Ben Katchor was raised in Brooklyn by parents who were committed Communists in a Yiddish household. He studied art at Brooklyn College and attended the School of Visual Arts. He was a contributor to Art Spiegelman’s legendary ‘cutting edge’ graphics magazine Raw, and his strips Julius Knipl Real Estate Photographer and The Cardboard Valise have been syndicated in alternative papers and magazines around the United States since 1988. He has published three books, Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay, Julius Knipl Real Estate Photographer: Stories and The Jew Of New York. In April 2000 Julius Knipl and The Beauty Supply District was published, and a documentary film in which Katchor and Knipl are the subjects [Ben Katchor: The Pleasures of Urban Decay] was released. The New York Times has referred to Ben Katchor as “the most poetic, deeply layered artist ever to draw a comic strip.” He lives in New York City.
Robert Birnbaum: Does it seem to you there are a disproportionate number of Jews in cartooning?
Ben Katchor: No…
RB: I’m thinking of Edward Sorel, Art Spiegelman, David Levine, Stan Mack, Jules Feiffer, you…
BK: No, that’s a recent thing. I don’t think years ago, in the earlier part of the century there weren’t too many. I was just talking to a historian of that period and he said Jews didn’t go into it…the golden age of newspaper strips. There weren’t many except for Harry Hirschfield. No, so there aren’t that many. There are a lot of cartoonists in the world. So I don’t think it’s a big proportion. There are just a few of them.
RB: Can you make a living being a cartoonist?
BK: I do. Someone told me that there are only six people doing alternative comics who make a living. Very few.
RB: Who said that?
BK: I don’t know. Somebody who was in a position to know had this number. A publisher of these kinds of things. I did many other things a long the way, but now I make a living doing comics. I do a monthly, I do a weekly. I do a monthly for Metropolis magazine. I do books. It all adds up.
RB: Are you published in New York?
BK: I’m in The New York Press and the [Jewish] Forward.
RB: Which is where you started.
BK: Yeah, I’m back there.
RB: Did you ever entertain doing things other than cartooning?
BK: Well, uh…for a living I did typesetting and design work. I don’t know…I drew comics since I was a small child. Almost his [points to young Cuba Birnbaum] age. Before I could read them I was making them. I remember asking my mother to read comics to me…before I could read. So, I’ve been doing them all my life. In the last ten years making more and more of a living from them. But it’s a lifelong calling…why else would you do it? It’s a tricky thing to do for a living. At least the kind of comics I do. Lots of people make a living doing superhero, mainstream, syndicated comics. But to do these kind of comics, it’s like making a living writing poetry. People do it, a few people make a living at it.
RB: Your drawings are very detailed. Were earlier comics as detailed and include complex perspectives?
BK: The precursors of American comics…these broadsheets that were published…there is a long tradition of narrative art that parallels the history of high art. There was always popular prints of narratives. In the 17th and 18th centuries they were rivaling the density of descriptive drawing…
BK: He didn’t really do comics strips. People like Rudolph Puffler. A lot of them are anonymous. They were such low art. They were like newspaper photographers. Anonymous people. There’s a book of it called the Early Comic Strips by David Kunzle. A collection of these things. What they boil down to today, these tiny things with no image, almost icons, almost symbols, almost words with symbols of things. The great thing about comics is that it can mix words with these concrete images. Once you reduce the image to a symbol, you don’t have that strange tension. It’s all working on this level of symbols. Words with symbolic drawings and are really concrete descriptions of the world. That’s the interesting tension of comics. When you can have the real world or a representation of it. And then a layer of words, of abstractions riding above it. That’s what an ideal comic strip should be…
RB: When you mentioned newspaper photographers you reminded me that other photojournalists and ‘graphic narrators’ have fluctuating popularity. Art Spiegelman. Weegee…
BK: I don’t see it that clearly. There are strange parallels. There is an industry of photocomics that were done in Europe, a lot of them done in Italy and now South America. And there is the tradition of the picture story that Life magazine would do. They would have someone cover an event with photographs and small captions. It’s all sort of the same impulse.
RB: Weegee [legendary New York City newspaper photographer] wasn’t considered an artist. And now there are books and exhibitions.
BK: I don’t know what he thought of himself. Elevating something that doesn’t have intentions of being poetry to that level…like all of this outsider art, things that are made outside of the mainstream of art, commercial art, newspaper photography. That goes on all the time. I don’t think I’m in that [category]. Spiegelman and myself are very conscious of the world of art.
