APRIL 19, 2013
BEN KATCHOR’S CHRONICLES OF URBAN LIFE have always found a comfortable fraternity in their antecedents. As an artist whose work often richly portrays overlooked and obscure aspects of New York City, he’s been more frequently compared to writers of the early 20th century like Joseph Mitchell than he has to any of his contemporaries, and it’s easy to see why. Katchor’s flagship character, Julius Knipl, was a man besieged and motivated by his memories of vanished and vanishing things, and seemed more at home in the disappearing Gotham of dairy cafeterias and Mitchell’s eccentrics than, say, in the trendy boutiques of the West Village or the Times Square Olive Garden. Katchor’s readers loved Knipl for this; Michael Stipe referred to the 1991 collection Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay as “an antidote to the homogenizing, antiseptic slickness of recent decades,” and certainly, much of Katchor’s work seems to be that of a preservationist. Enmeshed in the lonely narratives of Julius Knipl, himself a relic, Katchor captures fleeting glimpses of New York’s vanishing thumbprints and wonders aloud at the effacements and improvements to come.
What ultimately sets Katchor’s work apart from other chroniclers of the city is his skill with verisimilitude. Although I’ve never heard Katchor’s work described as “historical fiction,” its insistent attention to detail has, at times, confused those who believed they were reading straight history. As a result, Katchor has dealt with reactions similar to the complaints and confusion that Drew Friedman endures as a result of his illustrated showbiz “histories.” Perhaps this suggests that illustrated work attract readers less accustomed to the vagaries of creative nonfiction, or maybe it’s just that the rules aren’t clear yet.
Whatever the reason, Katchor’s The Jew of New York, which touches on the story of the (actual) 19th-century proto-Zionist Mordecai Noah, drew the ire of the American Jewish historian Morris U. Schappes over Katchor’s fudging certain specific facts about Noah and 1830s New York. This objection, Katchor felt, was beside the point. “I didn’t know anything about [Noah], which is why I did the strip,” he told Lawrence Weschler in a 1993 New Yorker profile. “Knipl is everything I know; The Jew of New York is everything I don’t know.” Brandishing his artistic license for inspection, he claimed: “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.”
Julius Knipl, based in a familiar if stylized 20th-century New York, employed a much more personal, subjective tone, but the effect is quite similar. Now collected in the volumes Cheap Novelties, Real Estate Photographer: Stories, and The Beauty Supply District, the Knipl strips shadow the eponymous observer as he follows expired, wall-painted advertisements toward dead ends, and, while eating alone, ponders the genesis of the city’s high-volume coffee. As a protagonist, he has recollections that often tether him to irrational impulses. In Cheap Novelties, Knipl, fighting thirst on a hot day, remembers the smell of glass bottles floating in ice water and walks several blocks out of his way for a Greptz, a disappearing off-brand soda.
We readers, prisoners of our own dietary particularities or brand loyalties, can empathize. Our takeaways from the Knipl strips are often Katchor’s pitch-perfect inventions of the recognizably outmoded and obscure. Michael Chabon borrowed a small detail for his novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay from a strip in Real Estate Photographer: Stories: a fictional soda fountain concoction called a “Vanilla Tyrol,” meant to signify a bygone age. Sheila Heti’s extemporaneous lecture series Trampoline Hall takes its name and concept from a Katchor strip in the same volume.
Katchor’s newest collection, Hand-Drying in America and Other Stories, gathers more than 14 years of similarly detailed post-Knipl work into a beautiful, full-color volume. Culled from his long-running series in Metropolis, Katchor’s stories in Hand-Drying tend to favor topics related to architecture and urban design, but the relatively specific focus couldn’t have been more fruitful. Stories from this volume have found life as celebrated musical theater productions, including A Checkroom Romance, The Slug-Bearers of Kayrol Island (or, The Friends of Dr. Rushower), and the Obie-award winning The Carbon Copy Building. In 2000, Katchor became the first cartoonist to win a MacArthur “Genius” grant, and a short documentary film on his work premiered at Sundance. The following year, an exhibition called “Ben Katchor: Picture-Stories” toured the country, with the strip “A Date in Architectural History” (reproduced on page 11 of Hand-Drying in America) on the one-sheet.
