Finding Truth in the Funny Papers:
Ben Katchor Breathes Poetic Truth into City Streets
by Margie Borschke
I'm sitting in a room wedged between the elevators and a gallery at the Hebrew Union College in Manhattan with Ben Katchor, the creator of the comic strip Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer. A friendly man plagued by a pleasant nervousness peculiar to cartoonists, Katchor speaks in an intimate whisper that quietly contradicts his New York accent. We're here to talk about the role that truth, history, and memory play in his work, some of which is hanging in the adjacent gallery. At irregular intervals, our discussion is punctuated by the muffled 'ding' of the elevator bells whose timbre continually restates the building's age. I'm sure Katchor loves it.
For nearly nine years Katchor has mythologized urban moments such as this in his black-and-white comic strip. Characterized by complex, multi-layered narratives and heavily ink-washed drawings Julius Knipl is published in twelve newspapers nationwide. Though it has spawned radio shorts on NPR in 1994, and received critical acclaim in the form of a lengthy profile in the New Yorker and accolades from New York magazine, its creator remains relatively obscure. Katchor, a youthful looking forty-five-year-old, has lived in New York his entire life, save for a short stint in Providence, Rhode Island, and this is his first exhibition in his hometown.
Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer debuted in New York Press in April of 1988. Each week, it chronicles, elucidates and sometimes fabricates the overlooked minutiae of city life: the origins of hastily written "NO MENUS" signs, the performances of a radiator virtuoso, and the interruption of lunch by the Stasis Day parade are among the urban events Katchor considers. It's an archeology of what is and what might be in a city where the past is always present. It's what Katchor likes to call "a psycho-geography of the city."
It turns out the comic's namesake, Julius Knipl, is barely a character at all. His surname is Yiddish for "nest egg" or "little treasure," yet it's the character of the city where Knipl lives, its little treasures, that Katchor's stories are really about. His focus is on environmental relationships rather than interpersonal ones. Katchor is adamant, however, that this is not a story of a lonely guy, just a solitary one. Knipl's solitude is necessary for the retrospection required to develop the subjects that Katchor has chosen. Retrospective moments, Katchor asserts, aren't group oriented. He also points out that Knipl is seldom alone and that even the deserted streets he sometimes wanders are filled with the emanations of others. Every street is filled with a comforting historical residue.
"In the beginning," said Katchor, "Knipl was based on actual things: things I would notice on the street or in my memory of the city. There were many things I had never tried to systematically make sense of before like cellar doors or why cash registers in restaurants are left open at night. I discovered that there was a whole mythology about these things in my mind either the actual logic or some poetic logic. It inadvertently became this encyclopedia of city life. It's about all these things that are there, but just below the attention of sociologists or anthropologists."
Katchor has mixed feelings about the kinds of truths that scholars can access. In 1992, as Katchor was publishing The Jew of New York, a strip for the Forward about the lives of Jews on the Lower East Side in the 1830s, Morris U. Schappes, a Jewish historian, questioned the factual accuracy of his strip. Specifically, he claimed that Mordecai Manuel Noah, the real life reporter whom the story was loosely based on, was born a year before Katchor had claimed and that the story's "New World Theatre" never existed. As Lawrence Weschler reported in the New Yorker on August 9, 1993, Katchor wrote back to Schappes explaining that the professor had misunderstood the strip. He wrote, "My strip is the fevered dream of an amateur historian in which the 'real' lives of New York Jews, c. 1830, are fleshed out and given the breath of poetic truth. There was a 'New World Theatre' on the Bowery in New York City. I saw it in my dream. I swear."
Katchor is not the first artist to question the limits of historical inquiry. Truth often presents tricky questions for creators of fiction: under what circumstances are you allowed to play fast and loose with the facts of history? If you nick a moment of the past must you take the whole package? How are poetic truth and historical accuracy related? Is one more 'real' than the other?
