Graphic novel series focuses on Katchor

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

The oddly off-center yet mysteriously affecting comic strips by Ben Katchor, focusing mostly on his character Julius Knipl’s absurdist, Kafkaesque life in a New York City-like metropolis was the subject of the third in a series of discussions of the works of Jewish graphic novelists hosted at the Schlafly Branch of the St. Louis Public Library last Thursday.

Webster University Professor Warren Rosenblum again offered opening remarks and faciliated a discussion of Katchor’s works, especially the collection of his strips from the Jewish Forward published in the book, Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer; Stories. (Little, Brown).

In his introductory remarks, Rosenblum said that he had “done a lot of research into Katchor’s work, and read a number of strips in the Chicago Reader and really didn’t like the work at first.” He added that Katchor has some impressive fans, including Edward Sorel, the acclaimed cartoonist for The New Yorker magazine, “who calls Katchor’s work Max Beckmann with dialogue balloons. His work has also been compared to that of Marcel Proust and a Broadway play has been produced based on the strips.”

Rosenblum said he was “easily impressed” by the noteworthy praise of Katchor’s work, and “while I’m not completely won over, I have found the Julius Knipfl strips to be very approachable. They jump out at me. They are so complex, sometimes, with three separate narratives going on at the same time: the upper level words, the classic cartoon bubbles and the pictures themselves.”

Pointing out that the character Julius Knipl’s last name means “nest egg” in Yiddish, Rosenblum described Katchor’s main protagonist “as a kind of anti-hero of post-modernism, a marginal figure who lives in squalid rooms. The period seems to be the l940s and l950s, dark, like noir detective stories or stories about forlorn salesman. There is a pervasive sadness, anomie; he knocks on doors and no one answers. He goes to meet people who are not there. The strips bring to mind Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.”

In addition to the melancholy, gray aspects of the strips, Rosenblum credits Katchor for a wry sense of humor with his 1950s dystopic world “where an electric eye can shed a tear anytime someone sad walks by. His world is one in which people trust in futuristic and odd products and there is a kind of fascistic, bureaucratic feel to this environment.”

In contrast to Will Eisner’s realistically drawn stories of Jewish life in New York tenements or Art Spiegelman’s Maus books, which retell the story of the artist’s father’s survival in the Nazi death camps, Katchor’s world is an “almost New York,” not quite real and yet remarkably detailed with references to things past in the form of countless commercial signs which linger after businesses have closed.

In the discussion that followed some participants in the conversation pointed out that despite the apparent sadness of the daily life of Knipl and those in his circle of acquaintances, he seems to function relatively well, coping by collecting ephemeral objects from the past, looking back on places of business and people who are no longer here, and “putting things on the layaway plan so that they can be kept in perfect condition until you claim them.”

It was pointed out that American Jews, after arriving in the United States were remarkably resourceful with the limited economic outlets they had, selling merchandise, etc. “Rag pickers moved West and founded some of the great department stores; Jews dominated the scrap iron and junk yard industries, taking things that others threw away as useless and turning them into items that could turn a profit.

Described as a “long-awaited collection of strange and strangely absorbing urban adventures which takes the reader to the streets to discover a lost metropolis, summoning up half-forgotten yesterdays and celebrating the surreal substrate of the quotidian,” Katchor’s work has also drawn lavish praise from Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon, author of the best-seller The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, an homage to George Herrimann’s classic comic strip Krazy Kat, which many still consider to have been the most brilliant comic strip ever.

In his introduction to Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer, a collection of 90 of Katchor’s strips, some of which appeared in the Jewish Forward, Chabon writes, “Like many people, I was first apprised of the wistful and intrepid pilgrimage on which you are about to embark by Lawrence Weschler, in his New Yorker profile of Ben Katchor, creator of the last great American comic strip.”

Expressing the opinion that “perhaps no art form has ever flourished so brilliantly only to decline into such utter debasement, in such a brief period of time, as the newspaper strip, Chabon credited Katchor, as noted by Weschler, for his “preoccupation with the sensuous residium of the past, those unexpected revelators of the all-but-forgotten, encountered in the stairwell of a hard-luck office building or on the dusty shelves of a decrepit pharmacy, those stray remnants of an earlier time that are hinted in the surname of his protagonist,” Knipl, meaning “nest-egg,” something present put away to secure the future.

Chabon adds, “I discovered, as will you, that the strip’s wonderful evocation of an entirely plausible and heartbreaking if only partly veracious past is not the greatest of its pleasures or achievements. Ben Katchor is an extremely clever, skillful, and amusing story-teller.”

(“Modern Marvels: Jewish Adventures in the Graphic Novels,” with discussions led by Warren Rosenblum will continue on Thursday, July 5 with a discussion of The Quitter, by Harvey Pekar, and conclude on Thursday, July 5 with a discussion of The Rabbi’s Cat, by Joann Sfar. The programs begin at 7 p.m. at the Schlafly Branch of the St. Louis Public Library at the corner of Euclid Avenue and Lindell Boulevard, and are free and open to the public.)

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