Ben Katchor

Cartoonist Ben Katchor’s strips explore worlds forgotten and dreamed: His moody black-and-white drawings are overlaid with a grey wash that evokes the pallor of aging photographs, or perhaps just the shadow of a skyscraper on a sunny day. In his strip Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer (collected in Cheap Novelties and The Beauty Supply District), he excavated his native New York, but in The Cardboard Valise, he turns to an imaginary world. The book’s terrain, originally laid out in weekly strip form, is superficially familiar but strange in its copious detail, full of imaginary languages and odd professions, so fully and densely conceived that reading too fast could give readers a headache. A recipient of MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships as well as an award-winning dramatist, Katchor met with The A.V. Club in his office at Parsons The New School Of Design to talk about the end of print, the dissolution of national identity, and why he likes to slap his readers in the face.

The A.V. Club: The Cardboard Valise started out as a serialized strip, and so did Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer, which ran in several weekly newspapers in the mid-’90s.

Ben Katchor: It was naturally invented for a weekly, the New York Press. In America, there’s a very long tradition of a comic strip that comes in newspapers, which is not true all over the world. To sell papers, they put color comics in. It’s worked, up until now. Now these papers can’t afford it. They always had minuscule ad budgets, and now the things which people probably read these papers for are gone. It’s an interesting time. It’s the first time since 1895, or whenever The Yellow Kid started, that comics are severed from newspapers, even the weeklies. Dailies, they’re probably going to follow suit in another few years.

AVC: The space those early cartoonists had to work with was amazing. The Sunday Press collections that reprint Krazy Kat and Little Nemo In Slumberland at their original size are almost impossible to read. You have to lay them out on a coffee table, since unlike the papers the strips were first printed in, the books don’t fold.

BK: Kids used to camp out on the floor. I remember opening the paper, the news was small, but you needed to just lie on the floor. It worked, because it attracted readers. Before TV, it was the visual storytelling medium. It had this great run.

AVC: What were you reading then? What were the first comic strips you were introduced to?

BK: When I was a kid, a lot of the strips that have been running since the ’30s were still in business, like Dick Tracy and Little Orphan Annie. These things were actually still done by their original creators in some cases. They lasted, that golden age, into the ’60s. So I knew them. I didn’t know what their history was, but I did know that they were a different tradition than comic books, and I knew that my mother, who grew up in America in the early part of the 20th century, loved comics, had no prejudice. She thought they were just this obvious thing that you would read. She grew up reading really interesting ones. That was my newspaper comic history. Then in my childhood, comic books were in there. It seemed like they were ancient inventions, but they had only been around since ’38, ’39, and those were very different. Those were multi-page, and usually had all these things that appeal to children—the savage things that children like, very violent, and they were about really broad adventures. That was my introduction to the Western culture, the Western tradition of drawing. Everything was comic books. I didn’t know how to connect what was going on in the Brooklyn Museum to my life as a kid. I just couldn’t.

AVC: Was there a watershed moment for you, a particular strip or artist who gave you a sense of the medium’s potential?

BK: I didn’t quite understand was connoisseurship was, in drawing or storytelling, but I knew which newspaper strips appealed to me because they looked like this incredibly specific world that somebody could invent, and it was just the oddity of it. Our Boarding House was still running somehow, in the Mirror, when I was a kid. I don’t know exactly if that was still the original artist. And Dick Tracy. So I knew as a child which things were alluring for some mysterious reason. Then I had to go to school, and that was this other parallel existence where you didn’t read comic books and you were weaned off of picture books altogether. But I always had this form in my mind. 

Even through college I had this interest in my mind, but I was deeply indoctrinated that literature was this thing without pictures and painting was this thing without a lot of words, if any words. I had this idea, because of this childhood exposure, that they could be integrated like a film, or like theater. It just wasn’t taught in school, and I said why? I just knew this was something that existed outside of academic activity, but so did movies when I was a kid. As a small kid, I came across things like these early Edward Gorey books in department-store bookstores. These were these really unusual objects to me. I didn’t know how they fit into the comic world or into newspaper comics. They were probably made in the ’60s. Then there were these underground comics in the late ’60s, and I saw that there were adults making these things for other adults, and they were not necessarily genres that are the mainstream comics. This always went on. It existed in a parallel world below critical attention, below all of this stuff. That was the worst thing you could say about a novelist, is that his characters were like comic-strip characters. These were equated with simplistic things. 

