September 23, 2019

Comic book strip draws on historical 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. “The Jew of New York” collection (which first appeared in the Forward in 1992, then later published as a book in 1998) depicts the Lower East Side of the 1830s, following the failed vision of an actual person, Mordecai Noah, a New York politician and amateur playwright who once tried to summon the lost tribes of Israel to an island near Buffalo in the hope of establishing a Jewish state. The plan failed, but the story inspired Katchor’s weekly strips of characters of New York, including a disgraced kosher slaughterer, a latter-day kabbalist and a man with plans to carbonate Lake Erie.

“On a tepid August afternoon in the year, Messrs Pepsin & Shadrach, the current managers of The New World Theater, meet with their artistic employees to finalize the coming season’s repertory,” begins the absurdist series on an eight-panel page with intricately detailed and finely shaded drawings.

Katchor came to The Forward via another well-known graphic artist, Art Spiegelman, whose work ran in the Forward. “I asked Spiegelman if he had anyone to replace him, and he suggested Ben,” said Jonathan Rosen, who was then the cultural editor of the Forward and is now editorial director of Nextbook and general editor of Schocken/Nextbook, where Katchor is working on “The Dairy Restaurant,” a graphic book for the Jewish Encounter series.

Katchor’s work, Rosen said, “is simultaneously small and large in the same way. It is worked out in intense, specific detail,” he said. Katchor’s characters, Rosen said, “were almost Becket characters, but there was a larger cosmic meaning inside everything he did and does.”

Before “The Jew of New York,” Katchor created Julius Knipl, who lived in “a fictitious city, a light industrial neighborhood, not an immigrant neighborhood,” Katchor said of “Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer,” which first appeared in 1988 in The New York Press, a free independent weekly and later in The Forward.

“It was the kind of strip that a mainstream syndicate would never carry — and that’s where I found my audience,” Katchor said. It was an audience who could appreciate oddities, such as a tabloid newspaper that captured people’s dreams, a building where someone siphoned off bathroom soap, “a siren query brigade,” which monitors all nocturnal misfortunes. “It was an alternative audience — they weren’t comic strip readers,” he said.

Katchor knows from comic strip readers. “I grew up reading comics,” he said. “All that crap that was on the newsstands. I can’t say I ever liked the stories, but I liked the drawings. Those were my first introductions to representational art.” He studied painting and writing in college, but his mind kept coming back to his childhood interest of combining words and images.

“I wanted to talk to an adult audience” in the tradition of Jules Feiffer and Edward Gorey. And Katchor’s Julius Knipl (named after the Yiddish word for hidden treasure) does just that, in often obtuse and circuitous language.

“Ben teaches you a language,” Rosen said. “It’s a visual language, and it’s a way of listening. Once you’re inside of it, it makes perfect sense.”

“Mr. Knipl donates 25 cents toward the upkeep of a rural asylum established by ‘the drowned men’s association,” reads a panel in the first strip. “Why save a man from drowning only to let him die of homesickness?”