The origin stories of many superheroes involve something like a bath in toxic waste or being born on another planet, but the origin story of Alder-Man, champion of local politics and civic duty, was a little less flashy. One day in the late 1970s, a young man named Dick Kulpa bounded into city hall in Loves Park, Illinois, wearing a red, white and blue costume with a big letter “A” on the chest. Kulpa was well-known to local civic leaders. He was an alderman in the city, as well as a political cartoonist for a local weekly, who used his impressive artistic abilities to take other local politicians to task for their questionable decisions. But he’d just come from his other gig: teaching kids to draw. He had donned the costume to engage the students while giving a figure-drawing lesson. The “A” on Kulpa’s chest stood for “artist,” and he was the kind of guy who wouldn’t think it necessary to change out of his makeshift superhero costume before heading over to his other job at city hall.
A photographer from the local paper happened to be in the building and cracked a smile when he saw Kulpa. While snapping a few pictures, the photographer quipped that the “A” must stand for “Alder-Man.” The photo made for a winsome feature in the following day’s paper, but Kulpa realized there might be more there than a quick photo-op.
Kulpa, who’d been drawing and cartooning from an early age, seemed to see the world through the panels of a comic strip. There were good guys and bad guys and clear moral lessons, and it was easy to make sense of things through this simplified world. The Alder-Man persona quickly became a way to take his role as a political watchdog to a new level, and it wouldn’t be long before Loves Park’s newest hero made a costumed appearance at a city board meeting to advocate for the well-being of area residents.
Becoming a real-life superhero was way better than just drawing them. It certainly “beat being chained to an ink-splattered drawing board in some dank basement,” Kulpa would later write in a multipart history on his website, “and very few comics artists can claim to know the actual sensation of a cape flapping through headwinds in life-or-death situations.”
It was far from the last time that Kulpa would create an offbeat superhero. He would spend the next few decades working tirelessly across many illustrated formats. Kulpa would go on to buy and publish the Mad-like Cracked magazine and work for Weekly World News, the infamous tabloid where he would create one of America’s most unlikely mascots, Bat Boy, a fanged child supposedly born in a cave — who, according to the tabloid’s ace reporting, dodged a bounty placed on him by Al Qaeda and escaped from malevolent scientists before eventually starring in his own (actual) off-Broadway play. The character helped Kulpa feel like he’d made it, a measure of success that countered some of the history and personal complexes he’d always battled through the world of comics. In his golden years, Kulpa would be found party-hopping in South Florida dressed as Captain Cartoon, a grizzled sailor who entertained tens of thousands of people by drawing their caricatures.
Kulpa died on January 3, 2021, following a struggle with cancer. He leaves behind a legacy of countless drawings, wacky creations, verbose websites, and a life that, despite the struggles that come with making a living in the arts, was nonetheless dedicated to the thing he knew and loved most in the world: cartoons.
Richard Allen Kulpa was born on January 12, 1953, and grew up in Loves Park, a small city in northern Illinois. He was the oldest of six siblings and found himself taking care of his younger siblings as his family frequently moved around, following whatever work his father could find. Like many midcentury kids, Kulpa escaped into the worlds of comics and comic strips early on. He realized his own latent talent at age 11 when he drew what he felt was a surprisingly accurate rendering of a tree at his grandmother’s house. The sketch prompted him to take drawing more seriously, a talent that allowed him to create ever more expansive alternate realities. Kulpa, who had neatly parted hair, glasses, and often wore sweater-vests, wrote about being bullied in middle school and high school, noting that he learned to draw faces so that he could one day walk into a plastic surgeon’s office with the template for a new identity, ready to escape the cruelty of the real world.
He also found that comics gave him a sense of purpose and a voice, and he didn’t shy away from using his art as an instrument to capture the world as he saw it. Kulpa was the political cartoonist for his high school paper, where he pushed people’s buttons any chance he could. His outspoken pro-Nixon and pro–Vietnam War cartoons resulted in derision from his classmates but endowed him with a sort of celebrity that encouraged his endeavors further. Being in high school, he caught even more attention when he shifted his gaze from national politicians to students and teachers. His comics took on faculty members, rival football teams and other teenage concerns — with an ironic tone.
