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 dawdling down familiar pathways. He’s a brilliant artist but also a baffling one, supreme in his idiosyncratic creation of a baroquely dense fictional universe that has its own internal coherence while fitfully mirroring, in a fudged and misshapen way, the consensual reality we inhabit. As you read a Katchor strip, it is hard to ignore the tone of droll burlesque while being unsure about what, exactly, is being made fun of. This makes reading his work a heady experience, at times even surreal or psychedelic, since his strips induce a pleasant mental buzz even as they unmoor us from reality.
While respectfully evoking forebears like Mitchell and Liebling, Katchor abandons their romantic modernism for a more skeptical post-millennial perspective. Throughout The Cardboard Valise, Katchor questions the idea of authenticity, be it ethnic, geographic, or historical. In many of the strips, tourists head to far-off fictive lands like the Tensint Islands (home of “the famous restroom ruins”) in the hopes of making a tangible connection to the vanishing remnants of the historical and natural past. Katchor clearly sympathizes with their yen for the good old days, but raises doubts about whether, in our globalized world, it’s still possible to make sharp distinctions between the past and the present, local and the international, the natural and the technological, or the primitive and the modern. In one strip Elijah Salamis — a typically eloquent Katchorian obsessive — rants against a concert devoted to the folk music of Pelagia. “But it’s all a sham,” Salamis laments. “These out-of-work restaurant musicians may have had the poor fortune of being born on Pelagia Island, but grew up listening to rock-and-roll, eating imported goods and watching satellite TV. They’ve heard some old 78s, looked over a few 19th-century travel books, and cooked up a saleable semblance of Pelagian culture.” The strip ends with the sly Salamis, camera in hand, ready to expose the pretend-Pelagians as they enjoy an after-show snack at a local club.
The younger Katchor of the Julius Knipl strips was even more of a nostalgist, albeit more wistful and wry than schmaltzy. The nostalgic instinct, of course, runs strong in alternative cartoonists; it can be observed in everything from Robert Crumb’s collection of old blues records to Art Spiegelman’s loving tributes to precursors such as George Herriman and Harold Gray to Chris Ware’s celebrations of the architecture of Louis Sullivan. In his introduction to Katchor’s 1996 volume Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer: Stories, the novelist Michael Chabon astutely noted that the nostalgic impulse was being subverted by a plethora of knock-offs: “The mass synthesis, marketing, and distribution of versions and simulacra of an artificial past, perfected over the last thirty years or so, has ruined the reputation and driven a fatal stake through the heart of nostalgia,” Chabon argued.
Chabon’s observation helps explain the shift in the late Katchor’s work from the sensual indulgence of nostalgia in the early Knipl stories to the strenuous interrogation of false authenticity that permeates The Cardboard Valise. Hitherto, Katchor had not been an especially political artist. As the cartoonist once noted, his father, “a Communist Yiddishist from Warsaw, was so political that he used up all the space for politics in the family.” While The Cardboard Valise is hardly a polemical work, it is informed by a powerful anxiety about the relationship between the local and global, and Katchor, although still not straightforwardly a political artist, is a very civic-minded creator, and in quite literal sense: he’s obsessed with the fates of public spaces, be they restrooms, restaurants or trains.
In the end, all these abstractions — nostalgia, authenticity, politics, civic-mindedness — only have meaning and force because Katchor embodies them in pleasing cartoon forms. He remains the master of the ineffable, an artist who can bring to life ideas and experiences that exist at the sub-atomic level of consciousness. The sensibility of a Katchor strip is as hard to pin down as a quark or one of the hypothetical constructs of string theory. Who else but he could give us a convincing tirade against fortune cookies? (“You can get away with anything if you print it on a little slip of paper and then stuff it inside of a cookie! No one has the guts to say they’re all lies — barefaced lies! Nice way to end a meal!”) Elsewhere, Katchor plausibly theorizes that shower curtains are evidence of “the embryonic formation of a true world culture.”
Along with Krazy Kat’s George Herriman, Katchor is the only cartoonist whose language achieves the pitch of high artifice that deserves the name of poetry. As with Herriman, you have to read Katchor’s strips slowly, savoring every word and also that constant layered interplay between the art and text. And like Herriman, Katchor is emphatically not a graphic novelist: his strips shouldn’t be read from beginning to end as a continuous narrative, but rather in small doses of about four or five pages a time. You can overdose on Katchor’s richness if you don’t pace your reading.
Charmingly ungainly and obeying their own laws of perspective and lighting, Katchor’s drawings are a perfect counterpart to his words: both the language and the art are stupefyingly off-kilter. Gravity seems denser in Katchor’s world than in ours. How else to explain how low to the ground his people are, as if tugged ever downward? Katchor eschews the bluntness of conventional cartooning line drawings, achieving instead a murky, smudging effect by drowning his figures in a delicate gray wash. To appreciate his drawings you have to linger over them and suss out how they are linked to the words.
The Cardboard Valise is a worthy addition to Katchor’s already distinguished oeuvre, but it’s also a sign of an accomplished artist deepening and developing his core themes. Katchor-watchers should enjoy the book not just for its unique pleasures but also for evidence of the unexpected new direction in which a familiar artist appears to be heading. Like a Mohawk on a girder or a Tufarwanian on a ladder, his sense of balance never fails; he was born for this.