RB: I’m not talking about your point of view, but about public tastes and perceptions.
BK: The public? I don’t know. The knowing public knows that these things go on at different levels. There’s commercial comics, there’s greeting-card poetry, there’s serious poetry and newspaper comics and there are my comics. People may lump them together, but there are distinctions. It’s hard to say. Whether they come and go in cycles…when a book gets press [like Maus] there’s interest again in that medium, as an art medium or literary medium. If you’re in that field there are always people following this kind of material.
RB: I’m thinking of the obstacles you must overcome to be able to do what you love to do. When there’s more acceptance and value placed on comics, when it becomes ‘narrative art’ or ‘graphic literature’ it must be easier to be published.
BK: No, no. People look at a manuscript and they read it and they look at things. Editors realize there are the most commercial comics and there are all kinds of comics. There is a whole spectrum like in any medium. There is some level of discrimination among editors and people who make publishing decisions. There has to be.
RB: Is there a ready market for your work?
BK: For me? This is [The Jew of New York] part of a two-book contract…and the next book is in the works and I have books in mind and other collections. There is some recognition of it [my work] being something of interest done in that medium, and if the book sells, which is the bottom line, then it’s very easy to publish books. The newspaper thing is…there are these weeklies all over the country, some of them pick up your strip. Others will never pick it up. The monthly thing is a magazine [Metropolis]… an urban design magazine. It was a perfect fit for me to do a strip for them. Everything I do is exactly what they want.
RB: As you were creating individual Jules Knipl strips, did you think that you would end up doing a book?
BK: I was accumulating a lot of strips. It’s standard format in mainstream comics to collect dailies or weeklies an publish them in a book form. I thought it was a possibility. It wasn’t easy at that time. I wasn’t known. I think it all hinges on the individual cartoonist’s reputation. Who they are, what they do. I don’t see it as a trend.
RB: What’s the end use of these strips?
BK: Newspapers are the immediate use. The public utility of weekly newspaper. Books…I don’t see comics needing a long form. I like it as short form. I do short strips. It just another way to make the strips available. Newspapers are so ephemeral, lots of people don’t see them, don’t save them. They yellow and they crumble. So there’s a practical reason to make a book out of them. And a commercial reason.
RB: Have you done and/or are you interested in animation?
BK: No, Knipl was optioned for a live action film but not animation. I’m not an animator. That’s a specialty. It’s about motion. It’s almost like ballet. There are slow-moving animated films that are not really about motion, [R.O.] Blechman’s animation, telling a story. I’m not an animator. It would have be a collaborative effort. It’s a lot of work. Somebody would have to say, "We want you to do this." I like them in print. All these things have their own feeling. I’m working on a musical thing…it’s not really an opera. It’s a musical version of one of my strips. That’s another kind of collaboration. With projected images and singers and a band. A group called Bang on A Can, three composers in New York. The thing exists as a story, and you can do anything you want with a story. Or people think they can. Sometimes they don’t realize how fragile a story is. They think you can rip apart a story like a building and salvage it. You can’t, it all evaporates when you start breaking it apart. That’s how all these bad adaptations of books are made. They call them properties like they are this thing like a piece of real estate. You can cut up and somehow it is still that thing. Once you cut it…it’s an odd idea but it can be done — but usually not done very well.
RB: Does anything like Raw magazine exist today?
BK: Nothing that I think is as good. There’s Drawn and Quarterly up in Montreal. Phantagraphics was publishing an anthology magazine called Zero Zero. Raw happened to be designed and edited in an unusual way. It went out of the realm of comics, it became a literary magazine that happened to mainly comics. Nothing that I know of. A very arty thing out of Italy…I think it’s called Mono(??). Nothing that has the feel of the old issues of Raw.
RB: Why aren’t Francois Mouly and Art Spiegelman still publishing it?
BK: It’s a very dirty business being an editor. He did it. And he was brilliant as an editor. He wants to be a cartoonist. Also, there is a long history of comics not being a product that you can sell upscale ads for. The illiterate, the poor, or the downtrodden…there’s never been a comic magazine that could get the right kind of advertising. Raw hardly had any ads. So, if there were a commercial way to do it someone would do it. In France there are a few, they mix it with pornography.
RB: Are you surprised that more literary magazines don’t include graphic literature?