“It got to the point that classmates loved to hate me, as 3,500 editions were snapped up almost immediately every week,” Kulpa wrote. “Kids wanted to see what kind of outrageous BS I crafted next, something I came to understand, appreciate and vigorously work [to my advantage].”
Not long after high school, Kulpa drew on his strident political opinions and threw his hat into the ring for mayor in 1972, when he was just 19. His bid was a genuine show of civic duty, not a young provocateur’s lark (though he did later note on his website that his dad threw away a bunch of his drawings in a bid to convince him it was time to get a real job). He drew grandiose “Kulpa for Mayor” posters and was able to print them for free thanks to his job at a local print shop. His campaign was interrupted by tragedy — a gruesome car accident that decapitated his campaign manager.
“I held up well under the circumstances, until Argent’s ‘Hold Your Head Up’ suddenly blared out from my car’s AM radio en route to his funeral,” Kulpa wrote, demonstrating the kind of absurdist humor that would become his trademark. His daughter Michele says he could be inappropriate, but you couldn’t help but laugh.
He was soundly defeated in that race, and later wrote on his website that he understood why the public would be wary of such a young mayor. But Kulpa didn’t give up on politics, and in 1977, he was elected to the Loves Park City Council, the gig that would give rise to the Alder-Man alter ego. Alder-Man had the power of a million civil servants, but Kulpa would use it sparingly, appearing in costume about once a year to underscore a particularly serious issue. He also penned controversial political cartoons, including one featuring Alder-Man blowing up a police car in protest of state police checkpoints, which Alder-Man deemed “intolerable in this land of the free.” Alder-Man became County-Man when Kulpa won an upset election to gain a seat on the Winnebago County board in 1984. He appeared in costume to advocate for a local 911 system and an incinerator for the county’s garbage.
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“He always had tons of creative ways to get his point across,” former Winnebago County Board Chairman Scott Christiansen told the Rockford Register upon Kulpa’s passing. “It was always pretty effective. I know it was very amusing to board members, but it also had impact.”
One of County-Man’s biggest challenges came in 1985. General Motors was doing a nationwide search for a site for a new Saturn manufacturing facility, which at the time was going to be the single largest industrial investment in the country’s history. Cities from around the United States attempted to outdo each other in their bids for the plant. Two hundred thousand schoolchildren and residents from Youngstown, Ohio, wrote letters to GM CEO Roger Smith, which were delivered to Detroit via a hundred-car caravan. Kulpa wrote and illustrated “It’s Loves Park!” — a comic featuring a superhero who promised “a total service community” with “a productive workforce, the lowest area water rates, and no corporate tax.” He followed this up with Race for Saturn, a four-page comic book depicting the competing cities as aliens trying to take over the Saturn plant. Although General Motors ended up building the factory in Tennessee, Kulpa received much local acclaim for the unusual proposal, which was a far cry from the dry tomes full of statistics and charts that usually constituted bids for business.
Meanwhile, Kulpa also kept drawing as a civilian. He worked as a graphic artist for a company that made models, nabbing his first syndicated cartooning job in 1983 when he was hired to do the art for a Bruce Lee comic strip. The comic was in the process of being phased out, but it was a way to test Kulpa before moving him to the company’s Star Trek comic strip, which he drew for the last five months of its syndication.
He even had a chance to act as a real hero at the end of 1985 when he saw flames billowing from under the hood of a car. In a scene that seemed straight out of a superhero comic, the driver had gotten out of the car when it caught fire, leaving it to roll into a busy intersection. “I was screaming at the car, but it wouldn’t stop,” Kulpa said, which left him one option — he ran after the moving car and yanked open the door, jumping inside and jamming on the clutch until the car came to a halt. A passerby pulled Kulpa out of the burning vehicle, and firefighters soon arrived.
