"An antidote to the homogenizing, antiseptic slickness of recent decades, these picture stories speak a sad, beautiful clarity" -- is what Michael Stipe, singer of R.E.M., has said about comics by Ben Katchor. And really, Katchor is one of the cartoonists whose work has a "non-digital age" flavor, as if his drawings come from the early 20th century or maybe some undifferentiated past... Even when obviously reflecting contemporary life in the busy megalopolis of New York City, Katchor's comics are kind of... timeless, as if they popped out of some slightly altered, and yet familiar, dream reality.
Ben Katchor's strips appear in about a dozen weekly papers all over the U.S., as well as in Metropolis, an architecture monthly. Collections of his works are published by major publishers, including Penguin, Pantheon Books and Little, Brown and Company --well outside the already ghettoized comic book market. Is this an example of how comics could be introduced to a wider audience? Katchor is obviously eager to balance all these different realities. This was clear to me when I met him at the School of Visual Arts in New York City where he teaches cartooning. His class was, to my surprise, interrupted by the sound of marching feet just outside the classroom. "Don't worry" - said Katchor - "It's the Police Academy based just across from our school".
It was weird to see the uniformed young wanna-be policemen parading in front of the art school class - just a large window separating them. For me, it was as if I were observing two parallel worlds, two different sensibilities in a glimpse...
The first thing that I asked Katchor was how his major publishers market his books in regular bookshops that very rarely deal in comics.
-- Sometimes my books are filed under fiction, and The Jew of New York was filed under judaica or somewhere else... They simply don't know where to put it.
How did you get in touch with those publishers in the first place?
-- The first Julius Knipl collection was packaged by Art Spiegelman's Raw Books through Penguin. For the second one I had an agent who showed my stuff to every publisher in New York... Most publishers don't want to handle comics because not enough people would buy them. Comics don't appeal to their readers. There is a specialized market that deals with that sort of literature anyway. It all has to do with what is going to sell; I don't think that comics are not being published for any great theoretical reason.
But those publishers are also willing to experiment. Over the years,Penguin published several books by the artists like Gary Panter and Mark Beyer, but this wasn't a commercial success. There are a very few comic artists who are (because of their reputation) being published by the major book publishers.
Do you have information about public reaction to your work?
-- People write me letters, and I know how my books sell... I don't see a simple demographic of the people who read my books. When people come together to hear a lecture, the demographics seem very diverse. The common element is that often people come to me and say "I hate comics, I don't read comics at all, but I like your strips". Other than that, every new lecture audience could contain mathematicians, doctors, lawyers and others... Anyway, there is a certain sensibility, an audience that wants to read that kind of strip. Most of the people would just look at it but they wouldn't finish it. They'd say - where's the joke here? They would not see any logic in my comics, so if you ask me, who reads my strip, it's easier to say who DOESN'T read them. Most people in the world don't read them.
How did you develop your interest in comics?
-- I have read and drawn comics since I was a small child. Before I could read, my mother read me comics. And as soon as I could try to draw, comics were the art world to me. I didn't see much of art as a child. I went to the museum perhaps once a year... But comics and animated film, they were very early childhood interests. I liked to look at comics, and I think that a child likes to see a representational drawing of certain things or the believable images of cities and spaces...
What was your mother's reaction to comics? Did she also grow up reading them?
--Yes, she grew up in America in the golden age of the newspaper comic strips, so she loved comics. They were the television of her generation. She was growing up in the teens and twenties at the height of the popularity of newspaper comics in America, so when she thought about comics, she thought of the best there were...Anyway, in junior high school, I found out about the exciting world of comics fandom in America. People were publishing little magazines, and I was publishing my own comics as well. It was in the late 60's or early 70's... There were the early comics conventions in New York, and I discovered the history of the earlier comics. People were selling the old stuff at conventions.
When I was at school studying art, I was also into early art from the 17th and 18th centuries --representational drawings created in Europe. These were probably as much an influence on me as comics... But I realized that I didn't want to be a painter whose work would end up on the wall of a cafe or gallery. I wanted to do something in the printed media. I like the idea of mass reproduction; everybody can own a piece of the original thing...
Before I started to work on weekly comics, I did occasional comics for fanzines and small magazines... I didn't make a living from this. This came much later. For my living, I worked at typesetting in a graphic design business... Now I just do comics with a little bit of work on illustration. Still, it's hard to say where I fit in.
How did you start working on weekly strips?
-- In 1988, in New York City, somebody started a newspaper called New York Press, and they wanted to have a comic strip. I showed my work to the owner, who didn't even know who I was. He just said: "Do it". Now my strips are published in several free weeklies in big cities all over US...
In Europe we don't have the tradition of alternative weeklies... But maybe we could learn from your experience?
-- Well, Europe is too small, I think. One country in Europe is like a state in America... England is not much bigger than New York State, so it has enough daily newspapers and doesn't need weeklies. In the U.S. there was simply more room for this kind of publishing. In fact, I don't think that they even call them "alternative weeklies" anymore.
There is nothing very alternative about them?
