Comics: Ben Katchor

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.

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 serialize 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.

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