Kulpa’s act was truly one of bravery. “He really did rescue me,” said the car’s driver, Carolyn Wahlberg. “He was very gracious about it, and even called me later on to make sure I was all right.” For Kulpa, it was a life-changing moment, a vindication that he was leagues away from that bullied little boy.
“I found out who I really was that evening,” Kulpa wrote. “Beyond my fictional world of comic strips and superheroes, I was ‘for real.’”
As connected as Kulpa was to the civic life of Loves Park, as the 1980s drew to a close, a job opportunity that can only be described as one of a kind lured him away. Kulpa, who’d gotten married and had three kids by the mid-1980s, moved with his family to Florida to work as an illustrator at none other than Weekly World News, the infamous supermarket tabloid full of groundbreaking features about Elvis being alive, politicians having love affairs with aliens, and other sensationally nonsensical stories. He started with the tabloid as a freelancer. “I did something like 85 drawings over the course of a year, many of them with under 24 hours notice,” Kulpa told Vice in 2014. “When they discovered I could write headlines, I was invited to try out for the staff, and I did, and within two days I was hired full-time.” Kulpa’s youngest daughter, Michele, says the job was perfect for her dad, as he seemed to think in offbeat jokes and quips, and hers was the only family she knew of with life-size foam aliens in the garage.
Weekly World News began in 1979 as an offshoot of the National Enquirer, an equally outrageous (though somewhat more reality-based) tabloid that was then making the jump to being printed in color. Not wanting the black-and-white printing presses to go to waste, Enquirer owner Genesoro Pope Jr. — said to be an ex-CIA agent with mob connections — decided to start another tabloid, Weekly World News, which began printing stories too ridiculous even for the Enquirer.
It was almost like the newspaper you might expect to find in a cartoon world, which made the gig a good fit for Kulpa. Writers were given carte blanche to come up with the zaniest stuff they could, or to take unusual real news stories and heighten the absurdity. Kulpa eventually became the paper’s art director and was responsible for designing many of the publication’s front pages.
WWN’s art department was an early adopter of Photoshop, and its most famous creation was born in 1992 when Kulpa was fooling around with the program, trying to make a photo of a human baby look like an alien. He added Spock-like pointy ears and monstrous teeth and came up with a creation that ended up looking more like a bat. The rendering quickly led to cheers in the office, and the character’s first story in the paper on June 23, 1992: “BAT CHILD FOUND IN CAVE!”
Bat Boy quickly became a recurring feature and the mascot of WWN, which over the years chronicled his exploits around the country and the attempts of bounty hunters and government agents to subdue him. Kulpa said he could see something of his own struggles in the snarling maw of Bat Boy and the authorities who were always on his tail. Despite his considerable experience, Kulpa often butted heads with WWN’s prickly editor Ed Klontz and other department heads at the tabloid, who seemed to have trouble taking Kulpa’s editorial suggestions seriously (which gave him flashbacks to some of his more difficult days in high school). Moreover, he was so busy with work that his time in Florida was spent basically going to the office and back. “Bat Boy says what I was thinking. Like, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ Not intentional, but it just came out that way subconsciously,” Kulpa told Vice.
In 1999, American Media, Inc., which owned the National Enquirer, Star and Weekly World News, consolidated its holdings and bought other publications, including infamous tabloid The Globe and Cracked magazine. This movement induced much of the WWN editorial staff to leave, including Kulpa, but he was certainly not done with cartooning or magazines. In fact, it was a consequence of the consolidation of American Media that set him up for his next venture: the new “Corporate Grand Poo-Bah and Never-Say-Die-er” (a.k.a. editor and eventually publisher-owner) of Cracked.