-- No, they are just smaller. Many of them are owned by multimillionaires. They have a low editorial budget, so mostly they don't pay much, and that's about all that is alternative about them. They actually don't NEED comics. They use one or two strips just to fill up space. They need horoscope, a sex advice column and classified ads... My comics are published in some of those weeklies because the editors wanted my strip and not somebody else's. But once that the decision is made, they are happy.
You mean they don't want to think about it that much?
-- I don't know. If readers wrote in and said that they hated something, editors would probably drop a particular strip. But most of the readers just don't care. It's not a big market --each paper needs two or three strips, and that's all.
But I guess that free weeklies are good for artists because these publications give cartoonists more space to develop... Also, weekly strips could be later gathered in collections and comic books...
--Yes, no one edits you in free weeklies; you can do whatever you want, basically, and you can do it every week. And doing a weekly strip could be enough to make a living. It works for me... I used to do comics whenever I wanted, but I didn't know whether they would be printed. Weekly strips are good because they give you an audience that looks at your work every week. Most people don't look at great painting as often as they read your strip. So you build up a following that most artists don't have. Most artists have an exhibition once a year. People come to see it, and after an hour that's it.
Your comics also appear in a monthly magazine called Metropolis?
--Yes. Metropolis is an architecture magazine, so this is yet another audience... This is a full-page strip that usually deals with the physical world of architecture or urban design. Between a number of different audiences, you build up a following that would never normally pick up a comic book... If your work is in a comic book store, it reaches only the sort of people who go there...
I would say that there is a very healthy atmosphere on the contemporary comics scene in North America because there are a lot of cartoonists who are not doing commercial stuff... They can expose their work and develop some sort of following...
--Yes, there are all kinds of comics. Strips are filling the space in newspapers, and that's the commercial application of it, but you can do whatever you want as long as somebody will buy it... So people do all kinds of things. Internet has tons of comics as well. My strip is on the web site (www.word.com), and it looks better there than in most of the newspapers. They post each panel in a large format... The pre-press process is completely digital in this country, so that material is ruined from the scan to the printing press because of the terrible degrading of the image. Through the Internet it is at least seen as it was scanned, and it looks better.
One of the things that I like about your storytelling is that it somehow reminds me of the logic in a dream. Your strips are dreamy somehow, and sometimes they don't tend to tell the story at all.
--That's right, I make up those stories, like we make up bad dream. They are not reportage... I used to write a lot of my stories in bed. At night I would write a whole bunch of them, so maybe that's where it is coming from... But I don't know, I think the world is fairly dream-like... I don't consciously think about it; when I'm drawing my comics I'm very awake, but my mind is somewhere else... Most of the comics are dream-like too. Once that you start drawing those little boxes it feels like an entire world in somebody's head...
I noticed that you very often enjoy depicting city landscapes in your work, even though these are not recognizable landmarks and buildings... Do you make field sketches or use references?
--I would look at a particular kind of building, and I have to look at a picture if I need a certain kind of lamp, but otherwise I can make it up. Most of my architectural drawings are actually made up.
Is this connected with your affinity for New York City?
--That's all I know. I grew up and have lived all my life in New York. I don't know anything about the Far West, and that's why I don't set my strip there... Julius Kniple, Real Estate Photographer is a strip about what I know. To do other strips, sometimes I have to do a research. When I worked on The Jew of New York book, I didn't really know about New York in the 30's. It was all researched.
Is that book really based on true facts?
-- I think that all fiction has roots in the real world. You say "Two men set in a cafe, and one of them became a bottle of water". This is fantasy, but, still, everyone knows what a cafe is, and a bottle of water, etc. So the references are to the real world... The Jew of New York is a reference to the real world of the 1930's... It wasn't real to me; I read about it in a historic record, so there are one or two real references in a book.
Do you think that your East European-Jewish origin or your cultural background has influenced your artwork?
--Yes, but you can't help it. As a small child I ate what I was fed, I listened to certain languages being spoken in our house... But I think as an adult you can say: I would rather eat Chinese or Eastern European food. It's basically a matter of choice. You can say: "I want to speak Yiddish in New York City; I don't want to speak English. And you are gonna be limited, although you can speak that language. I mean, culture is like choosing a shirt in the morning. It shouldn't be more than that! All the authentic cultures are developed in isolation.
You speak about the turn of the century East European immigrants coming to the U.S. in your strips. Did these people influence American culture in any way?
--Yes, most of the Yiddish publishing was in America, not in Europe. They created literature, theater, and even comics in Yiddish. A friend of mine is doing a thesis on this at Columbia University. I don't know much about it - but there was a small world of comics in Yiddish... Some of them were humorous or satirical comics, some with local references to the Lower East Side of New York City... Some were more modernist then others, etc. This all ended in the 40's or 50's, so it was a short-lived culture.
It seems that we are coming closer to a model of universal culture. How do you feel about this?
--I think that it doesn't leave much room for exploration, like in the old days when you could find a completely different world somewhere in another area of the Earth... But I think that it's inevitable to have some sort of "world culture"... Sooner the better. Now the only differences are that in some parts of the world you can find cheap labor, and in another you can't. But otherwise everybody has the same junk merchandising or goes to a flea market... And it's all the same basic stock.