AVC: These days are fortunately behind us, but well into the ’90s, almost every article about comics in the mainstream press would start with some variation on, “Bam! Zowie! Kapow!”

BK: The newspaper visibility was no longer central to the culture. TV, through the ’50s, sort of took over, so the comic book was the thing people read. Mainly the superhero or adventure comics, which just shows you how monotone a culture can be. That’s all people can think of when they think of a whole form. It’s like if you thought of movies you only thought of, I don’t know. I can’t think of a good equivalent.

AVC: Only gangster movies, or musicals. 

BK: Only that, or only a certain one, and there were lots of kinds of movies. It’s a pretty neutral medium. It’s a medium that does both show and tell, so it’s something like theater or film. It goes between those two operations. All I can say is that it was sidetracked, probably by the success of American comic books. It so dominated what people thought about it. By the ’60s, they were teaching film in universities, and theater was always taught, but they were already split into these two disciplines, they never came together in school. That had a lot to do with it. It was always seen as a crutch: If you were a writer who needed pictures, you weren’t a good enough writer. That’s this whole idea of what are these purified art forms: How pure can they be, and why should they be? I think we’re somehow out of it. I don’t know how it happened. There’s such an enormous body of some of the greatest literary and narrative works in film. It’s hard to compare, but there’s such a large body of great visual storytelling that it was sort of impossible for people to say, “Well, that can’t happen in comic books.” It’s just a form. That’s how it happened, why it finally ended, I think. Just enough history, and enough work, and enough evidence.

AVC: There was just a certain weight of serious material, from Will Eisner to Watchmen to Maus

BK: The weight of evidence, because there were a lot of bad comics, but there are a lot of bad novels. There’s a million kinds of novels, a million kinds of paintings, but nobody wrote off the whole form. 

AVC: Your work, particularly Julius Knipl, is fascinated with objects, whether real or invented. Did you collect odds and ends as a child?

BK: I think I gravitated toward work that was very specific about the world it described, and I realized the specificity of my neighborhood. If something smacked of being generic, it would bore me in a comic book. And I grew up in a city, so I saw this dead city of manmade things, and that was a great source of stories. It was a story in itself, just its existence. So, objects, places, and history? Yeah, it’s a city where you’re always kind of aware of the immediate history. It’s not a completely new city. It goes back at least to the 19th century.

AVC: New York is an old city, at least by American standards.

BK: Yeah, I always lived in old buildings, and I thought about who lived here before. You’d have to be oblivious not to. 

AVC: But it’s not a city that’s always been interested in preserving its own history, the demolition of the old Pennsylvania Station being the most flagrant example. 

BK: That’s architectural preservation. That’s a whole other question. How can history be preserved? In a book, or do you need to live in a museum city? Then how does all of that history relate to you as a living person? You want to recapitulate history? I don’t know, people do all of these things. They want to stop history; they become traditionalists, say we have to stop history this year. It was okay up until now. I mean, all these crackpot ideas. History belongs in our memory and in books, and I think, taken out of its context and put in another context, is just insanity. It’s just meaningless. It’s like pulling apart anything and saying, “Well, here’s this.” Certain movies that are trying to evoke history are just like being in an antique store, and all you notice is that all the stuff has been gathered together, and it feels like a pile of antiques. How can you think that that will evoke the past? It doesn’t even have to evoke anything, but anyway, it’s how we’re living. It’s this moment where nobody has to immediately think too much about how things are being documented. It’s a great time.

AVC: We’re edging up to the whole profession of real-estate photographer, which you invented. You grew up during the era when nuclear weapons were described as something that would kill people but leave the buildings standing. 

BK: That would be the least thing. I think architectural appreciation would be a minor occupation after a nuclear war. People would just be happy to have something to eat.

AVC: How far back do the strips in The Cardboard Valise go?