Cracked got its start in 1958 as an obvious imitator of the legendary Mad magazine, which set the standard for zany, incisive cartoon satire and was one of the premier publications for Kulpa’s brand of art and humor. Cracked was the only competitor that boasted comparable longevity to Mad, but by the time of the sale to American Media, Cracked’s circulation was at an all-time low and the magazine was set to be axed. Kulpa, who felt Cracked was much more than just a second-rate version of Mad, was able to convince the conglomerate to keep the magazine going under his editorship. “Everything I had ever done in my life pointed to this,” Kulpa told a reporter at the time. “Virtually every hat I’ve ever worn can be applied here, whether it’s political cartoons, or commentary, or creating characters.”
Unfortunately, by the second issue, Kulpa found that passion alone was not sufficient to make the project a success. The magazine’s budget was essentially nonexistent, which caused pay rates to plummet and some of the longtime contributors to abandon ship. Kulpa paid contributors when he could (and got them assignments at other American Media publications to make up the difference) and took to illustrating many of the covers himself. “Subscription mailings were handled by a 78-year-old woman licking envelopes,” Kulpa said in Mark Arnold’s If You’re Cracked You’re Happy! A History of the World’s 2nd Greatest Humor Mazagine, Vol. 2: The Final Years. “Cracked was delegated [sic] to a bathroom-sized office — with no phone.”
One of the most grievous issues was the failure to secure a new distribution deal to get the magazine on store shelves after Kulpa purchased it. Kulpa claimed in later interviews and on his websites that the 62,000-issue circulation was cut down to 15,000 through the sudden disappearance of distributor files. “Lacking hardcore publishing experience back then, I was astute enough to know magazines generate much more revenue in store racks than they do rotting on shipping docks,” Kulpa wrote. It is unclear if this was an oversight on his behalf or a deliberate attempt by the publisher to sabotage the magazine out of existence, but other people involved with Cracked at the time note that everything about publishing the magazine was confusing then, given its shoestring budget and seat-of-its-pants operations.
Artist and writer Dave Berns explains in If You’re Cracked You’re Happy that Kulpa was able to gain ownership of the magazine in November 2000 and have his debt to American Media erased by signing over the rights to the Bat Boy character, which at the time was said to be having some Hollywood interest. Signing over the lifetime rights to his greatest creation was surely a wrenching decision for Kulpa, but it was the only way to keep the magazine going.
Kulpa’s nephew Billy Kulpa recalls his uncle coming to visit at the height of his involvement with Cracked. “Uncle Rick” as Billy knew him, was clearly stressed out and even more short-tempered than usual. At the time, Billy was the editor of his college paper and showed his uncle some clips he was proud of. Not only was his uncle unimpressed with his work — nobody wants to read about banal infrastructure updates, he said — but he was irritated that his journalistic-minded nephew wasn’t coming to help him out with Cracked. (Kulpa was known as “Dick Kulpa” professionally, but “I actually grew up knowing him as Uncle Rick,” Billy explains. “My grandma – his mother – once joked that if she had known everyone was going to call him ‘Dick,’ she’d just as well have named him ‘Penis.’ It makes me laugh to think about it.”)
Kulpa was also contending with personal issues on top of the financial stress of providing for a family while trying to keep the magazine afloat. Billy says his uncle was an intelligent and talented guy who could be quite charming, but there was also something of a complex short-temperedness about him that was perhaps compounded by Kulpa’s success as a cartoonist. He clearly took great pride in the popularity of his creation Bat Boy, and among his family he was considered “the one who made it,” Billy Kulpa says, which heightened the stakes of the magazine’s success. Moreover, artist Tom Richmond, who would later go on to work for Mad, noted that Kulpa always seemed to be slightly paranoid that Mad was trying to poach Cracked’s ideas and talent. Though this was completely untrue, Richmond writes on his website, this perception created a chip on Kulpa’s shoulder that may have clouded some of his editorial judgment.
Billy says his uncle often struggled with the relative poverty of his upbringing and the various struggles his family still faced. At one point, Kulpa attempted to run the magazine from near where he grew up in Illinois. During this time, his mother died and one of his sisters was arrested. His family’s troubles made for an atmosphere of intense black humor that Billy Kulpa says was right out of a movie. He remembers his uncle standing there, soon after his sister’s arrest, shaking his head and saying, “Well, that’s the last time I’m setting foot in this godforsaken place.” The magazine was like a fort in which he could retreat from his old life, and he moved back to down to Florida as soon as he could.
