Robert Fulford's column about Ben Katchor

(The National Post, August 29, 2000)

The story goes that the baby boom hit its climax one day in the summer of 1947 when prosperity and the release of repressed sexual desire produced a sudden rash of pregnancies. They were triggered by the simultaneous arrival of a new French perfume, Donnez-Moi, and the appearance of an exceptionally torrid movie. Nine months later, maternity wards were overwhelmed. In the United States, 250,000 children were born in one week. This led to shortages in baby foods and toys. The result was psychological catastrophe, a massive formation of unfulfilled desires. Twenty years later, grown children were seen making a fuss in concert halls and restaurants, demanding their rights. Ben Katchor, the social historian, has justly remarked: "It was the beginning of a temper tantrum that's with us to this day."

Well, in truth, Katchor isn't precisely a social historian, he's a storytelling cartoonist, and that baby-boom episode is one of many flights of the imagination in his splendid new book, Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer: The Beauty Supply District (Pantheon Books, 108 pages, $33.50). In Katchor's stories, the truth is poetically rearranged. His world is much like the one we know, but with every detail twisted or inverted. He turns our mildly ridiculous cities into places that are gloriously, ecstatically preposterous. Everything he does has the precise logic of a dream.

In the first two pages of the book, we tour the sights on Ornamental Avenue: the Tomb of the Lonely Man, the Municipal Laxative Garden, the Museum of Insect Art and a monument to the inventor of the pickled herring. There's also a place called Arterial Hall, described as "a legitimate surgical theatre." The ordinary term "surgical theatre" has suggested to Katchor the possibility of surgery as a performing art -- an example of how he plays with language. Later we meet an accountant who reads Moving Man Monthly for entertainment and excitement. We visit the Cemetery of the Expired Coupon Redeemer and discover "semi-professional competitive grave digging" in process. A champion named Gollichek does the six-foot freestyle in 29 minutes. A spectator explains why he loves it: "The smell, the fresh air, the inevitability -- it's like no other sport."

The creator of all this, Ben Katchor, was a red-diaper baby, the son of a Yiddish-speaking communist from Warsaw who ran a combination chicken farm and communist resort hotel at Saratoga, N.Y., and later became a small-scale landlord in New York. Ben was born in 1951, and as he grew up he watched his father's secular Yiddish culture slowly dying. This had a lasting effect: In Katchor, nostalgia is never far offstage. He doesn't express his father's Marxist ideas, but it's clear that he inherited an outsider's perspective: "My father and his friends looked at the city as though they were tourists from some more rational world" -- incidentally, a brilliant, brief summary of radical attitudes. The father's distanced view of his surroundings may have led to what eventually became the son's most striking characteristic -- his eagerness to re-imagine what the rest of us accept as both normal and unavoidable.

After art school, Katchor spent years working in a typesetting firm, drawing comics in his spare time. His regular strip began in the New York Press in 1988, switched to the Village Voice in 1994 and briefly sank from sight in 1995 when the Voice editor cancelled it.

When that happened, Katchor demonstrated both his determination and his special way of thinking. Denied publication, he went straight to his readers by posting his strips at a Papaya King hot-dog restaurant on 86th Street. He designed a two-sided box so that people could read his strip either from the sidewalk or from inside; there was a neon tube for night reading. This seems to have been one of Katchor's happiest periods. As he said later: "It was an incredibly romantic thing to do. I was overwhelmed with the romance of having to be delivery man of strips to this box. I'd wash it down every week." Soon the New York Forward provided a new home for his strip, and today it runs in a dozen U.S. newspapers and on His status in American culture was confirmed last month when the MacArthur Foundation gave him one of its US$500,000 genius grants.

Julius Knipl, the main character in many of his strips and two books, moves around the city on business, taking pictures of buildings. The characters he meets, almost all of them men (women and children are rarely mentioned) wander the streets at night and sit in cafeterias, discussing business opportunities. They tend to be low-rent entrepreneurs, chronic failures who remain in the game nevertheless, always ready for a new idea that will prove what they believe is their inherent shrewdness.

Katchor loves unsuccessful commerce and hopeless visionaries. In his last book, The Jew of New York, a graphic novella set in the 19th century, one character decides to found a Jewish city called Ararat on Grand Island, near Buffalo, and another promotes a plan to carbonate Lake Erie and pipe the water to New York to satisfy the city's seltzer needs. (The Grand Island scheme is in fact part of true history; the carbonated Lake Erie is Katchor's invention.)

His strips are so dense with detail and so rich in nuance that I usually read each one twice. Then I often go over it a third time to enjoy the drawing. I've grown to love his style, with its dark washes, omnipresent shadows and uniformly square-headed men. There's something wonderfully uncertain about it, as if Katchor wanted to share in the anxieties of his characters.

The Beauty Supply District mentioned in the title is not, as you might guess, a place to buy skin cream. It's the part of town where artists and designers purchase artistic ideas, retail or wholesale. There you find the Sensum Symmetry Shop, a joint called Artistic Juxtaposition, the Transcendental Idealism shop, and a store named Paradigm Shifts. But these fine old shops, quality suppliers to the brilliant for generations, are being overrun by cheap little fly-by-night outfits with trendy names like Meaning and Context. In Katchor's world, everything is fading away, even -- perhaps especially -- the bizarre milieu that Katchor himself has invented.

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