Ben Katchor Interview pt. 1
Saturday, August 22, 2009
Santoro: I’d like to talk a little about those Picture Story magazines you put out…
Katchor: There were only two issues…
Santoro: I’ve noticed in a lot of your strips sometimes the setting is almost the main character. The story in Picture Story #2, The Printer’s Disease is a good example. You have about 4 or 5 main characters but really the main character, the printer, is just an observer in some ways.
Katchor: Yeah, I try to set up these believable little environments in a strip like that. I sort of remember: there was a printer’s storefront and across the street is…
Santoro: The restaurant…
Katchor: Right. The restaurant, and I think on the other corner is this candy factory…
Santoro: Where the printer’s girlfriend works…
Katchor: It’s a pretty tight little stage set where this can all take place. Because one of the things you can do with drawing is you can show these spatial relationships. And if you get too diffuse and things flying all over the place, you’re really not taking advantage of that power.
Santoro: How do you feel about the different media you employ? Right now, you’ve got a weekly strip in many national newspapers, and you’ve begun doing short radio segments for NPR based on your Julius Knipl strips.
Katchor: Well, there are things you can do in comics, I suppose, that you can’t do in these other forms, and vice versa. So hopefully you should be doing what you’re supposed to be doing in each medium. There are things that you don’t … I guess you could draw certain kinds of textures and certain ephemeral light effects, but in a way then you are sort of approaching the power of photography. The picture that would result would be very … well, at least not the kind of picture I would want to make by drawing. Drawing is a more, y’know, shorthand reference to how things look. There are certain limitations, but I guess they’re more imposed by my taste. You could draw anything … I suppose. But it wouldn’t…
Santoro: Well then, how do you feel about that shorthand when you’re dealing with sound?
Katchor: You have to actually decide what things sound like … literally, in a concrete way. All sorts of things, all sorts of choices to make. There are things you don’t even think about. You sort of think you know what these things sound like … but they’re all really your voice, the narrator’s voice. It’s not that specific.
Santoro: I guess the character Julius Knipl functions in a similar fashion … like the printer in The Printer’s Disease … as an observer, a narrator. Another story I wanted to ask you about … one that I’d never seen until recently is Union Square Demonstration.
Katchor: Yeah, that’s an old strip done for a British magazine called Escape.
Santoro: It’s wonderful. It’s only about 6 or 8 pages, and once again the setting plays an integral part of the story.
Katchor: Yeah, that’s an unusual strip in that it’s set in a place that actually exists. There used to be a lot of blood banks just south of Union Square. It’s all gone now, but for some reason, I don’t know why, Broadway and 4th Avenue had this cluster of blood banks. I don’t know why there, but that’s where they were. Sort of off the street you could walk in and sell your blood.
Santoro: And the story was about a man whose basement was situated on a curve of an otherwise straight subway line. The man spends his time selling blood, selling his possessions and spending all day in the park. You write: “The idea that all this public activity revolved around his private life was a grandiose and sad one.” That’s beautiful.
Katchor: Yeah … well, I remember that one.
Santoro: When I read one of your stories that’s six to ten pages in length … I feel you have a little more room to create that believable setting you were talking about. I get the same feeling with the strips, but … the sense of place, the believable setting that comes across in the longer stories…
Katchor: Well, hopefully with all the weekly strips it does that by accumulation. I think if you show someone one strip, they might not get it. And some people only understand it when they see it in book form. They read eighty of them in one sitting.
Katchor: And some people never get it.
Santoro: Y’know, that story The Printer’s Disease, for me, it was the first story of yours that I had ever read. I had seen your strips here and there, but that story really knocked me on my ass. I felt as if I was given a key of some sort to look at your work in a different way. Then I approached the strips and they really began to sing.
Katchor: Yeah, I don’t know. All I know is that 90% of the people who contact me are not comic readers. They say, “I don’t know anything about comics, but I like your strip.” So, I don’t know what it is … I mean as a child, I was a comics reader. So I don’t know what that is, why that is. I don’t know if it doesn’t appeal to people who read comics, I just know it’s a demographic fact.
Santoro: I wanted to ask you about that. With the different media you employ, the potentiality of tens of thousands of people picking up the weekly paper on the day it comes out across the country, or the radio show, for example … that’s such a diverse audience compared to the handful of people who’ll pull Cheap Novelties off the shelf … whether it’s a big chain bookstore or a small comic book shop…
Katchor: I know more people, if you do a weekly comic strip, look at your work than they’ll look at drawings of Picasso just because it’s there every week. A week can go by and you don’t go to a museum or look at an art book, they sit on the shelf unopened. But a weekly comic strip becomes part of your life. You see it every week and if you want to read it … it’s the kind of exposure that I think very few other drawing mediums get.
Santoro: I must admit, I clip your strip every week, but I like to include the ads and announcements that surround it.
