Ben KatchorArchivist of Urban Surreality
Art manufactured from the detritus of daydreams.
Among syndicated cartoons, Ben Katchor's work has the unusual distinction of being known not for its epic storylines, politically based humor, or family-values Americana, but for its startling poetry, dreamily familiar urban landscapes, and revelations about the arcane systems and inner workings of city life. Katchor, an indelible native of New York City, first came to prominence with his strip about Julius Knipl, a camera-toting everyman and occasional philosopher. Katchor's first three books, Cheap Novelties; Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer; and The Beauty Supply District collected nearly ten years' worth of work based on the character, with every panel rendered in Katchor's trademark black and white watercolor, looking like newspaper photos extracted from a dream. Katchor's first graphic novel, The Jew of New York, tells—in Katchor's elliptical fashion—the real-life story of Major Mordecai Noah, a dreamer with a scheme to turn Grand Island near Niagara Falls into the foundation of an eventual Jewish state. The same year the book was released saw Katchor moving into theater work with The Carbon Copy Building, a musical based on his strips that earned him an Obie Award. Katchor continues working in both theater and comics, creating provocative, moving work such as The Cardboard Valise, from the detritus and nostalgic daydreams of an imaginary city that feels a lot like New York.
Critical Questions for Ben Katchor
I've been following Ben Katchor's mysteriously intriguing "picture stories," as he calls them, for years, from his strip Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer in the '80s and '90s to his current series in Metropolis magazine. His latest
graphic novel, The Cardboard Valise, sees him expanding his territories, both geographically and artistically, and while his new work has acquired a darker tone and broader focus, it remains as humorously idiosyncratic as before, and possessed of the same dream-like wisdom and insight. Katchor took some time out from his current book tour to answer a few questions for us, and it's my pleasure to share his answers with you.
Damian Van Denburgh
CM: Much of The Cardboard Valise is set outside of the meta-New York City you usually stage your stories in. What inspired this shift?
BK: In the Julius Knipl series I was immersed in the real and imaginary workings of a 20th century North American city—a city like the one I was born into. After producing this series for many years, I wanted to literally take a vacation through my strip by inventing stories about tourism and cultural relativity.
Chip Kidd designed your last three books, and the ingenious handle he attached to the cover of The Cardboard Valise could start a new trend. What first brought the two of you together?
Besides designing book covers for Knopf, Chip Kidd helps edit and design the Pantheon "graphic novel" line. He's a brilliant designer and a very kind person.
Sex and death have a more overt presence in The Cardboard Valise than in your previous work. Can you tell us what was behind this?
The touristic impulse stems from the desires for exotica and erotica. The fear of death fuels the nationalistic impulse—hoping to have cultural artifacts and language continue after you're gone.
Over the years you've written a number of musicals with Mark Mulcahy. What got you involved in theater and do you have more work of that sort planned?
I was commissioned by Bang on a Can to write a libretto based upon one of my picture-stories in Metropolis magazine, "The Carbon Copy Building." They, in turn, had been commissioned to write an opera based on an American comic strip. Some years after that experience, I thought that Mark Mulcahy would be able to set my text to music. I was a great fan of his songs. This hunch of mine was right. We've done three full-length shows: The Slugbearers of Kayrol Island; The Rosenbach Company; A Checkroom Romance; Memorial City (one-act); and a new show, premiering in October at the NY Public Library and Lincoln Center, called Up From the Stacks.
New York City has experienced major changes over the last twenty years, physically and culturally. In what ways does this affect your work?
Most cities in America have been ruined by the boring presence of chain stores, Starbucks, etc., and so my stories now center around the ruination and decline of material culture and madness caused by the market economy.
How did you arrive at your style?
I studied literature and drawing/painting. When I went to college in the 1970s these disciplines had to be studied independently. I set out to produce a fusion of my favorite literary and visual styles.
What does the ascendance of e-books mean for the future of graphic novels?
Hopefully, larger and crisper images on various viewing devices—an improvement over small paper books.
Who are some of the current cartoonists whose work you admire?
Jerry Moriarty, Peter Blegvad, Ruppert & Mulot and Brecht Evens.
You have a deep appreciation of many styles of architecture. Do you use reference photos for your work or do you draw from your imagination?
Since architecture is first conceived on paper, I can invent my own crude buildings. If I want to evoke a particular historical style, I look at photos, at drawings or out of my window.
Have we seen the last of Julius Knipl or do you plan on bringing him back?
There are many strips from that series that have not yet been collected in book form, and there's always talk of optioning the series for movies, but I doubt that I'll produce new material using that character.