guy For Real? that Brown employs allows Kaufman’s story to be front and center for the audience. Amongst the simplicity, however, Brown charms and dazzles as he replicates Kaufman’s showmanship flair, from Kaufman’s dance moves impersonating Elvis to his wrestling moves in the ring.  

Kaufman’s star burned bright but briefly. He died in 1984 at the age of 35. For those who remember him as Latka, the Foreign Man, and Elvis, Brown’s treatment of Kaufman provides a fascinating look into the role wrestling played in Kaufman’s life, which is a lesser-known aspect of this entertainer. Is This Guy For Real? is an insightful biography that is sure to captivate and revitalize interest for Kaufman, who was for real.


Creative Team: Box Brown (author/illustrator)
Release Date: February 6, 2018
Publisher: First Second Books
Click here to purchase.

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