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Inside the Bizarre, Beautiful World of Ben Katchor's Comics

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Julius Knipl, the beloved real estate photographer of Ben Katchor's early black and white comics, is a kind of noir character. Wandering around Katchor's short stories, Knipl observes the most trivial and fantastical details about his city. In one strip, Knipl follows a city employee whose job is to taste the water "sampling stations" in a New York look-alike. Knipl watches him eat salted peanuts to offset the dull taste as he wanders from station to station, saying admiringly, "What a Job."

This is the beautiful and bizarre world of Katchor's comic stories, which he has been creating and publishing since the '80s and which, in the past several years, have taken on issues from development to environmentalism; corporate lust to old-fashioned street wandering.

In a comic strip he's authored for Metropolis magazine since the late 1990s and in several compilation books, Katchor looks at design and at the development of homes and neighborhoods. His strips are usually one page long and place characters at the helm of strange or unsettling experiences.

During a recent phone interview, Katchor, a winner of the MacArthur Genius Grant and professor at Parsons, described his work as a part of the "American, Yiddish, socialist" tradition and "a form of social activism. You could blow things up too," he said, referring to the radical arms of environmental groups, "but I don't really relish the thought of being in prison. I'd rather make comic strips."

Katchor began drawing and editing his own comic journal as a child and in his early career drew for Raw, a comics magazine created by Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly in the 1980s. Spiegelman introduced Russ Smith to his work, and he wound up as a contributor for Smith's newly founded New York Press, starting with its first issue. "Ben's work fit in perfectly with NYP, especially in the beginning when we were graphic-heavy with almost no photos," Smith explained in an email.

When he sought a longer narrative arc for his regular column in the Press, Katchor created Julius Knipl. "People were drawn to Julius Knipl because he was the center of a story in a comic strip. The strip was different because there [were] no gags, but rather forays into, say, the garment district, old factories, printing presses, the vanishing industries in NYC," Smith said, describing Katchor's stories as "atmospheric, rather than political" at that time.

Over time Katchor's work for Metropolis has incorporated activist ideas into that atmosphere. In his recent collection, Hand-Drying in America and Other Stories, the "Committee for Architectural Neglect" ensures that decaying buildings will remain unchanged despite requests for renovations or repairs. Katchor described that committee as a way to "legislate" the rapid changes happening today.

Other stories show how the stresses of the surrounding world affect his characters—boxy but artful everyday people muddling through life. In "The Call of the Wall," Katchor draws one middle-aged city man who wakes up compelled to climb along the molding of a classic "late 19th century apartment building," as if the confinement of apartment living has driven him to use his own home as a playground.

Katchor's strips are whimsical—objects, like a building reconfigured as an unmade bed, are not always real. Speaking by phone, Metropolis associate editor Avinash Rajagopal described Katchor's work as "wry," with a "Jiminy Cricket" feel. In one story, a woman scheduled to meet her evening date in the lobby of his Seagram-esque building almost refuses to show up; the space is too large and alienating for her. In another, a shoe company's headquarters is built as a homage to "the unconsummated sale.'"

Susan Szenasy, the magazine's long-time editor-in-chief, said that Metropolis was drawn to Katchor's definitive style and the ideas behind his work. It was this style that propelled the magazine to bring Katchor on for their 1995 issue, and then as a regular contributor. In an editor's letter on his most recent book, Ms. Szenasy reflected, "His books' titles alone, The Cardboard Valise and Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer, signal that you are about to enter the zany world of an inventive and original mind who is endlessly fascinated by the great city where he lives."

Katchor leads his readers from simple to complex ideas in the space of one page. For example, in "A River View," two contractors try to profit on a large set of glass windows that have been recently replaced in a high-rise: the removed windows have the imprint of the skyline that has been baked into the glass over time. By the time they find the recycling yard where the windows have been taken, they're told that, "a European art dealer took the whole lot sight unseen." The final frame of the strip shows a group of people overseas looking at one pane when it is displayed like a work of fine art. Everyone involved is looking to profit.

From Katchor's perspective, profit motivates much of recent development. Though he doesn't believe new design is worse compared to earlier periods, mentioning that there were dull buildings in the past, he thinks today's wealth replicates itself, with a push to "maximize profits" in many fields. Like the panes in "A River View," Katchor sees replication: "Rather than spinning off the money into other things, giving it to other people," design suffers from the "failure of imagination of corporate interests."

"We can call out developers, but it's all a part of the same behavioral approach to putting your own welfare, immediate welfare, above everyone else's" he said, pointing to areas like health care and education. "I think people just feel, 'Well, my own life is a finite thing," he said, reflecting on the pursuit of immediate pleasure in large-scale designs today.

"Part of Katchor's peculiar genius is that he's particularly great at spotting the residue of culture—the stuff that's just there, and used to be there for a reason," as in Knipl's water fountain expedition, culture writer Douglas Wolk said in an e-mail. Wolk, who has written on comics for many years and reviewed Hand-Drying, also disagrees that contemporary design is as boring as Katchor's work might suggest: "I think there's never been such a broad array of design possibilities open to us—but contemporary design, by its nature, doesn't have the historical and associative power that old stuff does."

That historical power has a strong hold on Katchor. In an earlier New York City, "people could do things just the way they felt like doing it—not necessarily worry about recovering a high overhead." Today, other, "kind of second-tier" cities, those in disrepair or neglect, may offer opportunities for a more interesting design culture. These cities—a Rennes, France, or Detroit—offer space for not only a "creative world," but also for more "idiosyncratic businesses."

Those kinds of businesses pepper his collection. In "The Carbon Copy Building," he shows two mirror-image buildings on corner lots. But one is drawn in modern pastels with simple, sleek, "Park Manure Avenue"-type businesses; the other in black and white is like the inside of a corner store—filled to the brim with shops and offices. Like an old film, the offerings in the black and white picture are meant to be more imaginative—more fun.

The attraction of that black and white building, like Katchor's own work, is that it offers complex ideas in a simple style. Katchor's drawings act as antidotes to the anxieties development creates: that our buildings are getting bigger and more generic as they move beyond our reach. His drawings, by contrast, are small in scale, easy to read, and as random and pleasurable as Julius Knipl's fountain journey.

Katchor himself has watched development over time, and is perhaps nostalgic for the pre-development days. "I mean the condition of pre-collapse, when they're on their way down, is more fun," he said. New York for him was a city "where people were just giving away rentals and spaces because no one wanted them." Using the language of profit maximizers everywhere, he added with a characteristically quiet irony, "Yeah, that was a more advantageous place for me."
· Official site: Ben Katchor [katchor.com]
· Curbed Features archive [Curbed]