NY artist draws picture stories to make us think

NY artist draws picture stories to make us think

Offbeat comics artist Ben Katchor depicts a city where things have gone a little awry

A detail from 'Catastrophic Decor' (photo credit: courtesy Ben Katchor)
A detail from 'Catastrophic Decor' (photo credit: courtesy Ben Katchor)

‘My stories are designed so as not to appear to have an overt political agenda,” says offbeat New York comics artist Ben Katchor. Beneath first appearances, however, Katchor’s work is deeply political, although constructed in such a subtle fashion the reader is pulled in before quite realizing what is happening. 

“They’re just stories,” the artist demures. “The reader shouldn’t know where they’re coming from politically. I want the reader to simply follow my interrogation of a subject and arrive at a certain realization.”

Over his 30-year career, Katchor has received a Guggenheim and a MacArthur fellowship for his “picture stories” as he calls them. He’s been lauded by the press, including the New York Times, which referred to him as “the most poetic, deeply layered artist ever to draw a comic strip.”

Katchor is best known for creating the character of Julius Knipl, a real estate photographer who inhabits an imagined city the reader assumes to be New York. This is not New York as we know it, but a city with a distinctly old-world atmosphere, full of wholesale novelty emporiums and all-night drugstores.

On occasion we see Knipl snap a photo, but for the most part he engages with the city’s denizens through all manner of strange encounters and odd conversations.

Comics artist Ben Katchor (photo credit: YouTube screenshot)
Comics artist Ben Katchor (photo credit: YouTube screenshot)

The Knipl stories struck a chord with readers. Partly concerned about their perceived sentimental attachment to the main character, Katchor decided to change the name of the strip and do away with Knipl.

“Gradually, the character of Knipl became superfluous to the stories that I wanted to tell. I didn’t need a recurring character,” Katchor says.

He has since written and drawn two graphic novels titled, “The Jew of New York,” and “The Cardboard Valise,” and written several works for musical theater.

His most recent book, listed in Time Magazine’s best comic books of 2013, is titled “Hand Drying in America” and is a collection of strips that first began appearing in “Metropolis”, a magazine devoted to design and architecture. The book is a handsome, large format volume and might well be his strongest work to date.

Katchor’s forte is the short-form comic strip. Most of the stories in the collection are one or two pages in length and linked to observations on architecture and interior design and their effects on city dwellers. The majority of the strips are beautifully colored, often showing streets and buildings drawn from unusual perspectives.

Cheap Novelties (photo credit: Courtesy Ben Katchor)
Cheap Novelties (photo credit: Courtesy Ben Katchor)

In a sense the stories pick up where the last Knipl collection, “The Beauty Supply District,” left off. Once again the city serves as a backdrop, although it’s portrayed as a noticeably different place.

Gone are the side-streets, corner shops and small businesses that characterized Knipl’s adventures, only to be replaced by a more expansive city with non-descript buildings, shopping malls and high-rise structures. If this is a planner’s vision it appears to have gone a little awry, Katchor seems to be suggesting to the reader.

Urban angst is not usually a theme ascribed to Katchor’s work, yet common to many of the stories are characters who at times appear out of sync with their environment and alienated from their surroundings.

“Each building is impenetrable. There’s no way of knowing what goes on inside,” exclaims a lady in what could be a Kafkaesque aside in the story titled, “The Office Building Demystified.”

The thought of meeting on a concrete plaza in front of a high rise gives a woman “the creeps,” while character Eugene Jimp feels the need to move apartment each year.

Eventually, Jimp finds an apartment in a state-of-the-art building that requires him to dispose of all his wooden furniture before he can move in. “We have to supress our antiquarian desires,” says a member of The Brotherhood of the Immaculate Consumption. “It’s for the good of the economy,” the member explains.

The Cardboard Valise. (photo credit: Courtesy Ben Katchor)
The Cardboard Valise. (photo credit: Courtesy Ben Katchor)

Each narrative is a free association, often linking random people, things, events and places from the past, present and future in real time. The overall effect invokes a metaphysical play on ideas and our culture. The characters in the stories rarely emote; for Katchor, the idea is the thing.

The most insignificant seeming and mundane objects are given credence in some of the stories, such as when the provision of a new public bench is thought to have affected shop sales in the neighborhood. Katchor ruminates on how the bench can influence public space by attracting a certain type of person. Pigeon feeders, newspaper readers, philosophical vagrants, we are told, all gravitate towards the bench. “Contemplated from a position of repose, the world of business seems senseless,” reflects the narrator.

Each idea is played with and extended, often in a wry and ironic fashion, yet no matter how far an idea is stretched, the story always seems to have a strange logic of its own. The reader recognizes the place and time, but the proceedings have an air of the surreal.

In “A Check-Room Romance,” Marcus Yule realizes his fantasy of building a coat-check room, complete with fixtures and an attendant, in his apartment. “In these rooms we enjoy a communal mingling with no physical involvement, and in that the pleasure lies,” he confides to the reader.

Katchor’s work is not aimed at a mass market. For all the apparent strangeness and quirkiness, what stands out are Katchor’s ideas and appreciation of the occasional absurdity of everyday life, forming picture stories that make us think.

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