Posts Tagged ‘Ben Katchor’

Farber on Comics


Thursday, April 29, 2010

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Farber's painting "Domestic Movies"

When Ben Katchor was in  Toronto last week, one of the many interesting things he mentioned is that while reading the new anthology Farber on Film: The Complete Film writings of Manny Farber, he had been struck by how frequently the great movie critic made reference to comics.

As I noted before, Manny Farber had many ties to comics, going back before he could even read. Richard Thompson once opened an interview with Farber with the following anecdote: “In one of his baby pictures, Manny Farber has the costume and the face of The Yellow Kid; as he explained, ‘Our parents used to dress us in costumes from all the comic strips.’” In 1944 and 1951 Farber wrote two brief but extremely perceptive essays on comics (which can be found in a volume Kent Worcester and I co-edited called Arguing Comics). In these essays Farber was among the earlier writers to appreciate Harry Tuthill, Ernie Bushmiller and Stan MacGovern. Farber woud go on to be an early champion of the Warner Bros. cartoons. He also served as an important inspiration to Donald Phelps, whose quirkily written and deeply perceptive essays are among the greatest body of comics criticism we have. And as a painter, Farber incorporated comic strip elements in his work.


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Jews and American Comics from Another Angle


Friday, April 16, 2010

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A great deal of ink has been spilled in recent years on the subject of Jews and comics: Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Paul Buhle’s Jews and American Comics, along with many other books and articles.

Anyone interested in the topic who is Toronto will want to attend the Toronto Jewish Film Festival next week, which has a special program on Jews and comics. Among the guests who will speak are Ben Katchor, Harvey Pekar, and Paul Buhle (who is that rarest of things, a goyim who is fluent in Yiddish).  

Here is a new angle on the subject: I think writers have been too quick to assume that the Jewish immigrant community, which was very divided on ethnic and class lines, was monolithic.

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France Tour Diary 2


Thursday, February 11, 2010

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-I started thinking about how mainstream something like punk-as-fuck Nate Powell’s book could be in France. It was a surreal scene when Dash and I finally made our way down to the “mainstream” tent (Casterman. Dargaud, etc.) and in this high-ceiling circus to find Nate’s book displayed like a mainstream jewel. Kind of awesome. Seriously.

Kaz Strzepek is a really interesting guy. Having completed two long installments of his serial Mourning Star, he’s sort of an an anomaly in the North American alt scene where the tendency is to produce 40 pages of fractured short stories every other year. He’s more like a French cartoonist in that he produces long adventure narratives. The subject matter and his drawing style kind of fit in to the Trondheim Dungeon school. So it makes sense that he’d be popular in France. He was pretty busy signing throughout the festival.

-Serge Ewenczyk, our publisher in France, really took care of us. He explained that it helped to sell books because we were there to do signings and meet the fans. He doesn’t publish any French artists so he’s carving out an interesting niche for himself in the big picture over there. Serge is publishing an anthology of American Splendor hits. Just think if Harvey Pekar would have made it to the festival this year? It would have been like being in a comic-book movie.

-Peter Kuper has amazing stories and has sort of seen it all. Peter’s been a hero of mine since the mid-’80s when I discovered World War 3. A total class act, Peter is the consummate pro who’s been to Angoulême like 7 times. So, sitting next to him discussing politics or Howard Chaykin was constantly entertaining. Also, did you know that his first comics job was inking Richie Rich?

-Dash is my brother and I love him dearly. The kid just kills it every time. Before he even arrived at the festival people of all ages were coming up to me and explaining to me how much they loved Bottomless Belly Button. Then I had to explain to them that I wasn’t Dash and that I was just sitting next to his pile of books for sale. They’d look disappointed but then happy when I told them that he’d be signing at the table Friday. So of course Friday was jammed with people lined up to get their Shaw books signed. Talk about performance art. Dash draws all over that brick of a book (Bottomless). It’s pretty cool. One time on Friday he was away from the table and a really pretty French girl came by to get a copy of his book. In a lovely accent she asked if I was Dash. I was like, “Yah, I’m Dash.” Just kidding. Okay, maybe for like a minute.

