New York's Comic-Book Hero

Article excerpt

Byline: Malcolm Jones

Cartoonist Ben Katchor returns with a new opus.

Window-shopping with comics artist Ben Katchor through what he calls the "cheap merchandise district" in midtown Manhattan is a little like tumbling into one of Katchor's strips. In both cases, history, humor, and a generous dose of surreality combine to make you think you're walking down the back streets of Oz. A few decades ago, this area south of Times Square was New York's toy district, but now toys have been elbowed out by merchants and whole-salers peddling everything from cut-rate purses and suitcases to men's hats, hand-rolled cigars, exotic soaps, bongs, and wristwatches with faces the size of coasters. It is a bazaar, a souk, an open-air temple celebrating cheap desire.

The New York that emerges on today's tour is not, to use Katchor's phrase, "a museum city." Rather, it is an ever-morphing metropolis--a place neither old nor new, but a layered amalgam where stray bits of the past poke into the present at the oddest junctures. Here is a big chunk of the world so vividly captured over the last three decades in Katchor comic strips such as Hotel & Farm, The Jew of New York, Shoehorn Technique, and especially Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer, which the novelist Michael Chabon called "the last great American comic strip." Now comes his latest collection of comic strips--his first in 10 years--The Cardboard Valise, which is set, appropriately enough, in a place called Fluxion City.

Katchor's creations--which have appeared in publications as disparate as the New York Press, The Jewish Daily Forward, and other newspapers, as well as Metropolis, a magazine of architecture and design--bear scant resemblance to mainstream newspaper comics, underground or alternative comics, or graphic novels. Instead, his picture stories seek out those insignificant but oddly memorable, often humorous aspects of city life--the business signs, the vagrant thoughts, and the unanswerable questions that dog and decorate the landscape of any urban dweller. Then he turns it all inside out.

For years, Julius Knipl was Katchor's perfect stand-in. A plump, middle-aged guy with a pencil-thin mustache, he is less a character than a pair of eyes through which, eight cartoon panels at a time, we see the city--or at least a delightfully cracked vision of a city. There's the men's clothing store with the slogan "Look like a man -- for less." The Mortal Coil Mattress Co. and the Cough Conservatory. And the nagging question at the lunch counter: "At what point in the war against disease were individually wrapped, sanitary drinking straws brought into play on the front line?" There are no "Pows!" or punchlines in Katchor's work, but plainly he is steeped in the tropes of his craft (as a child, his Louvre and Prado were the funny papers: "I knew about comic strips before I knew about Western art," he says). But ultimately he is uncategorizable, a man apart. Or, as he puts it, "you set up your own tradition for what a picture story is and you live up to that."

Like any native New Yorker, the 59-year-old Katchor bumps into his own past around every corner. …