BK: Around 2000, I think. [With Julius Knipl,] there was this long period of writing about an imaginary Northeast, East Coast city in the early 20th century, and I sort of needed a vacation from that. I thought everyone was getting too attached to this character. It became like everybody’s surrogate uncle, I thought in a really unhealthy way. It was becoming a little too entertaining, I think, for people to follow this man. So I said, “Well, let’s end that and go on a vacation to these other places. Can I even invent other cultures? How tied am I to that urban identity or that city identity?” I don’t think I had anything more in mind. I just said, “Do a strip about a vacation.” I can pretend I’m going somewhere.

AVC: The idea of vacation is a pretty loaded one with regard to The Cardboard Valise, which is to an extent about the tension between staying home and always needing to find something new.

BK: It’s a dense book. It was meant to be read one page a week. No one read it in a sitting. I think poetry has that kind of density. I rarely sit down and want to read through a whole book of poetry. I’ll read one poem, read it maybe 10 times, figure out, say, “What does this feel like?” I don’t think these kinds of things, comics or picture stories, have to be easy reading. And it was a weekly work. The readers read it, maybe they read it a couple of times or they gave up. I don’t know what the history was of their reading. For me it was a vacation. I don’t know what it was for the readers. When you do a weekly strip, there’s a lot of free association going on. You’re trying to avoid what you last talked about. Then they were sort of annotated in a few spots, where I thought it could use, say, one more thing about the subject. It’s a novel in the form of an annotated weekly strip, like an epistolary novel. It has its form; that’s what it is.  It’s not some “graphic novel.” I don’t even know what that means. This is a book, novel-length, but it’s presented in the form of annotated weekly strips. Maybe it should say that somewhere on the cover.

AVC: It’s a very dense read at times. You’ll have a list of four or five imaginary objects or occupations, and each one is its own idea. 

BK: It’s a very dense form, and I think that’s why these weekly and daily newspaper strips work so well. You’d put a lot into them, and you’d ponder them for the week or the day. A picture story just doesn’t run like a film. It doesn’t have 24 frames per second. It doesn’t deal with this illusion of movement. It’s more like if you did an illuminated novel. I think both of those things should be running at full blast, not less of both so it becomes an easier thing. I think it should be twice as dense. That’s just what interests me.

AVC: Rather than sort of half words and half pictures. 

BK: Or no words. There are all these sorts of possibilities people have used. It’s the opposite of a minimalist work.

AVC: Maximalist.

BK: Yeah, I don’t know. You read it, maybe you read it as a weekly thing. You’d read it at that pace of ingestion and then you’d stop and come back to this world next week. I’m reading a book of poetry now at home and I rarely get past one poem a day, and I’ll look at it again. I don’t think all books are meant to be read in this flurry of pages turning. There’s a diagram of the page that absolutely asks you to look back to see where you came from. It’s something you don’t do when you’re reading prose. You sort of stop and have to really read. You can’t just grab a lot of things. It’s not at that visual level. That’s the way a book is designed. It’s real easy to go back and see where you came from. It’s not a relentless thing like live theater or film.

AVC: Or even prose. You might savor a sentence in a novel, but you’re not going to often read the same paragraph.

BK: Unless you’ve lost track of what’s happening and say, “I have to go back, did I miss something?” You mix up names—maybe that’s just sloppy reading. I think many people think any book should be read a few times: First time just to see what’s going on, second time to see how it’s going on, and maybe third time you really appreciate the narrative and you know how it’s done and you can really look back and say, “Now I see something.” That’s how these strips are when you collect them. They never build up that kind of weight when they’re in a paper. They’re thrown away every week. They don’t build up this obstacle in front of you that you have to read and figure out. 

AVC: It’s not a hugely story-driven work, but there is a kind of conflict between Emile Delilah, the perpetual tourist, and Elijah Salamis, who preaches that all places are basically the same. Salamis doesn’t come into the picture for quite a while. Did you know at the outset he’d show up at some point?

BK: I knew I wanted a habitual tourist and then I wanted to introduce someone who was his opposite, the internationalist who says this is all one place, there is nowhere to go. And all of those kinds of multicultural exotica, why people want to see other, what the whole impulse is to escape from your own culture into somebody else’s while they’re probably trying to escape into yours. That’s how it was invented. And then thinking about what is the underlying appetite that all these people have, and this completely fraudulent church that comes up and says the one thing that is immortal is our appetite. I think they come about when you’re making a weekly strip. Each thing generates. I think somewhere deep into it I said, “This man has been thought to be killed and he has to come back,” and I thought his reappearance and resurrection in the city. It’s a very simple plot in that way, but it’s starting to build the world that this simple plot can happen in, and maybe building the world, you would just completely lose track of this plot. Maybe halfway, I said that’s where it would go. 

