Part two of an interview with Ben Katchor. Please click here to read the first part. This interview originally appeared in Destroy All Comics #5 (1996).
Santoro: What about non-urban settings? Some of the strips from late ’95 that are running now in early ’96 take place outside the city.
Katchor: I’m curious about smaller towns. I’ve spent some time upstate [New York].
The city is a strange magnet for everyone outside of it and that’s what I usually talk about.
Santoro: I don’t necessarily see your work in just an urban setting.
Katchor: I’ve done strips that take place on the periphery of the city. But, I’ve always lived in a city and that’s usually what I tend to use in my strips.
Santoro: Did you grow up in New York?
Katchor: Yeah, in Brooklyn. So, it’s more or less what I know. I’ve done strips set in other locales, but they would always have something to do with what I know.
Santoro: I get that from your strip. It’s one of the only “real” depictions of New York. The New York that you depict is one, I think, that actually exists…and I think there’s a sense of modern tragedy that comes through…
Santoro: Silence! Ha!
Katchor: Well, yeah. Always I like to have both comedy and tragedy in my strips. And the sort of thin line dividing them should always be apparent.
Santoro: Does it bother you that some people like the humorous angle too much?
Katchor: No. They’re both there.
Santoro: I only ask this because your books are in the Humor section in bookstores.
Katchor: Well, that’s where they put the comics. But no, there’s clearly a humorous angle to it. It’s just fairly dark humor.
Santoro: I’d like to ask you a little bit about your process, if you wouldn’t mind. Sometimes I get the idea when I read a strip of yours that … it’s so effortless and so casual that it might be done “first take.”
Katchor: I write them first. Well, I guess there are early ones that were written pretty effortlessly … and I draw directly in ink so…
Santoro: I thought that.
Katchor: They shouldn’t look too labored. They should look as quickly done as possible.
Santoro: That’s what I mean… They’re so conversational.
Katchor: Well, I spend a lot of time with the writing… Since I draw directly, you’re only seeing the last layer of ink. You’re not seeing what I whited out. The final layer that you see only took a few minutes to draw. When the strip started running larger in the [Village] Voice, the strip became a little more dense. And that’s the only difference, I think. The drawing became more… I just began to put more things in, I don’t know. I don’t know where the strip is going but … it’s still going.
Santoro: I must say I’m enjoying the way the strips — the way it’s going, it’s getting … kind of growing exponentially.
Santoro: Sometimes Mr. Knipl will drop out of the strip. Or he’ll be such a casual observer. One of the recent ones I remember was The Kapish Restaurant.
Katchor: Yeah, that’s also a radio show, The Double-Talk Artist.
Santoro: Do you find yourself writing for the radio show … meaning, you’re drawing a strip and thinking…
Katchor: Thinking that it’ll be used for—
Santoro: —the radio?
Katchor: No, I just try and get a decent strip out and some of them work on the radio. “Work” meaning they are possible to translate. Others are not. No … if I thought too much about it … I’d go mad.
Katchor: I just think of getting the strip done.
Santoro: Right. Do you have any thoughts about doing a long story?
Katchor: Well, there’s a long story at the end of Cheap Novelties.
Santoro: Sure, I know, but a long story not necessarily of Mr. Knipl?
Katchor: Oh, other than? I don’t know if that’s best for me.
Santoro: Really? Because when I read that Picture Story–
Katchor: The long story?
Santoro: Yah, it was like 23 or 25 pages and—
Katchor: I don’t know if people have the patience to read those stories. I think they can barely read eight panels…
Santoro: Oh, you’re crazy.
Katchor: I don’t want to… I mean, I’m aware of making this accessible.
Santoro: Would you consider doing it if someone approached you and said—
Katchor: I can do it anytime. I mean, I’m working on a another story, the length of the one in Cheap Novelties, for the next collection.
Santoro: Of Knipl strips?
Katchor: Yeah, the long story is a Knipl story. But… I don’t know if that is the power of the form. People sort of take them in bite-sized pieces, and when you get longer strips I think it’s overwhelming.
Santoro: No, I totally know what you’re saying—
Katchor: For readers.
Santoro: Sure, sure.
Katchor: It’s like making a five-hour movie. You can do it and it can be a successful movie but no one will want to sit through it. So, it builds in other ways. A weekly strip builds over time. It doesn’t build as a… (pauses)
Santoro: I feel like in some sense the strip is one long narrative.
Katchor: Yeah, that thing I did, The Jew of New York, is 52 pages long. But each of them could be read as a weekly story. And you could almost read them independently of each other in a strange way. So it’s definitely something to consider. What the reader can endure, and what the form is… I mean, it’s a pretty dense form. It’s not like a hundred page novel. A hundred-page novel is not like a hundred-page comic strip. There’s a certain power… You can set up a lot in a few panels. Not just the page count, but in content as well.