-Really awesome to see everyone from Fumetto. Das Fumetto Team, I mean. They are super excited for Dan’s big Kirby retrospective of sorts. More on that soon.

-Does anyone know the story about how Crumb’s Genesis went to auction and the prospective publishers had to write a letter and explain why they wanted to publish it? I heard one version and just want to hear someone else’s…

-Moebius booth. I could barely see him at his booth cuz there were so many people. I heard that there was a new Arzach book and was excited about buying it until I saw it. It looks like he colored it in, ah, color with Photoshop but printed it in grayscale. And there are no spreads. On the left hand page is the text of the story and on the right are comic panels. And the design of the book is awful. It was so disappointing I almost cried. It looked like a bad print-on-demand comic from a small press show. Black and white and gray. Arzach should be in color, no? I was so bummed out.

-Nice to see Mike Dawson’s friendly face. Still have never been formally introduced to Alex Robinson. They looked like they were having fun.

-Ex-Libres tent. It took me 5 minutes of looking at the word “ex-libres” to figure out it meant used books. Found some Corben hardcover albums for cheap. Dash snatched a Moebius collection that was right out of my grasp. Oof. Rain. Tons of used albums (meaning traditional BD-sized hardcover comic “albums” for all you riri’s out there) of crazy amazing adventure stories. It’s like being a kid in the 20th century in America before Spider-Man and Batman infiltrated our minds. It’s all Westerns and Sci-Fi and Adventure and Romance.

-We would sit for hours and hours drawing. Me, Kaz, Dash, and Peter. If we weren’t actually signing a book for someone, we were drawing in sketchbooks (Peter) or working on actual pages for a new book (Kaz) or just loafing about & shit talking (Me and Dash). Serge was like, “Frank, you’re a worse shit talker than Dash, haha”.

-L’Association books look weird. Sorry. Just had to say that. Communist? I mean, I get it. The mainstream BD albums are a little boring format wise after you see thousands of them. Most of L’Association’s small books look like Black Sparrow Press books, like an old Bukowski book and that’s cool, but then the interiors are usually black and white and it’s all a little too high/low for me. Row after row of same sized paperbacks with muted matte cover stocks bearing the names of bombastic auteurs. Faux grit. Forgive me for saying so, but it’s just weird. Sorry. Cornelius‘ books POP like comics should. Blutch’s Peplum book published by them is beautiful. It sizzles. To me anyways.

-Many leading American alt/art comics not as well known here. They say it’s because long stories are the way to go in France. The American tendency of short fractured narratives that comprise some sort of over-arching narratives don’t fly here. Even if those over arching narratives run into the hundreds of pages.

-I saw that Ben Katchor’s work got re-arranged when published here and it looked weird. They tried to make it more like a regular BD album. So the long wide book became a vertical album and skewed Katchor’s pacing. To me anyways. I think that’s the other thing here: They aren’t format crazy like we are in North America.

-And it was fun to just hang out at the bar every night. Met a lot of awesome people. It’s just a really pleasant atmosphere. I can understand French pretty well, so I think I had an easier time than most. But usually someone would step in and translate when we were all sitting around talking so it wasn’t too hard for the rest of the gang. (Hint to American cartoonists: just say “Enchante”—like this: “On Shawn Tay”—when you meet someone and then smile. Kaz put his foot in his mouth like every other hour trying greet a fan, haha.)

-Also fun to see some complete other culture that reads comics but without all the Marvel/DC bullshit. I mean, you’d see American mainstream comics here and there but it was like a blip on the radar. And I dunno, that’s kind of awesome. It felt very freeing.

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The Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival


Monday, November 30, 2009

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PictureBox & Desert Island Present:

The Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival

Saturday December 5th 2009: 11 AM – 7 PM
Our Lady of Consolation Church
184 Metropolitan Ave.
Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Free admission

Download the festival program here for a map and schedule.

UPDATE 12/1/09: I’m pleased to announce that Mat Brinkman will be at the PictureBox booth signing books on Saturday.

The Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival consists of 3 components in 3 nearby locations in Williamsburg, Brooklyn:

Over 50 exhibitors selling their zines, comics, books, prints and posters in a bustling market-style environment at Our Lady of Consolation Church, 184 Metropolitan Ave.
Panel discussions and lectures by prominent artists, as well as an exhibition of vintage comic book artwork at Secret Project Robot, 128 River St.
An evening of musical performances at DBA, 49 S. 2nd St.

In the cozy basement of Our Lady of Consolation Church (184 Metropolitan), exhibitors will display and sell their unique wares. Exhibitors include leading graphic book publisher Drawn & Quarterly of Montreal; famed French screenprint publisher Le Dernier Cri; artist’s book publisher Nieves of Zurich, Switzerland; Italian art book publisher Corraini; master printer David Sandlin; and tons of individual artists and publishers from Brooklyn.

Featured guests include the renowned artists Gabrielle Bell, R. O. Blechman, Pakito Bolino, Charles Burns, Anya Davidson, Kim Deitch, C.F., Carlos Gonzales, Ben Katchor, Michael Kupperman, Mark Newgarden, Gary Panter, Ron Rege Jr., Peter Saul, Dash Shaw, R. Sikoryak, Jillian Tamaki, Adrian Tomine, and Lauren Weinstein, among others.

184 Metropolitan Ave.

1:00: Jillian Tamaki, Michael Kupperman, Lauren Weinstein
2:00: Matthew Thurber, Ron Rege, Jr., C.F.
3:00: Kim Deitch, R.O. Blechman, Dash Shaw
4:00: Ben Katchor and Gary Panter
5:00: Mark Newgarden, David Sandlin, Lisa Hanawalt
6:00: Gabrielle Bell & R. Sikoryak

The commerce portion of the Festival is partnered with an active panel and lecture program nearby at Secret Project Robot, 5 minutes down the street at 128 River St. This mini symposium will run from 1 to 6 pm and is being overseen by noted comics critic Bill Kartalopolous.

Secret Project Robot
128 River St. and Metropolitan

Two generations of painters, Gary Panter and Peter Saul, will discuss their shared history, image-making, narrative, and the joys and dilemmas of making difficult work. Moderated by Dan Nadel.

Comics and animation operate very differently, yet retain deep historical and stylistic connections. R. O. Blechman, Kim Deitch, and Dash Shaw will discuss the relationship between the two forms with moderator Bill Kartalopoulos.

Ben Katchor has chronicled the pleasures of urban decay and other metropolitan phenomena in comics including Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer and The Jew of New York. Katchor will read performatively from his comics and discuss his work in this rare spotlight presentation.

Do comics need a third dimension? Lisa Hanawalt, Mark Newgarden, Ron Regé, Jr.,
and David Sandlin will consider the tension between comics’ illusionistic worlds and their status as images on a picture plane. Moderated by Bill Kartalopoulos.

In a one-of-a-kind comics drawing session, Frank Santoro will present Gabrielle Bell and R. Sikoryak with a rough page layout based on his principles of composition and design. These two artists will translate Santoro’s layout into two unique pages of comics, live, before your very eyes.

Also: An exhibition of 1950s original comic book art curated by Dan Nadel

Death by Audio
49 S. 2nd Street

Finally, at the end of the day visitors can troop over to Death by Audio at 49 S. 2nd Street, for an evening of musical performances by cartoonists, organized by Paper Route, and including performances by Kites, Ambergris, Sam Gas Can, Boogie Boarder, Nick Gazin, Graffiti Monsters, Dubbknowdubb.

The Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival

Exhibitors and Artists:
Our Lady of Consolation Church
184 Metropolitan Ave.
Williamsburg, Brooklyn
11 AM – 7 PM

Panel Discussions, Lectures & Art Exhibition:
Secret Project Robot
128 River @ corner of Metropolitan Ave.
Williamsburg, Brooklyn
1 PM – 6 PM

Musical Performances:
Death by Audio
49 S. 2nd St Between Kent & Wythe
Williamsburg, Brooklyn
9 PM onward

NOTE: See PictureBox site for our own info: new Gary Panter Jimbo mini and other goodies.