American Media, Inc., had been having a bizarre run of bad luck itself. The company’s headquarters moved to Boca Raton, Florida, in 1999, with the offices of the National Enquirer, Weekly World News and Cracked in the same building. On October 5, 2001, someone sent anthrax to American Media (as well as four other major media outlets and two U.S. senators), which ultimately infected at least 17 people and killed five, including a photo editor at The Sun. More than 1,000 people were tested for anthrax exposure, and evidence of the toxin was found in almost 90 locations in the building. Original art and prints from the earliest issues of Cracked were destroyed as part of the decontamination process, as was the original Bat Boy art. (In 2008, Bruce Ivins, a scientist working for the U.S. government, committed suicide the day before the FBI was to file charges against him for carrying out the attacks, though the proof is considered far from conclusive.)
In 2003 and 2004, Kulpa embarked on a 29,000-mile cross-country road trip to comic conventions and other industry events to promote the revamped Cracked, schmoozing with fans, mugging with celebrities, and networking with artists to drum up excitement for the magazine. Mark Arnold, author of the Cracked history, says he admired that Kulpa was trying new things and developing new characters, as the magazine was getting a bit stale by the time Kulpa took over. Nevertheless, the financial strain continued and contributed to fallings out between Kulpa and some of the staff. Former contributors note that the magazine declined in quality as the editorial staff tried to cheaply fill pages with art done for free and reprinted content from previous issues, a situation that wasn’t helped by Kulpa’s brusque attitude, which Arnold says likely pushed away some potential investors. Eventually, the magazine just kind of petered out.
“I had a subscription, and I was never sure if the magazine was still being published because there was a lot of time between issues,” Arnold says. He eventually just stopped getting them in the mail altogether and had to track down the final issue (#365) in a Stanford library, because so few copies were printed and distributed.
Kulpa eventually sold the magazine to a consortium of investors from the Middle East, and it was relaunched in 2006 as a mix between Maxim and Entertainment Weekly (with almost all cartooning excised, much to Kulpa’s dismay). But the response was tepid and the print edition soon folded for good, after almost 50 years of publication. The brand was later revamped as Cracked.com, a sarcastic compendium of listicles and humorous content that regularly publishes today.
American Media, Inc., continues its tabloidian business practices to the present day. The company reported a $160 million net loss in 2006 and close to a billion dollars in debt before filing for bankruptcy in 2010. The company somehow managed to stay in business, with new scandals erupting in 2016 when it was revealed that editors killed stories and paid hush money to sources to avoid publishing articles that would damage the Trump campaign.
The fallout from the Cracked experience was difficult for Kulpa. He acknowledged that he wasn’t a businessman but nonetheless was surprised at how poorly the affair played out. Though family members don’t know specifics of how much the magazine cost or how much Kulpa lost in the process, it was a huge financial blow, his nephew Billy says, and it changed the direction of Kulpa’s life from that point on.
In his later years, Kulpa lived with his daughter in South Florida, and continually worked on new and old projects, such as Gangbuster, a well-intentioned but somewhat goofily antiquated series he began in Illinois that aims to encourage kids not to join gangs. He also developed a new alter ego, Captain Cartoon, a “popular caricaturist now appearing at parties, restaurants and special events throughout South Florida.”
As a caricaturist, Kulpa estimated that he drew an astonishing 40,000 people at parties and events and as a street artist, which is all the more impressive because health problems had rendered him legally blind. He did this all as Captain Cartoon, with an outfit doing justice to the name: an old sailor jacket, a captain’s hat, and trim white beard. Kulpa tried to make caricatures his primary gig while continuing to do freelance work and publishing his own cartoons and content on his various voluminous websites. Some cartoons were silly, groan-inducing puns, while other were more topical, such as his drawing of Santa Claus looking at his list of names and crying following the mass shooting in Newton, Connecticut, that left 20 children and six teachers dead. “It really struck me the most with emotion and the devastation of the poor kids lost and it was overall, to me, his most powerful [drawing],” Michele says. “I don’t think I’ve ever cried over a drawing before that.”