Santoro: So how do you feel about Cheap Novelties as—
Katchor: Well, it’s a collection. You can read it a page at a time and put it down. People who read comics, who are obsessed with the actual form, can plow through a hundred page comic novel. But I don’t know if that’s the ideal form for comics. I just know what people read, and what people can assimilate and respond to… (pause) So I’m pretty conscious of that. Whether there is a place for these to appear and how people can take them in.
Santoro: Right. I think a lot of people doing comics these days are wondering just that.
Katchor: There are other ways to lure people into your strip world. These weekly strips seem fairly painless to people. If a strip of that density went on for two pages — they’d be lost. I think that’s all part of the medium. How much your audience can take in. Most people are not obsessed with comics.
Katchor: There’s a small audience of people who are. Other people want it as … it’s a very peripheral thing in their lives. If they see one that they like, that’s enough for them. I mean I tried to publish a comic magazine, and I realized that it’s probably not the way to get people to read comics. It’s better implanted in other kinds of magazines. People will read it because it’s in another context they like. Y’know, people who are interested in the World Wide Web will come across my strip in Virtual City magazine and read it, but never look at Cheap Novelties in a bookstore.
Santoro: How do you feel about strips on the Internet?
Katchor: It seems like a good idea. You don’t have to warehouse all that paper.
Santoro: (laughs) Personally, it bothers me.
Katchor: What? That it’s not on paper?
Katchor: Yeah, I can’t believe that an audience would accept such an intangible medium. But then movies and TV are all just—
Santoro: Dots on a screen.
Katchor: Just pixels, dots and bits of light, so y’know, I could see … I mean, I knew alot of these weeklies who used to depend on the low price of newsprint are now in trouble because the price of newsprint has quadrupled or something. They’ve all tried to figure it out, I’m sure. How to set up some part of their paper on an online service. Y’know, these things [computers] are in everyone’s home. It’ll probably be a viable medium.Santoro: I look forward to the day you can print out a-
Katchor: A good hard copy? Yeah, the thing is… on a very good monitor, a good scan of my strip looks better than it does in any newspaper. It looks like this perfect transparency of the artwork, a perfect slide of the artwork.
Santoro: Well, that sounds good, I just—
Katchor: It’s all relative. It’s all dependent on the end user’s monitor. It’s all there.
99% of [the Internet] is like everything else in the culture … garbage. But it’s just a medium, some good things will be on it, that’s all. Spending hours looking around on this thing … you sort of hit on these little nooks and crannies of people who have things that are of interest, but that’s a tiny portion of it. But that’s how you find things in the real world. On TV or in the movies, you have to find it. Most of it is just advertising.
Santoro: I think that’s what my fear is, that like TV, it’ll just become an advertising medium.
Katchor: Well, like TV, it’ll have sponsors. But, y’know, someone sponsors these newspapers I’m in. A lot of the advertisers are indirectly paying my salary. So it’s all advertising driven anyway.
Santoro: Well, it’s part of the culture, like you said.
Katchor: On the web, at the moment, you don’t have to deal with these distributors of print. Which is not a very pleasant experience. The idea that it’s a direct conduit from one person’s scanner to another person’s monitor is not a bad idea. I mean the paper thing is gone. There could always be a paper version of it, a collection, a book you want to hold in your hand. It’s definitely a different experience. So, I mean, it works as a medium of distribution of information. It does work. The thing is, who’s gonna pay for it, who’s gonna be on it.
Santoro: Everyone’s a star.
Katchor: Yeah, that’s strange. Those personal home web pages … but we grew up with fanzines. Comic fanzines were not much different. Although there was always more to them. These web pages are pretty thin in terms of content.
Katchor: I just don’t think people want to be publishers and most people don’t want to do this. People will get sick of it, and some people will go into web publishing and hopefully do something good. Y’know, these things have been around. Fanzines have been around. Hopefully it’ll all shake down to something usable.
Santoro: It would definitely help distribution.
Katchor: It’s no solution. It’s still much too slow. It’s in its technological infancy. The key to it is what we can use.
Santoro: I have one last question. For some reason, I think you might have been influenced by Steve Ditko’s work.
Katchor: Oh yeah, he was … probably as a kid, my favorite.
Santoro: It’s something I couldn’t describe—
Katchor: Well, how to build a figure. How to conceptualize figures, a great sense of place in each panel. A unique style…
Santoro: Okay, well, is there anything you’d like to add or address?
Katchor: No. It’s all in the strips.
Santoro: Well, thank you. I hope this wasn’t—
Katchor: Very painless, no…