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Ben Katchor:

A Middle Man In The Memory Business

New Yorker newspaper and magazine cartoonist Ben Katchor started out self-publishing with Picture Story Magazine in 1979 before being picked up by Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly for their Raw magazine. In 1988 he introduced Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer in the weekly paper New York Press. Unlike the minimalist backgrounds of Eisner and especially Feiffer, Katchor’s pictures brim with the buildings, signage, furniture and overlooked wonders of an unnamed city, unmistakably inspired by ‘the Big Apple’. In a single image he will show multiple perspectives, taking in both an overhead shot down onto the street, while also peering through the first floor window of the ‘Holey Pocket League’, where one member extols, "Fellowship is the only thing we crave". The long shadows and solitary citydwellers recall the paintings of Edward Hopper. Katchor’s words are playful, plentiful and painstakingly chosen, inflating his tilted, wobbly speech balloons, as they counterpoint the stentorian tone of his narration marching insistently from one caption to the next.

Through eight or nine loosely sketched panels suffused in grey watercolour washes, Katchor follows Knipl wandering between shoots, camera around his neck, forever waiting for the light to improve and observing the constantly changing streetlife. Knipl’s prospective clients are the myriad dreaming, doomed businessmen and obscure, worthy institutions, that somehow seem improbable enough to be true: a radiator musician, a blanket rejuvenation plant, private nail-bitings salons, The Municipal Birthmark Registry, the Misspent Youth Centre. Any of Knipl’s senses or the humblest of objects-a door buzzer, a newspaper weight, a water fountain-can spark him off on a fascinating Pythonesque reverie about its little known significances; appropriately, ‘knipl’ means a little treasure or nest-egg in Yiddish. For Katchor, "living in an old city, at any moment you have one foot in the past." Collected into three books, the latest entitled The Beauty Supply District from Pantheon, ‘Julius Knipl’ stirs a strange sort of nostalgia in his readers, as novelist Michael Chabon has described it, "not only for times before one’s own but, surprisingly, for things that never existed".

Katchor grew up in this ferment of desperate smalltime capitalism and utopian dreams. His wandering father, a Warsaw Jew, wound up in New York state, where he ran "a combination Communist hotel and chicken farm", with schemes to convert it into an urban kibbutz and bring his revolutionary chicken coop ventilation system to Cuba and the Soviet Union. "As a kid I was taken to this East European Jewish world in New York and this became my world, all conducted in Yiddish - this for me was the real world." Steeped in this culture, in 1992 he came up with a more explicitly Jewish strip to serialise in the Forward, New York’s weekly English-language offshoot of the Yiddish Forverts. The Jew Of New York took as its starting point the title of an imaginary play in 1830 based on the real-life proto-Zionist dreamer Mordecai Noah, whose mission to establish a homeland for all Jews on an island he had acquired near Buffalo in 1825 came to nothing. From there, Katchor left historical fact far behind, as he spun out an ever more dizzying web of interconnected characters, each with their foibles and beliefs, adjusting in their own ways to assimilation in the 19th century New World. In 1999 a revised and expanded version was published as a Pantheon graphic novel.

Katchor’s own first business was a graphic design service for the sort of fly-by-night downtown entrepreneurs who would make his strips so believable. When Village Voice cancelled the strip in 1995, he set up an illuminated ‘Julius Knipl Reading Box’ for the public to read his new instalments, on display in the window of a B&H Dairy or outside the neighbourhood Papaya King, literally putting his strips out on the streets.

This April, he is lecturing in Hamburg at the Vattenfall Lesetage and lecturing on  "Halftone Images in the Yiddish Press and Other Objects of Idol Worship" at the Jewish Museum of Berlin to launch the German edition of The Jew of New York. Katchor has found considerable success internationally, adapting his work into plays and operas, publishing full-colour comics in architecture monthly Metropolis, and in 2000 winning a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation ‘genius’ award. This year he hopes to turn in The Dairy Restaurant, his latest graphic novel, to be published in 2010 by Nextbook/Schocken Books.

Nevertheless, he still enjoys the way his strips operate as low-level commodities, buried among classified adverts in throwaway newspapers. Each week he sets up another storefront display as he plies his trade as "a middleman in the memory business".

Posted: March 31, 2009

An edited version of this article originally appeared in Art Review magazine, a monthly publication dedicated to contemporary art and is essential reading for a global community of artists and gallerists, collectors, curators and indeed anyone with an interest in art. Every issue of Art Review is available to read free online here.


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My Books

1001 Comics  You Must Read Before You Die edited by Paul Gravett

Comics Art by Paul Gravett from Tate Publishing

Comics Unmasked by Paul Gravett and John Harris Dunning from The British Library

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The Beauty Supply District

The Jew Of New York

Julius Knipl:
Real Estate Photographer


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