See you there!
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Ben Katchor Interview pt. 2


Saturday, August 29, 2009

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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.

Katchor: (laughs)

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.

Santoro: (laughs)

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.

Santoro: (laughs)

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?

Santoro: Yeah.

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.

Santoro: (laughs)

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…


Nabokov That Enriched Their Lives! #1


Monday, August 24, 2009

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Frank’s interview with Ben Katchor in the previous post has added another cartoonist to the roll of Nabokov-lovers:

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.

For more on the Nabokov/comics connection, see here, where Chris Ware is quoted discussing the same passage (from Lolita) that Katchor was trying to recall:

Ware: There is a segment in Lolita where Humbert Humbert is trying to describe the accumulative effect of a number of events going on in his visual field as he comes upon an accident scene in his front yard. He has to go through three or four paragraphs to describe what’s happening, and he excuses himself and the limits of his medium for its inherent lack of simultaneity. This is, of course, something you could presumably do in a comic strip, though it wouldn’t be nearly as funny.

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Ben Katchor Interview pt. 1


Saturday, August 22, 2009

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This interview appeared in Destroy All Comics #5 (1996).

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: (laughs)

Katchor: Strange.

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.

Santoro: (laughs)

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…

Santoro: No?

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.

Santoro: Right.

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.

[Above the panels it reads: By what subtle form of inculcation/ Do the words and melody of a popular song/ Enter the subconscious mind of a busy man.

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.]


Kramers Tour Diary 2 Electric Bugaloo


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

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Thurber and I drove up together from Pittsburgh. The rest of the gang was in a big van that Kevin drove like a maniac. After the stop at the diner, we drove along route 22 thru Pennsylvania and up to Altoona. Got on I-80, which winds through the Appalachians, really pretty deep focus views with snows, and drove and drove. I remember we stopped at some super small town’s sprawling grocery store, and the lot of us wandered the store looking for something or other. But that was it. No exciting road adventures. Just a jaunt to the big city.

Matthew is a great conversationalist. Good with word play. We talked a lot about wanting to do more zines. Something public that one could print cheaply, small editions of 300 or so. Selling them on a website. Collecting the good stuff later in a cheap trade or giving it away online. Who knows? Who cares! Just make work. Back to basics. Both of us had pamphlet comic books go the way of the dodo. We were brainstorming. Thurber driving. Dunkin Donuts in Stroudsburg.

I had soup with some friends on 2nd ave and the went over to Matthew’s place to crash. He and Kevin were looking through old sketchbooks and drinking beer. Kevin’s got these amazing lists and diagrams of what he’s planning for some sequences. Ideas for comic book titles, random thoughts or observations, notes to self. The usual sketchbook stuff but sharply focused and clear. A distinct voice speaking. All beautifully, economically drawn or written.

Matthew showed us some new 1-800-MICE pages. I wish I could make such remarkably funny drawings as Thurber. The characters are so real to me like Jim Woodring’s characters are real, how they inhabit a space all their own. But beyond that, Thurber’s making these slapstick Dada talkies that just cut like a Buñuel movie. They’re great scenes strung together, great comics.

Then it was Saturday morning, bright December sun and light dusting of snow. Cats on fire escapes. Brooklyn. Thurber and I got up early and headed into Manhattan. He went to work. I went to see missed friends. Kevin said something about finding a diner or somewhere to draw. The signing was at four or five. We all barely had time eat before it was time to meet the throngs of Kramers fans out there.

I wish. I guess New York is always kind of a pie in the face. Meaning I can’t help but get my hopes up for any opening or signing or whatever I have here. I always hope all my friends will come, I hope there will be new people excited about the same things I’m excited about. Y’know, ahem, the heart of Saturday night. In New York. But in New York, there are a thousand things going on the same night. You’re lucky if you can get most of your friends from different worlds in the same room.

