Drawing power

Ben Katchor's keen observations of urban life and his quirky plotlines keep readers coming back.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

With his unruly locks and slouchy demeanor, editorial cartoonist Ben Katchor, creator of the much-admired comic strip "Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer," has the oddball presence of a genius.

Some years ago when Mr. Katchor was between newspapers, the only place fans could see the strip was in a window at the Upper West Side hotdog stand Papaya King. Once a week, at some odd hour, Katchor would clean the greasy window and change his strip.

"It was intoxicating," says Katchor. "I would almost faint; it was such a romantic thing - being this man who posts comic strips at the Papaya King."

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Four books, an opera, and a MacArthur Fellowship later, Katchor's comics no longer run in the hot-dog stand window. Now, they are syndicated in alternative weeklies nationwide.

"[Katchor] has been doing for cartoon art what Proust did for the novel...," says Lawrence Wechsler, staff writer at The New Yorker, who wrote an article about Katchor in 1994 called "The Wanderer in the Perfect Park." "He has this uncanny vision ... [and] there's a whole atmosphere that his work exudes and it just wafts off the page.... It's visually incredibly thrilling.... He's a poet and a musician...."

Mr. Wechsler concludes, "[James] Joyce would have been agog for him."

Katchor's strips, beginning with "Knipl" (the "K" is pronounced) followed by "Ben Katchor's Cardboard Valise" and "Ben Katchor's Hotel and Farm," have run in Chicago's New City since 1992. And according to the paper's editor, Brian Hieggelke, the strip is an original in every sense of the word.

His scratchily drawn renderings of New York's underbelly are peopled with working stiffs, lost souls, and Old World remnants. Dense with text, his quirky, interlocking plotlines move readers from one panel to the next. And keep them coming back week after week.

"It's not a comic strip in any traditional sense," Mr. Hieggelke says. "It evokes a time and place that you feel must have existed but you know never did."

Capturing life's oddities

Many regular readers of Katchor's narrative comic strips, which have the heft of literature, suspected the artist was a genius. And it turns out they were right. He recently won a $500,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which saw in Katchor's strip an ironic, compelling, and bittersweet nostalgia for the detritus of city life. (Selections for the fellowship are made secretly and recipients are surprised with a phone call in June.)

"Katchor's work caught the committee's eye and ... it was a mixed bag of reactions," says Paul Shullenberger, program officer with the MacArthur Foundation. "The committee ... decided it was somebody we would take a chance on."

Knipl, Katchor's best-known character, wanders through the panels of the strip in search of vanished places and forgotten dreams. Although Knipl is never without his camera, he rarely shoots pictures. He doesn't need to. His presence is sufficient to capture the little-noted oddities of everyday life.

Hesitant of line and heavily washed, Katchor's work has been described as Max Beckmann with dialogue balloons. "It's got this washed kind of painterly quality, as opposed to the sharp lines of most strips," Hieggelke says.

In Katchor's streetscapes, philosophical Knipl meanders past endless odd shops: Senseless Elaboration Parlor, Surface Meaning Refinishers Inc. Through these places pass double-talk artists, pickled-tomato lovers, and hair tamers.

"All of my characters are somewhat alter-egos," Katchor says. "Knipl no more than any other. The small businessman, the crackpot visionary, the patron of a nail-biting salon, are all present in my personality to some degree."

With nail-bitten fingers, Katchor turns a page of his new book, "The Beauty Supply District." In the story, Knipl is attending a concert: the world premire of "Ripsatick Potsyfilia," by the fictive composer Colza Johnson. On the stage, a leather tongue hangs above 136 bowls of cream balanced on a framework of wire and string. When the tongue licks, cream streams down onto a catgut string suspended below, producing an exquisite musical tone. The instrument, called a cremolora, is "played" by radio control from the performer's bedroom.

The idea for the cremolora, says Katchor, came to him intuitively. "I always wondered what that sound of Western music was - the sound of violins and plucking string," he says. "I always thought it had the sound of cream, of a cat licking a bowl of cream.... It's certainly a liquidy sound, Western music is."

The cartoonist has music on his mind these days. He wrote the words and drew the scenery for "The Carbon Copy Building," a one-act opera about two identical buildings, one in a glitzy neighborhood and its carbon copy in a slum. The work won an Obie Award (Off-Broadway's highest honor) for best new production in the 1999-2000 season. In July, Katchor accompanied the opera to Europe, and he'll be at the MASS MoCA arts center in North Adams, Mass., for performances on August 4 and 5.

"The amazing thing is that his text worked with music," says Julia Wolfe, one of the three composers of the opera. In the end, she says, the opera really was a Katchor comic set to music. "It's both poignant and really beautiful. And then it's hilarious. It's just the way he is."

When Katchor reminisces about the opera, he seems overcome. When he talks about winning $500,000, however, he's nonchalant. "It's mainly luck, like most of these things," he says of the award. "I think if you studied the path of my career, you'd say this person has no ambition. I take roads of least resistance into what I want to do."

As a child growing up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, he read comic strips, but they left him unsatisfied. "The stories were never up to the quality of the draftsmanship." After attending Brooklyn College and the School of Visual Arts, he opened a typesetting business on the Lower East Side and catered to small businesses. The street-level world of shopkeepers forms the backdrop of his strips.

Outside an Upper West Side coffee shop, Katchor stands looking dismayed. Every storefront across the street is a national franchise. Their bold signs read: Starbucks, Blockbuster, Radio Shack, Subway. The scene is a stark contrast to the enchanting, chiaroscuro metropolis inside the panels of Katchor's cartoons.

Introduced in 1988, "Knipl" ran for 10 years in the Village Voice and other alternative weeklies across the nation. Knipl is prone to scholarly digressions, spotting art in the asphalt. "I've come up with a style I like for a comic strip," says Katchor. "The paper should be a real seismograph of your mind and hand.... I like my drawings best when they look like they were done in a moment."

'Public utility' of cartooning world

As much as creating comic strips defines him, Katchor is increasingly attracted to projects that have little or nothing to do with drawing. "We'll see if my stories can exist outside that world," he says.

The no-strings-attached part of the MacArthur award seems to tickle him.

"They sent this note saying, 'Don't feel like you have to keep on doing what you've been doing,' " he says. "It's not like I'm going to stop and say I want to become a choreographer or design shoes. It's not like these things don't interest me, but ...," he trails off, and when he continues his thoughts have looped back to comic strips. "People go to these papers and look things up, and if my strip's not there, I feel like I'm failing them in that service.

"I've found my audience by sheer repetition," he says. "People read me because I'm there like a public utility - light, heat."

Katchor's third book, "The Jew of New York," is the result of a year's worth of strips that were a serial in The Forward, a Jewish weekly. In the book, which explores the early days of market-driven culture, a master plan is laid for carbonating Lake Erie and piping it into Manhattan as tap soda water.

These days Katchor isn't wandering the city as much as he'd like to. Blame it on e-mail. It used to be that he would finish a strip and take it downtown to an art director's office. Then he'd wander over to The Baltic, a little Polish restaurant on 30th Street, for a bowl of borscht. "I think you need these strange incentives," he says. "Being a famous cartoonist? I don't know. But a bowl of borscht, that's a concrete thing."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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