I never liked plots that lull the reader into this kind of coma of entertainment. I’d rather it slap you in the face every page and say, “What plot? Go make up your own plot. Go read a mystery novel.” I’d rather the thing abruptly end every page and say, “Now what are you going to do? Are you going to keep reading this thing? Are you going to go on and burn your passport? What are you going to do?” Put it back in the reader’s hands. I don’t like the long form, lulling a reader into this imaginative world that they’re supposed to savor and they’re supposed to say, “ I never want this book to end.” That doesn’t appeal to me, so the weekly strip then is perfect. It’s short, and then it ends and you’re left in the classifieds section of the newspaper. Good luck, go find what you want. That’s how I like storytelling to work.

AVC: Then you have to make that decision every week to pick it up again or not.

BK: Yeah, set up the situation in a kind of transparent way and then let the reader make something of it. Anyway, really interesting novels, they always are so demanding of you on some level that you don’t fall asleep.

[pagebreak]

AVC: You’ve talked about your father reading Yiddish newspaper regularly when you were a kid.

BK: That was his main language.

AVC: So you grew up with that spoken in the house?

BK: More by him than my mother. He was born in Warsaw. It was that wave of Eastern European immigration. He came in the ’20s or ’30s, via Brazil, so he was a late arrival chronologically. That Eastern European culture was intact while I was a kid and abruptly died off, maybe in the mid-’60s. It’s hard to say when it died. There are people still who were kids then, a little older than me, who are still a part of that culture and are still around.

AVC: You were talking about your opposition to so-called “pure” art forms, and thinking of comics as a hybrid medium. Yiddish is a hybrid itself.

BK: It’s a language that was spoken differently in different parts of the world, and it adopted vocabulary from where it was spoken. A language is multimedia because you don’t only read it. Sometimes you see it coming out of people’s mouths. I think maybe more of the art of that language was lost, because it was just conversation. In the ’50s, people were still writing a lot, but I think more of that culture existed in talking. My father loved to talk; all of his friends were great talkers and storytellers and jokers. I don’t know what proportion of linguistic heritage exists in print; maybe it was like, 1,000 to 1. Most people were not writers. They were speakers in real life, full of folk sayings. Any language has this richness. Some of it makes its way to print, but not the voice, all the nonverbal parts of language, the body language and all sorts of that stuff.

AVC: You can get both the spoken and unspoken aspects of language in your work.

BK: Yes, in a picture story you can deal with the notation of a language as text, but you can also deal with the body language. You can’t deal with the literal audio; film could deal with that, or theatre. 

AVC: In The Cardboard Valise, you have the idea of Puncto, a language that contains terms that can’t be translated into other tongues.

BK: This international, universal language. There’s also a short language where everyone wants to reduce things so you could recite the Bible in a half an hour. An incredible compressed language. A lot of people use that now. There is this kind of compressed language now, both used in messaging and in speech. People like to compress language in strange ways.

AVC: Your language has a term, for example, for a monkey that’s learned a skill.

BK: Those are just for very vast vocabulary, but there’s another language that’s to help foster misunderstanding. There are several languages in this book. It’s one level of understanding, language, and then there are millions of other levels.

AVC: One of the more disorienting moments in The Cardboard Valise is, after you’ve spent numerous pages introducing us to its imaginary geography, you suddenly mention something taking place in New Jersey in 1971. 

BK: Suddenly it’s in this world. Outer Canthus is somewhere, I think, in New York harbor. They didn’t want to pay to have it put on maps. There’s this whole strip about that. Fluxion City. They say, “You’re lying to us. It’s not on the map, we’ve looked at the atlas, there’s no such place,” and he explains if you don’t pay to be listed in atlases, there’s a whole other world of places that just didn’t get there.

AVC: They’re literally off the map, and if you’re not on it, you don’t exist.