Desert Island in Williamsburg, Brooklyn is an awesome book store. They have a couch and a cool old portable record player. Gabe Fowler, the owner is always flippin’ a fat platter. Oh, and they sell comics, and these new things called “graphic novels”, and lots other cool stuff. When I got there at 5:30 the signing had already been going on for an hour. There were so many of us it was like some ’70s jam rock band with twelve members playing a small party. I remember standing there watching Adrian Tomine, Kim Deitch, Ben Katchor, Sammy Harkham, and Matthew Thurber all “signing” at once, drawing on the limited-edition prints that come with the book (if you buy it from Buenaventura or through certain stores). It was a little overwhelming to say the least. Or intimidating. One or the other. Or both.

I mean, I’ve met Ben Katchor a few times. But, um, it’s Ben Katchor. I always think, “What do I say? What do I say?” Talk about Nabokov? The soup place on Second Avenue?

So, the store got 25 copies of the books and they were all pre-sold. In theory Sammy was to bring more along, but Buenaventura was selling through their advance shipment so fast they could barely keep up, it was nuts. Most customers, according to Gabe, wanted the book signed by all the artists but they had to come to the signing and do it themselves; the staff (Gabe, Keri and Lindsay) weren’t going to pass around 25 giant books to get signed. It was tough enough getting all the prints signed. It was a good idea but what ended up happening is that only a few of the pre-order customers came in to get their book signed. And they, Gabe said, came in early, picked up their book before all the signers were around, and asked when their signed print would be ready. Since the signers weren’t all there yet and all the prints weren’t doodled on, the pre-order customers hung around for a bit then split, content to pick up their print later.

So, we, the signers all just jammed on the prints, not on the books. And, well, it was kind of weird. Fun, but weird. More like a craft party than an opening or a signing where there is a direct connection between reader and maker. I think people there to meet the makers were a little shy to interrupt someone like Kim Deitch when he’s drawing. I’d been to other signings at Desert Island and they were really happening, really loose. But this night was just kind of low key and stoic.

The traffic jam of cartoonists (John Pham, James McShane, Ron Rege, Adrian Tomine, Ben Katchor, Jonathan Bennett, Kim Deitch, Gabrielle Bell, David Heatley, Matthew Thurber, Jesse McManus, Sammy Harkham, Kevin Huizenga, and myself), no one having their book “personalized”, AND the fact that there were no books to be bought by someone walking in off the street made the whole thing kind of odd. Fun, but odd.

Don’t get me wrong, people were laughing and carrying on, and y’know, it’s cool to sit next to Kevin Huizenga and watch Yakov smile ear to ear while having all his Huizenga comic books signed. It’s cool to rap with Gabrielle Bell and talk to Randy Chang, but I see them all the time. In New York at least. It felt more like a small party for all the New York alt-comix people, which is awesome, but I secretly hoped that it would be packed with “new” comics fans eager to check out this amazing book they’d read about somewheres. I’m beginning to think that this “new” audience for comics and graphic novels that is often trumpeted by the mainstream press doesn’t actually exist or at least doesn’t come to events like this. It’s always the same people. Great people, but still the same people. It’s fun but that sheer excitement on the faces of fans in Pittsburgh was absent on the New York stop.

Oh, and my showdown with David Heatley was pretty anti-climatic. I saw him come in say hello to Adrian Tomine and then check out the store copy of the book over near where I was standing. We shook hands, said hello. That was it.

Mark Newgarden, Dan Nadel, Dash Shaw, my friend Reid Paley, and I went and had a drink afterwards, totally unawares that there was a party for the event that we were missing. Luckily, Sammy called looking for us and soon we found it. Down by the elevated tracks of the J train, Bill K. and Austin English and a bunch of other folks have this unbelievably swell loft apartment. One of those dream New York apartments that has enough room to fit 50 people comfortably. The atmosphere I was hoping for at the signing was in full effect. It was loose and more like the other events at Desert Island.

I stood around and talked, got a little drunk, I can’t really remember. It was fun seeing the non-locals mixing with the locals outside events like signings or festivals. Fun watching Sammy and Dan argue. Fun to realize that the people assembled are some of the few artists, writers, makers of things, promoters of things that I really care about. One of those times when I stumble home without cursing the world.

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