Comic book strip draws on old New York

Ben Katchor speaks slowly, hal-ting-ly, pausing frequently, as if he’s thinking of images to go with his words as he speaks.

He probably is, as the comic book artist (not graphic novelist) has been pairing images with words for most of his life. While the characters of his fanciful weekly strips — now collected into books — have often been strange, introspective, nostalgic and maudlin figures, his central character has often been the city of New York.

That’s why on June 29 at this year’s Nextbook Festival taking place at UCLA, Katchor will be featured on the panel, “Larger Than Life: Romancing the Lower East Side,” along with filmmaker Joan Micklin Silver in conversation with pop culture scholar Eddy Portnoy. Nextbook’s Festival of Ideas focuses this year on “Jewish Geography: Place, Design Memory, Imagination” and includes readings and panel discussions put on by the Jewish cultural organization that produces an online magazine and literary events and publishes a book series.

“As Jews abandoned New York’s Lower East Side for sunnier climes or better school districts, the old neighborhood only loomed larger, if not in their daily lives then in their imaginations. Where does the history of the Lower East Side end and the mythology begin? How have filmmakers and writers shaped the legacy of the neighborhood, and how have these works of art influenced Jewish identity?” the program reads.

The Lower East Side first captured Katchor’s imagination at a young age. Although he grew up in Brooklyn, he often went to the Jewish immigrant neighborhood with his parents. “My mother had her bank account that she opened as a young woman at Bowery Savings Bank, and for some reason kept it there — and we’d go shopping on the Lower East Side, and that would be the first stop. I remember going to this great temple of banking at the Bowery and then being dragged off shopping,” said Katchor, 57, on the phone from Paris, where he is visiting for the summer. (He lives in New York.)

He also went there with his father to visit hardware supply stores. “I think it was intact as a Jewish business area longer than it was a residential area.” The city and its characters fascinated him — and so did his research. “People wrote about it. This place was established by a succession of immigrant groups — now it’s mainly Asian, but before that it was Jewish and Italian, and before that it was German,” he said. “There are a lot of remnants of these groups. It’s a rich place, but I think most of my feeling about it is as a historian, not first hand.”

But it’s not really history, either; the New York in his strips never really existed. “