In his last years, Kulpa seemed to have become more invested in Trumpian politics, with his political cartoons reflecting MAGA themes (or at least the outsider promise of Trump, which was perhaps not surprising, given the outsider, anti-establishment views that guided so much of his life and work). A recent project seemed to be converting some of his model trains into a Trump-related display, Michele says, and he was excited about making plaster of paris molds of Trump’s head, though these projects were never completed. Mark Arnold says that there was some talk about revamping Cracked yet again around 2016, and that Kulpa wanted to make it a right-wing, Trump-supporting humor magazine, especially in contrast to Mad, which had been markedly anti-Trump during his candidacy.
Kulpa indulged his other hobbies when he could, too. “My uncle was also weirdly good at racing,” Billy Kulpa says, and he would sometimes compete in local car races and demolition derbies. Billy recalls one distinctly Kulpian moment when his uncle was on the cusp of winning a race but purposely crashed his car into the wall so that the driver in second place could win. Kulpa got out of his car and pumped his arms to the crowd, who roared in approval.
The COVID-19 pandemic of course curtailed public appearances, limiting Kulpa’s opportunities to be Captain Cartoon, making him antsy and depressed. A few email requests for caricatures would come in, but that was the extent of the paid work he had over his last year. “Honestly COVID took away so much from him, [with] his age plus events canceled,” Michele says.
But then things quickly escalated from bad to worse. A lingering sense that something was amiss with his health became a certainty that something was seriously wrong. He tried to stave off undue worry, but the prognosis was terrible: cancer. From there, it was a quick progression downhill — falls, weakness, hospital stays. The last time Kulpa came home from the hospital, Michele fought back tears at just how weak he looked, with her boyfriend scooping up the frail 67-year-old to bring him into the house. Finally, on January 3, 2021, the last page of the comic book that had been Kulpa’s life was turned and he went to the illustrated beyond.
Kulpa was semi well-known in satirical magazine circles due to his unorthodox takeover of Cracked, and Bat Boy became far more popular then he could’ve imagined. (A print edition of Weekly World News seems to have been relaunched as of June 2021, boasting its classic tabloid format and a mix of new and classic stories, including updates on Bat Boy’s life, which has him playing in a band with aliens, and trying to find out if he was in fact created by the U.S. government.) Nevertheless, Kulpa’s career was a hard lesson that sometimes one’s talent and burning desire doesn’t yield the success that one dreams of. Kulpa often seemed to be just scraping by as an artist, although Michele says that he didn’t seem especially embittered by his experience with Cracked.
He would’ve liked to have made a larger impression in the comics world and become successful enough that his kids wouldn’t have any financial worries, Michele says, and that George Clooney would play him in an eventual biopic. While Bat Boy never became a movie franchise, and his effort to get Cracked going again was ultimately unsuccessful, in a larger sense Kulpa did succeed: He spent his entire life doing what he loved — cartooning and drawing.
Michele has a scrapbook of drawings and newspaper clippings highlighting his work on everything from the Gangbuster series (which he said was one of the projects he’s most proud of) to his days as Alder-Man and County-Man. “Reading those newspapers from Illinois really showed how admirable he was, fighting for the town and what’s right. It’s hard to believe, like ‘Wow, my dad did that,’” Michele says.
And that’s a big upside to being an artist: Your work lives on forever after you are gone. All it takes to change the life of a budding artist is to see something in a comic that makes them think, “Hey, I could do that!” Dick Kulpa felt that kind of inspiration early on in his life, and many young artists have no doubt seen something Kulpa illustrated and felt the same way — and will continue to do so into the future.