Comic artist Ben Katchor crafts timeless critiques.
Of all the insults Ben Katchor could level, it’s “boring” that seems to carry the most sting. The New York–born cartoonist sees gentrification’s ill effects in terms the less visually inclined may not: Our visual landscape is being killed, too.
“I don’t know anyone who works for these large companies who’s going out and walking around the street and seeing what they’re doing,” Katchor, 55, says. “It’s very much about car culture, where you’re passing everything at 50 miles per hour. That’s the kind of sensibility that allows a company like Starbucks to open the same place on 100 street corners and not think of how boring it is for people to look at.”
Indeed, when historians need a cogent glimpse of pre-Starbucks urban America, reading a single strip of Katchor’s should bring them back. The MacArthur “genius” grant recipient’s myriad works amount to a celebration of the middle man. In Katchor’s eye, they constitute the hidden, inner life of New York, eking out dramatic lives in a congested city. “The Directory of the Alimentary Canal,” one of many breathtaking works collected in his Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer, illustrates as much: In eight brief panels, we learn of a giant book that contains the “gastrointestinal condition of any person residing” in New York. “Door-to-door canvassers and public restroom informants” collect information for it while “theater openings and restaurant profits hinged upon its authoritative word.”
Katchor’s first exposure to comics was Steve Ditko’s original Spider-Man and the American editions of Belgian cartoonist Hergé’s Tintin. With few adult cartoonists at work in the ’60s, Katchor decided to study painting at Brooklyn College. His self-published works eventually caught the eyes of influential observers, leading to his first break, publication in Art Spiegelman’s vanguard comic zine Raw in the ’80s.
Katchor’s instantly recognizable style—shifting narrators, cinematic shading and whimsical takes on urban life—has taken shape in a variety of settings. Native American and Jewish-American–diaspora histories collide in a full-length novella, The Jew of New York; he recently wrote the libretto and designed the sets for a new opera, The Carbon Copy Building; and his weekly strips in the architectural design magazine Metropolis and the now-defunct Knipl invariably end up collected in book form.
Katchor comes to Chicago as part of Nextbook’s ongoing presentation of Jewish writers, but any such identification makes him uneasy. “There are too many types of Jews—highly antireligious Jews, anarchists, socialists, vegetarians, Hasidim—that the word Jewish has become sort of meaningless,” Katchor says. He instead identifies as an “aggressive atheist, just to counteract all the fundamentalism going on.”
Most comic artists are not known for their live performances, but Katchor embraces the stage show, and sees historical precedent for his. “Before the invention of printing, people used to read along with images, just like people told stories before they wrote them down,” says Katchor, who also teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York. This sense of history also informs his belief that the tradition of serious comics is more than just “yesterday’s TV,” as it’s often labeled.
Katchor acknowledges that many other artists interested in the serious merger of art and text have gone to Hollywood, but thinks they may just be wasting space. “What a film does with these thousands and thousands of images rolling by is build up this believable sense of place,” Katchor says, “but that can be done with one well-made drawing.”
Katchor appears at the Abbey Pub Wednesday 18.