Ben Katchor's keen observations of urban life and his quirky plotlines keep readers coming back.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."
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.