Katchor: I have that dilemma. I used to save my printed strips, but I would save the whole paper because I thought this would be of no interest to me to look back at just the clipped strip. I wanted to see the context it was in that year, that month, in some city. And then it became completely out of hand.
Santoro: (laughs) I can imagine.
Katchor: At this point I no longer save them…
Katchor: I can’t. I have this enormous pile of newspapers. There are like 400 strips so far…
Santoro: When the strips are freshly printed, the tones are really dark … then they yellow and age, and the tones become a little more subdued and the strip takes on a different feel when I’m looking at them as yellow and brittle pieces of paper. I have one from ’93, The In Eradicator.
Katchor: There’s a radio version of that strip.
Santoro: That would make sense. It would translate well…
Katchor: Yeah, it’s hard to know which ones would work.
Santoro: Well, one of the strips that sums up your work, for me anyhow, is #35 in Cheap Novelties which begins: “A phone booth’s location exerts a subtle influence on the person using it.” That’s sheer poetry! Your writing stands on it’s own so well … I have to ask you if you’ve written any prose or poetry…
Katchor: Well, not too much. I write in a way that works with pictures. I don’t know if it would stand up without the pictures. I think you’re seeing it alongside this world that’s evoked by the pictures.
Santoro: It’s not that it could stand alone, but that the wording is such that I don’t see it anywhere else in comics. Chris Ware told me that he wishes he could match the density of your wording…
Katchor: Well, I only have to write a few sentences. Since I only have to write that much every week, I can put a lot of time into it. The radio has pretty much reduced it to words and sound effects, but I think the words then take on more weight than in a comic strip, because you’re only hearing this narrator’s voice.
Katchor: I think they work, but they — the producers — went with the more humorous part of the strip, which is … you know, definitely there. It holds together. And I have to write a lot more dialogue because there are always things going on in the background that have to be filled out. In a comic strip you can have someone saying a fragment of a sentence. But when you actually have to put this in the mix, you have to include what comes before it and what comes after it. Maybe that one moment will be focused, put into auditory focus, but you have to write up to it and write out of it. I write ten times as much dialogue. You don’t always hear it, and a lot of it doesn’t end up being used, but I remember really filling out long stretches of dialogue.
Within the panels it reads: In the darkest night, where there is no light/ Put 'er there my friend, put 'er there old stranger/ Little hand from nowhere, little hand of time.]
Santoro: Are you still working on those right now?
Katchor: They are just about to end the ones that have been taped. There’s another batch in the works.
Santoro: How many are there?
Katchor: So far there are fourteen episodes.
Santoro: Really? The ad said it would run for fifty-two weeks? Do they play the same ones over again?
Katchor: They run once a month so it’s hard to catch.
Santoro: The one time I was able to find it, my radio died as soon as it began!
Katchor: (laughs) Once in awhile they play them on this show, The Best of NPR. But it’s a short segment, so it’s easily missed.
Santoro: Do you think there will ever be a collection of those?
Katchor: Oh yeah, I think they would definitely have to be heard over again. They go by so fast to really get them. There just aren’t enough yet … another half hour of material is needed before there can be a collection.
Santoro: I wanted to ask you some miscellaneous things. Is it true you did a Yiddish strip?
Katchor: No. I once did a strip for The Forward for a year called The Jew of New York.
Santoro: Oh really?
Katchor: But in English … it’s not a Yiddish strip. It’s a fifty-two-week story. I’m in the English edition of The Forward. There is still a Yiddish edition.
Santoro: Those strips wouldn’t see the light of day, would they?
Katchor: Well, maybe. It was a historical epic set in the 1830s, in New York City. Pretty elaborate. [The Jew of New York was collected and published in 1998]
Santoro: Did you do a lot of research?
Katchor: More for atmosphere than historical facts. I looked at a lot of period imagery. Paintings, posters, and newspapers.
Santoro: I know this might sound strange, but your strips remind me of Vladimir Nabokov.
Katchor: He’s one of my favorite writers … definitely a great influence.
Santoro: It’s the images that are evoked…
Katchor: …as much as it is the “city” of imagery, that kind of imagery … some of his stories do take place in cities like Berlin. His writing has a wonderfully rich texture, with images, sounds and words in perfect poetic tune.
Santoro: The word “lyrical” comes to mind.
Katchor: There’s a point in one of his novels, and I forget which one it is … where a man plans his own murder. What novel is that? But the narrator is describing someone who … he’s discovered someone sleeping on the grass and he realizes that this man is an exact double, a physical double of himself. And the narrator says that there are these moments in prose when you wish you could have a picture that would explain the situation better. I think, well, I know he drew mainly just for scientific illustration, but he could draw, and maybe if things had worked out differently he would have left some kind of picture things behind. But he didn’t. I know he did an elaborate screenplay for the Lolita film. I don’t know how much of it was used. I think it was all re-written.
[End of part one. Click here for part two.]
Labels: Ben Katchor