The evolution of Katchor’s work from Knipl’s spare, distant observations and conjectures is visible in Hand-Drying’s density and specificity. Katchor packs an awful lot into each frame, and with the constant shifts of setting and narrative perspective — the word a lot of critics use is “cinematic,” though the style has strong precedents in comics, notably Eisner, Caniff, and Ditko — the volume can be too intense and unwieldy to read in one sitting. “When you do a weekly strip, there’s a lot of free association going on,” Katchor told the A.V. Club in 2011:
You’re trying to avoid what you last talked about […] 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.
However elaborately rendered, this is still very much Knipl’s New York, rife with vibrant individuals like bulletproof-glass enthusiast Pinchas Jamon and drinking fountain nostalgic Rudy Charmelle. Together, the stories in Hand-Drying form an almanac of urban mysteries, containing the answers to the whys of countless children and redeeming reckless moments spent peering into passing homes from a bus or train window. “Our knowledge of domestic interiors of a city is limited to the homes of a small circle of friends, acquaintances, and relations,” Katchor writes in “Open House Season.” “We are born, visit a narrow range of apartments, and then die in relative ignorance of how life was lived in our own time.”
Fifteen years ago, in Real Estate Photographer, Katchor’s visionary architect Selladore (who makes a brief appearance in Hand-Drying) sought to remedy our relative ignorance through the construction of a utopian community called “Carfare City.” The central conceit was apartment complexes connected by public train lines, where “all seats are window seats,” with stops within actual living quarters. “The living conditions of each resident can be seen by anyone who cares to look,” Selladore exclaims. “The mysteries of private life become the details of a passing landscape.” As illuminating as life in Carfare City may be, the world of Hand-Drying requires no such technological intermediaries. Through 161 pages often devoted to the interior mysteries of its characters’ private desires and motivations, Katchor’s glimpses of contemporary urban life become, naturally, his greatest sources of pathos and heart. In “Maharajah Tower,” he sympathetically explores the collateral damage of urban evolution when an elderly man named Mr. Perch, having been psychologically and physically punished by new construction across the street from his apartment that threatens to wipe out the city of his memories, finally admits defeat. “Perhaps our children, or grandchildren, will be able to approach these structures free of prejudice,” Mr. Perch says. “But those of us who suffered for nine months in the proximity of a construction site will never forget. These new buildings are not for us to use or enjoy.”
Juxtaposed with the tale of Mr. Perch are stories of the forces working against him, impulsively changing the city he remembers, accompanying the reader into a world where a corporation charges passersby a small fee to simply view their building, and once-great scenic views are attenuated by window décor. Many of the strips in Hand-Drying explore the imagined genesis of public fixtures, as in “American Coin Wash, Inc.,” where Katchor suggests that all public wishing-well fountains are operated by a for-profit national coin-cleaning franchise that has duped adults to “succumb to its pagan charm.”
Here we might remember that Katchor was raised by a one-time communist landlord, yet while his work sometimes comments obliquely on class and politics, he is too strong and imaginative a writer to set up straw men. Throughout Hand-Drying, he is quick to point out our own familiar complicity in these often unnecessary and extreme urban changes that wreak great havoc or inconvenience on the elderly or disadvantaged. A strip called “On The Level,” about a couple on their wedding anniversary seated at a shaky restaurant table, portrays the couple choosing a course of action that eventually sinks the restaurant into the ocean. In “The Miniature Trash Can,” one man’s understandable reaction to uselessly small hotel trash bins results in punishments seen and unseen, hastening the future his actions intend to delay.
Katchor’s characters in Hand-Drying, with their passions, postulations, and crackpot motives, aren’t merely urban anthropologists: they’re cosmonauts of wonder and desire, plumbing the tedious and humdrum for meaning, and awakening readers to the hidden stories that have been under their feet all along. Katchor’s New York may be alienating to some of its inhabitants, but Hand-Drying in America is a world for all of us to enjoy.