BK: Or who recognizes them? Is it recognized by a leading journal yet, or not?

AVC: Then there’s Emile Delilah, who is at pains to prove he wasn’t killed when the Tensint Island collapsed.

BK: The sublimation of an island. I don’t know what happened to it. It dissolved or something.

AVC: Twenty years of accumulated dry-cleaning fluid vaporizes Tensint Island’s substrata.

BK: Yeah. Somebody asked me why did you destroy this island so abruptly, and that’s just to slap the reader in the face and say, “I can make up a thousand other islands.” 

AVC: By that point, the reader has settled into the idea that the story is going to be about Emile Delilah on Tensint Island, and then you abruptly destroy it. You have the feeling that the story starts over again each time you reach the top left panel of a new strip.

BK: Each one has to read as a little self-contained story. If somebody tries to link them, they might get confused, but there are beginnings and ends like paragraphs or pages, chapters in a book.

AVC: You were talking in an interview about “the Jewish suspicion of the un-annotated word...”

BK: That’s a sort of prohibition against idol worship, so observant Jews, if they had to use images, would sort of disfigure them or possibly annotate them at least to say what they really are. You know how misleading an image is. You see an image in the newspaper, if they left the caption off, good luck knowing what’s going on. There is something inherently misleading about images, so they need annotation.

AVC: That made me think about the nature of Talmudic scholarship, which is in a way composed of cumulative annotation.

BK: The idea of that, I guess, was that if you were a scholar of the previous body of writing, you could then say something that was in touch with the whole tradition. I think some of it is early scientific feelings about how much of something makes something partake of a quality: How much milk has to fall into a pot of roast meat for it to be considered contaminated with milk? Is it a little bit? These are kind of early scientific questions.

AVC: You’ve been studying up on Jewish dairy restaurants.

BK: I’m trying to finish this book about that history, but, you know, a lot of it is about things that don’t matter to you if you don’t buy the bigger picture. It’s just the fine points of laws where you’d say, “Well, I don’t want to observe that law, so I don’t need to know the fine points.” I think Jewish history did away with a priesthood when the Temple was destroyed, and it became, supposedly, a religion of scholars. A rabbi is just a scholar.

AVC: Right, a teacher.

BK: It was not supposed to be a religion of handed down [edicts]; “This is the way it is.” It was supposed to be, if you were so in touch with this body of knowledge, you could start adding to it and it could go on. It became this thing called Reform Judaism where they said, “We don’t have to think about any of those rituals, it’s just the ethics,” and then there was an Orthodox kind that made a priesthood out of the scholarship, which is, I don’t think, what it was meant to be. It was meant to be open-ended thinking about these ideas, and it could all be turned around by some great thinker who could say, “We don’t need that. Let’s rethink the absolute foundation of this idea.”

AVC: Were you raised in a particularly observant family?

BK: No. I was raised by a very left-wing father, somebody very interested in Communism. It was he who grew up in a very observant family in Warsaw and rejected it all. He was of that generation. That’s how I was brought up.

AVC: But the culture seeps in anyway. 

BK: Well, there’s more than religious observances. There was a language, and then there were all these other kinds of cultural artifacts that developed out of the religion. At one time, there was a unified thing that was the culture and it implied that you were part of the religious observance and how you ate, it was all tied together. Then with the Enlightenment, these things split off, and people could say, “I’d like to read stuff in that language, but I don’t want to write about Talmudic questions anymore, I want to write about sex.” It split off. So I was brought up in the secular, atheist end of Jewish culture. To some, to an Orthodox Jew or a Hasidic Jew, they’d say, “You’re misusing the term.” I don’t know what you want to call it. 

I think boiling everything down to one term, it becomes a meaningless thing. I think a lot of these terms, nationalistic things, somebody is an American, or somebody is a Frenchman, or somebody is a Jew, I don’t know, it doesn’t mean anything to me. You really should start augmenting these words, saying what kind. If you want to say somebody is a Jew, what do you mean by that? Does he have blonde hair? I think a lot of these ancient nationalistic and ethnic terms have kind of lost their meaning, or their meaning is so broad, it’s nothing. It’s like he’s connected to the ancient world. Everybody is.

