Graphic illustrator Ben Katchor said, “For me, Jewish culture is a piece of history rather than part of the modern world I live in.” Photo courtesy Ben Katchor
SidebarMeet the author
March 27, 2008
In the comic strips of Ben Katchor, reality leads to the absurd in the tight quarters of the big and lonely city.
In his “Metropolis” cartoons, the space under the bed is the next frontier of home decorating (bed springs can be fitted with track lighting — think of the possibilities).
In his Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer strip, a box of dry milk on a shelf leads to paranoid discussions of preparations for the world to end, newcomers to New York take lessons on surviving in the city, and trophy engravers tape a “Closed due to death in the family” note on their door while they play hooky to go to a grave-digging competition.
Katchor’s humor is distinctly New York, and much of it has a distinctly Jewish sensibility. “Julius Knipl” in particular inhabits a bleak, gray version of a past Jewish New York, one of dairy cafeterias and small Catskills hotels and exhausted salesmen in fedoras.
“Maybe that’s the only Jewish world I can relate to,” acknowledges Katchor, 57, in an interview. He insists he has no connection to the contemporary Jewish world. “I’m not an observant Jew. I don’t speak a Jewish language. My main relationship to Jewish culture is as a historian,” he said. “For me, Jewish culture is a piece of history rather than part of the modern world I live in.”
And yet Katchor is putting his own stamp on the modern, and Jewish, world through a series of projects that often share the sensibilities of his “picture stories.”
In a talk at the South Orange Library (see sidebar), Katchor will share some of those stories and discuss the creative urge that has spilled beyond comics into four books, an opera, a radio drama starring Jerry Stiller, and an Off-Broadway musical.
Jewish organizations are quick to embrace him. The Jewish Museum in New York held an exhibition of his work in 2002, and his comic strips, most recently “Shoehorn Technique,” have been running in the Forward, the national Jewish weekly, since 1988.
And yet he cannot embrace what he considers the “mainstream” Jewish concerns of the Holocaust and Israel, said Katchor in a recent telephone interview from his Manhattan apartment.
“I’ve never been to Israel and I’m not interested in Jewish nationalism,” he said.
But he ultimately acknowledged that he does enjoy old Jewish culture.
“Maybe some Jewish folk music interests me, like early klezmer music — the early recordings and early bands,” he said. “And early Yiddish theater recordings.”
Katchor speaks in a low, gravelly tone, his comments equal parts idiosyncratic, rambling, and insightful. It’s what you might expect from someone who won a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (the “genius” grant) and a Guggenheim Fellowship. In a conversation about his work and influences that lasts well under an hour, he brings in references to Victorian novels, literary critics, Plato, and ancient Hebrew texts.
“I grew up reading comic books and newspaper strips,” said Katchor, who grew up in Brooklyn. “But if that’s all I read, I would not do what I do.”
Although he always drew comic strips, even as a kid, he said, “It was just something I did in a forbidden way; it was an underground activity.”
He views his work as consistent with the tradition of intellectual underground cartoonists of the ’60s and the high art of earlier eras — vastly different from the superhero comics that suffuse the mainstream— when word and image were not separated into distinct disciplines. He points to people like Rudolf Topfer, a Swedish cartoonist from the 1800s. “He was a novelist who felt the impulse to add concrete images to his books, to the point where it became 50-50.”
He bemoans the loss of illustration from modern novels.
“There’s something odd about conveying text with nothing visual. Even the typography of a book isn’t given a second thought by the writer, and the cover is only vaguely connected to the text. It’s just not an intrinsic part of the book anymore.”
Images, he believes, have an important function vis-a-vis text.
“When we stop looking at things, we make all kinds of crazy generalizations. We refer to things and use words and we don’t know what we’re talking about. Look at the history of other races. We think we can say things when we are not looking carefully enough to see what the right thing really should be. Images are a corrective to the text, and the text is a corrective to the image. When you deal with one alone, there’s room for misconceptions,” he said.
He offers cinema as the current expression of the tradition of balancing text and image, and cites it as one of his own influences.
He also views the theater as parallel to his work as a cartoonist. “The first time I saw a play being blocked, I said, ‘Oh, this is what I do. Except [when I do it] the people are not real; they are not real actors.’ But it felt pretty familiar.”
Katchor contributed the libretto and drawings to the critically acclaimed musical The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island, or, The Friends of Dr. Rushower, which just finished its Off-Broadway run. Katchor is now working on another musical theater work to be produced in the fall, as well as a history of dairy restaurants.
While Katchor said he has felt the impulse to tell stories with handmade pictures for as long as he can remember, “I did not have obvious models.”
He grew up watching “serious films” and remembers seeing the works of Edward Gorey, master illustrator of the macabre, as a child. He studied painting and drawing at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and he studied storytelling separately. “I wasn’t expected to draw in the English department,” he said.
As an associate professor at Parsons, the New School for Design, he is developing courses that focus on the craft of storytelling using both image and text.
“I think I’m making a dent,” he said. “Maybe people will look back and say the 20th century was a kind of aberration; like all kinds of very pure high art, it was a very strange thing to have done.”
BEN KATCHOR will be at the South Orange Library, 65 Scotland Road, on Saturday, March 29, at 2 p.m. Pleasures of Urban Decay, a documentary about him, will be shown, and he will read from his work. For more information about the free event, contact Nancy Janow at the library, 973-762-0230.
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