"Maybe poetic truth is all anyone can give a subject like this, one that is so undocumented," Katchor said when I asked him about the incident and his creative decisions. "People may pretend to give it more, to give it something called historically researched truth, but I don't know if most historians know what's going on in their own apartment buildings, much less know what was going on in New York in the 1830s."
"Besides, the story I was telling was a fictitious story; it was about the periphery of this historic fact. It's concerned with fleshing out the world that Mordecai lived in, to understand how someone like him could even exist."
Katchor did consult various written histories for the strip (the birth date Katchor used came from someone who knew Mordecai and had written about him), but found that very little social history about New York Jews from that period exists. Fittingly, paintings, drawings, and prints from the time would provide him with most of the clues about how life was lived.
"I would look at a painting of a street scene in 1830 and study a detail in the background that the painter probably wasn't very concerned with," he explained. "The way somebody was emptying a wheelbarrow, for example. I would try to extrapolate a whole world from some little detail like that."
Of course, extrapolating worlds from the details is what Katchor does best. In Julius Knipl it's from those details, real and invented, that he manages to create a world, as much as reflect the one we live in. It's why the strip works: competing realities aren't keeping score and complexity is embraced as a simple truth.
His mythological city has occasionally unearthed some real fact of history that Katchor himself didn't know existed. Katchor admits there have been several such coincidences. "People would write to me and say, 'This is an accurate portrayal of a certain industry.' " He shrugged. "Strange things exist."
But Katchor isn't entirely concerned with reality. His mustard baths, the alleged convenient outdoor mustard fountains in midtown meant to improve the neighborhood and protect workers from "a rapacious quick lunch industry" remain unbuilt.
"The strip is not always rooted in actual observable things," Katchor explained. "It may be some strange misrecollection of something I saw or something that only exists in my own mind. I decided that if there was a mythology of cellar doors then anything I devised was as legitimate as these things you could go out and step on. I realized I could make strips about anything that the city evoked in my imagination."
This is what the creators of fiction have long known; that imagination, lies, and inaccuracies sometimes provide the most direct route to certain truths. "I'm not an historian of New York City," Katchor continued. "I evoke those intangible feelings that you have living in a city, and those are real. The things that they're evoked by may not be, but the emotions are, because people say, 'I know what this feels like.' "
Katchor is modest about his perceptiveness and knowledge of the ghosts and eccentricities of New York City. "People look at the strip and think I'm some expert on urban life, but I really don't know any more than most people," he cautioned. "The strip is everything I know, but it's also everything I don't know. But it's of no interest to anyone as an encyclopedia of what I know. It's only of interest to them as an encyclopedia of urban life and urban fantasies."
Mr. Katchor's modesty aside, he is an artist who is particularly in tune with the city's historical residue and physical dialogue. Katchor, in fact, considers himself a collector of "events that can't be possessed," be they memories of newspapers blowing in a street, or the cracked walls of the building he lived in as a child. Not surprisingly then, much of the strip comes from mining his own memory and past. "I don't think most people try to search the depths of their memory," he told me. "If you just lay in bed and purposely try to remember any period, any moment of your life, and then dwell on it, you'll be shocked by how much you've put out of your mind. You realize you don't have to go out of your room, that you can live in this memory-rich memory." Or on the memory-rich streets with Julius Knipl. </end>
[Intro to Real Audio of Lecture:]
The Wonders of Salvage
"The Wonders of Salvage is like a crackpot lecture. It's a very formal lecture about the destiny of our belongings. It begins on how things end up in the trash. Then I do a reading from the Yellow Pagesan old 1960s Yellow Pagesand then I talk about my childhood, which segues back into talking about fictitious things like the Drowned Men's Society. It's more about this strange kind of lecture than what it's about." Ben Katchor
[GRAPHIC: Katchor's Books]
Katchor's strips are collected in two books: the now out-of-print Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay (Penguin, 1991) and Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer: Stories (Little Brown, 1995).
Katchor worked with producer David Isay and actors Jerry Stiller, Brother Theodore, and various members of New York's Yiddish theatre community to create short radio plays for National Public Radio's "Weekend Edition."
[Real Audio of show]