AVC: The Cardboard Valise is about a conflict between the permanent tourist and the supranationalist belief that all places are in the same, but in neither case is there a profound sense of home. Even Elijah Salamis prefers takeout to a home-cooked meal.

BK: Is there a sense of home? I don’t know. Most people want to leave their home when they grow up. I mean, this whole idea, whatever it is, even if it’s the best kind of home, I think it’s suffocating to children. They say, by 18, “I’ve had enough of this home, I want to live anywhere. Even if I suffer I’d rather be there.” So all of these things, all of those nations are suffocating. It may be very entertaining for a visitor, but it may be terribly suffocating for the person who has to play out the ethnic character. The funny thing is, nationalism only could have come about in Europe after the invention of printing. You could have this thing that was a book in a vernacular language, and you could imagine there were other readers of this book who you couldn’t see, but they were a theoretical union of readers who all use the same language. That is kind of a prerequisite for a national fantasy. You need that thing, and it’s a strange thing. By waiting until now to put this book out—and I don’t know why I waited, which is a good question—but when I suddenly saw the story that print was ending, this book that was all about printed artifacts and travel brochures seemed much more timely. It seemed like this was a good time to put it out while there are still books.

There’s a real connection between the history of print in Europe and nationalism, and how those two things could be formed. I think they may both now be ending, for good and bad, but I think mainly for good. Either globalism was supposed to make people all realize this is one big business going on and we should know what’s going on everywhere, or it makes people say, “I don’t want to become part of this thing. I want to be incredibly different from you and I want to uphold my local behavior.” Dress a certain way. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both things seem to be coming to an end, print culture and national identities, what they mean to people. Are they more porous?

AVC: Localized print media has been hit especially hard.

BK: There was such a thing. Print from every place smelled differently and it looked differently. In Eastern Europe, they were using hot type much later than in the West, and now this book, the covers at least, are printed in Hong Kong. The inside, I think, is printed here, but most books, nobody knows. There’s an international book feel, unless it’s a very primitive plant somewhere where they use old technology. So if it is this book about a kind of person who could be endlessly fascinated by different cultures, maybe that could be a period obsession that we’re growing out of.

I think people just do things differently, but I don’t think they want to link up in great national identities. They’re so wrapped up in that, a struggle around a national identity, if someone’s putting them up to fight about it, but I don’t know about these links to all these ancient or even 19th-century countries. Most people you meet in Europe, young people, their parents are probably from two different places in Europe, and then what are they? They just say, “I’m European mélange, but I prefer, I want to work in a French vineyard.” I don’t know, they’re going to pick and choose their own.

AVC: “I want to work in a French vineyard and eat German chocolate.”

BK: And they do. You meet these strange tastes people have. I think that’s good that everybody can become their own little cultural historian and say I want to live in a city like this but I like to eat Southern German food. There are all these old assumptions that these things are highly linked, and they made a certain kind of literature. That food gave you indigestion and you wrote a certain way. Maybe these things are going to break down and there are going to be different connections. It’ll still give you the same indigestion, that will always generate a certain kind of temperament.

AVC: Maybe people will get that type of indigestion in a different part of the world now. 

BK: Somebody told me there are these strange restaurants in Bangkok where you literally can ask for anything that comes to your mind and they will make a good facsimile of it, but really good, shockingly good. I don’t know if this is true, I was just told this by somebody. They actually have some kind of workbook in their kitchen and they say, “This is how you can make a piece of pastrami that’s exactly like it would’ve been in New York.” The danger of recipes is that if you don’t know really what the thing should end up being, you could go off. But apparently in this mythical place somebody told me about, they can actually bring out something that was frighteningly familiar. Like, they had seeded rye bread if you ask for that in the middle of Bangkok. How did they get it? Did they bake it just to have it? It was uncanny, I was told.

The basis of national identity is to say, “This is authentic to me or my forebears,” and is there even such a thing? How authentic is it to your life? Just because your grandfather did it, what does that have to do with you? If I say I’m working in the style of Rembrandt, so what? You can say it, but are you really? No, because when you try to literally copy a cultural artifact, you change it. It dissolves, and then who’s looking at it? People who appreciate that kind of drawing, or people it means nothing to? It’s hard to take things out of their historic context and say, “Now they’re living for me.”