BEN KATCHOR IS THE Joseph Mitchell of contemporary comics. Mitchell, along with his close friend A.J. Liebling, was a pivotal early New Yorker reporter who famously made a speciality of describing the peripheral rascals, layabouts, and oddballs of the Big Apple, ranging from the denizens of McSorley's saloon to Joe Gould, the often homeless bohemian who claimed to be working on an "Oral History of the Contemporary World." With their cockeyed street-level view of New York and propensity for profiling loopy souls, Mitchell's works were important precursors to the early Katchor who, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, meticulously chronicled the wanderings of "Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer" in the pages of the New York Press (and, later, syndicated in alternative weeklies across the country). The Knipl strips were mournfully muted surveys of a New York where you could still feel the ghostly presence of the older city described by Mitchell in the 1930s and 1940s.
In his new book The Cardboard Valise, Katchor pays direct tribute to Mitchell's "The Mohawks in High Steel," published in the September 17, 1949 issue of the New Yorker. In that article, Mitchell regaled readers with lore about the Caughnawaga Mohawks, "the most footloose Indians in North America," many of whom worked as riveters building skyscrapers all across the continent. The Mohawk affinity for highrise construction can be traced back to the building of a cantilever bridge across the St. Lawrence River near their Canadian reservation in 1886. Mitchell quotes a letter from an official from the Dominion Bridge Company who noted that
as the work progressed, it became apparent to all concerned that these Indians were very odd in that they did not have any fear of heights. If not watched, they would climb up into the spans and walk around up there as cool and collected as the toughest of our riveters ... These Indians were as agile as goats.
Katchor's version focuses instead on "ceiling workers." It opens with a paean to the music of shopping malls and elevators. "Today, no business can be conducted without a decent sound system," the narrator informs us, and the group whose labor makes this Muzak possible, "the men who scale these high ladders to install our modern speaker systems all come from the village of Tufarwan in North Western Slippur." An off-panel voice offers dubious anthropological explanations as to why Tufarwanians dominate this trade: "In addition to being fearless ceiling workers, they are completely deaf to the charms of western music." Like their Mohawk counterparts, the Tufarwanians are nomadic craftsmen: "Most leave their families behind and live in the company of their fellow tribesmen in short-term studio apartment sublets."
Spoofing a six-decade-old magazine article, even one as memorable as "The Mohawks in High Steel," is not something that a typical cartoonist would do, but then Katchor has never liked daw...read more