by Todd Matthews
One of the treasures inherent in comic strips is a combined sense of familiarity and distance. The characters of a favorite strip may inhabit familiar environments such as city streets, neighborhoods, office towers, or gathering places, but many of these places do not truly document actual locations. The littered streets of Kaz's Underworld strip may resemble New York City during a heated garbage strike, but the characters are much too perverse (even by New York City's standards). This is also true for some of the more mainstream comic strips. Dilbert is set in the modern-day office, but the politics surrounding the workplace make the strip universal (hence, much of the strip's success).
I mention all of this because it is an important item to note when considering the work of Ben Katchor and his popular Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer. Katchor has been drawing the Knipl series since 1988, depicting a New York City seemingly untouched by time. His antiquated settings, combined with his sensitivity to modern urban decay, render a New York City that is decidedly distant and uniquely Katchor-esque. Consider some of the unusual plots and features that have appeared in his comic strip: a midget-race-car track; a tapeworm sanctuary; and the Observatory of the Human Limp. Today's Big Apple may not have something as overtly grotesque as the tapeworm sanctuary, but it does have something as overtly grotesque as the Fashion Caf.
Katchor's most recent offering is a book containing collected Knipl strips, and a new 24-page story entitled, "The Beauty Supply District." Fans of Katchor's work will not be disappointed by this new collection. The book is filled with the same quirks that, after nearly 15 years, remain fresh and funny. There is the Institute for Soup-Nut Research, the Municipal Birthmark Registry, and the Misspent Youth Center. Witness, also, the rather spooky (yet charming) championship grave-digging competition. There is also the Haverpease Collection of Dried Fruit ("pears dried in the form of genital organs"; "apricot halves like the ears of cherubim"; "a shoe made of apricot leather for the daughter of a czar"). Perhaps the funniest and most telling feature of Knipl's landscape is the "oldest continually vacant storefront in America"--an anti-salute of sorts to the modern mega-mall.
Yet, for as much as Knipl's world is funny, it is also strikingly sad and somber. The comic strip, often spare, is strangely lonely, haunting and endearing—the key strengths of Katchor's work. Katchor draws a world filled with schemers and dreamers who gather around café booths to plot their next ingenious, though inherently flawed, plan for the city. In this new collection, a visionary architect named Selladore plans on taking the rubble of unused sidewalks to build a pedestrian bridge to Hawaii. The Normalcy Parfum Company holds evening sales seminars for their prized product: the residue of everyday life, captured in small vials ("the smell of a library book"; "the tang of a brown paper bag"; "the aroma of door-hinge oil"). And a board member at the Museum of Immanent Art (featuring a touring museum of shower caps, an exhibit of an influential 19th-century picture hanger, and an entrance with a turpentine fountain emitting the smell of latent creativity) defends his proposal to rent out certain galleries for use as motel rooms each night after museum hours. Reading of Knipl's seemingly uneventful exploits in the city, one longs to climb inside the simple six-panel strips and follow close on his heels. If only we could hold his camera or take his notes!
The captions in Katchor's strips keep the reader on his toes. The panel often begins in the middle of a story, only to bring the reader up to speed in the final panel—a refreshing ending to a short and sweet snapshot of the city. And Katchor's artistic style is as original and strange as some of his characters. Panels switch from close-up, angled shots of his subjects (many dressed in rumpled suits—shuffling along sidewalks, moving in and out of storefronts), to wide-angle landscapes of buildings draped with large placards or sidewalks flanked by sandwich boards. Notably, each panel is drawn with sharp angles and long shadows. Lonely Knipl stands on a street corner in the middle of the afternoon, and the long, dark shadow he casts adds as much to his character as his fedora and his camera.
If anyone was meant to write the quintessential urban comic strip, it is Ben Katchor. He grew up in New York City and attended Brooklyn College and School of Visual Arts. He contributed to Raw, the avant-garde comics magazine, from its inception in the early 1980s. He later produced the books Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay (1991), Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer (1996), and The Jew of New York (1999). There is also a film about Katchor (Pleasures of Urban Decay) and an opera (The Carbon Copy Building) based on Katchor's work. The highpoint of Katchor's career came earlier this year, when he received the esteemed MacArthur Fellowship. Presently, Katchor's comics appear in a slew of alternative weeklies and other publications across the country.
Katchor has described himself as an "urban cartoonist," and his Knipl series as "a small encyclopedia of the city." These are accurate, if understated, terms for an illustrator who has explored the city landscape with an original, fresh eye. Knipl might be a small, slumped character in a large, often cluttered metropolis, but at the generous and talented stroke of Katchor, Knipl's lens has recorded a slice of city life that is witty, sad and nostalgic.
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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000