BK: No, there’s a funny thing. If you go to a small press fair, it’s like world of publishing for the visually blind. They don’t really want to look at anything. If there are graphics they are very tasteful and visible. The design of most small press magazines is not to look like it’s fun and not to look like it’s graphically interesting. That’s the weird thing. There are very good writers who are not visual. They are so intent on the Word, they don’t want the distraction of graphics or exciting graphics. In the ’60s there were underground comics. There were these viable things for a while…since Raw nothing…There’s a whole strange history. Harvey Kurtzmann did a few magazines after Mad Help, Trump. Hugh Hefner published Trump for a few issues. There’s a schism between the literary world and the graphics world. And comics fall in between. They’re not the art world, they’re this picture-writing world.
RB: It doesn’t strike me that magazine readers object to comics, it’s more likely highbrow editors…
BK: When somebody shows an advertiser a magazine with a lot of comics, they will ask if this magazine is for children. The reality is that comics are heavily identified with adolescents and children.
RB: What about the evolution of contributors to Raw that brings them to mainstream publications like the New York Times Magazine or The New Yorker… Charles Burns, Spiegelman…
BK: But not strips. Using cartoonists to do illustrations…illustration is still this serious-looking thing because it’s next to text…a serious article. But if you say that the cartoonist becomes the serious content, it becomes very fishy. For a while The New Yorker‘s Talk of the Town had a strip at the top where they assigned a cartoonist or illustrator. It ran for a half a year. What they found that people who were not cartoonists really didn’t have the literary idea of how to do this. They weren’t very interesting. There aren’t enough good cartoonists…that’s one of the problems…to fill this thing week in and week out with different people. So it was dropped. There has to be a body of people to fill a magazine…you don’t want to see the same people every week or month. You want some variety.
RB: Do you teach?
BK: I teach one class at the School of Visual Arts. A Comic Strip Workshop. It’s writing…you do a piece of writing and then you turn it into a comic strip. I have great students. A very small class, but very good cartoonists. Unlike film, comics have no visibility in the world of education. There are very few comics departments. Visual Arts has one because it was originally a cartoonists’ school. Every university has a serious film department. Maybe it [Comics] need a world of people thinking about it. Then there will be a thousand average cartoonists, there still will be a hundred good ones. To fill a magazine. I don’t know how that works…It’s very labor-intensive because it’s writing and drawing.
RB: On the face of it, films and comics seem equally accessible, yet…
BK: I don’t know…people take movies seriously. All they are are moving-picture stories. They’re a little more glamorous because there are movie stars in them. In Mexico, photonovellas are very popular. Maybe because they are photographs…There is a great Fellini film about that business in Italy…he was a cartoonist as a young man and he was in that fumetti businessI think it was called the White Sheika film about the industry of making these fumettis. It means a little bubble of smoke. First the puff of smoke, the speech balloon.
RB: How did Maus become the one, quintessential graphic novel?
BK: It got tons of press, it got a lot of recognition. Pantheon is publishing other cartoonists. A Chris Ware book…and someone else, I forget. But they’ve always dabbled in comics. Since they did the Raw one shots…
RB: Have you ever been invited to a writer’s workshop?
BK: I do lectures. But not really workshops. Writing comics is a very specific kind of writing. I don’t know that I would have much to say as a writer…
RB: You don’t know, or you’re sure you don’t have anything to say?
BK: I think I would ask what the image would be. And they would say, “What image, I have to make the image with words.” It’s kind of like film in the fifties. People knew that there were these great things that could be done. It wasn’t recognized or taught in any kind of serious way. That’s what made the difference in film…
RB: What will happen to your students?
BK: They going to try to do exactly what I do. Newspaper strips. Books. At this point it’s like studying poetry. You don’t know what you are going to do. You are going to try to publish. I don’t think it should be a mega industry. That’s the great thing about it. It doesn’t cost anything to make except rent. Do it in your home with a bottle of ink. The lowest overhead art form next to writing. You don’t even need a typewriter.
RB: Has the Internet helped comics and your work in particular?
BK: Oh yeah, my strip is on the…
RB: How does it look, does it ‘translate’ well?
BK: It has to be broken into a tier at a time. Most people don’t have big enough screens. On a good monitor it looks great. It looks like a perfectly backlit slide. The image quality is much better than any newspaper, It looks very good. It’s on Word.com. A literary webzine. It pays people. These things don’t have to be on paper. Some hybrid is o.k. There’s the whole question of why anyone would do anything in print anymore…it’s a rough business.
Visit Ben Katchor’s website: Katchor.com.
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing