It’s time for the first official installment of Classic Comics Criticism! By “Classic,” I mean this consists of the reviews I wrote for The Comics Journal back in 1998. Sure, it may sound like a cheap-ass way to make a new recurring feature, but I challenge you, dear reader, to go back to what you wrote 11 years ago and try not to wince!
In that spirit, I’ve only cleaned up typos. I promise I haven’t done anything to rectify my utter lack of critical apparatus (esp. since I doubt I’ve improved on that front in the intervening decade).
Our first CCC isn’t a review of a comic. Rather, it’s a writeup about a lecture/slideshow delivered by Ben Katchor, genius cartoonist. He won a MacArthur grant, so it’s okay to call him a genius. I haven’t seen new comics from him in a while, and I’m hoping he didn’t go the Caden Cotard route and begin working on a mammoth theater piece encompassing his entire life.
(UPDATE: Apparently, he’s gotten into staging opera and “musical tragicomedy,” which may be a worse fate. Oh, and he’s doing a monthly color one-pager for Metropolis magazine! Yay!)
Anyway: I’ve adored Ben Katchor’s work since I first saw it in some alt-paper in the early ’90s, so I was happy to be a TCJ correspondent for his lecture, esp. since it gave me the opportunity to meet him and get a sketch of Julius Knipl and an autograph in my copy of Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay.
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From TCJ #201, January, 1998:
The Deliberate Tourist
â€œItâ€™s useless. He doesnâ€™t understand. We speak two different languages which happen to share many of the same words.â€
Attending Ben Katchorâ€™s slideshow and lecture, â€œCities of the Mind: Street Navigation and Carfare City,â€ is like taking an extended journey through the cartoonistâ€™s Julius Knipl comic strips. While itâ€™s typically quite difficult to life a comic off the page, Katchor achieves this feat with relative ease. This is a credit to the strength, profundity and humor of Katchorâ€™s writing, which loses nothing in spoken form. The program, approximately 45 minutes in length, includes a monologue on the hidden meaning of the travel industry, an audio-recording of one of Katchorâ€™s â€œradio-comicsâ€ for National Public Radio, plans for a new city in which private and public life become inextricably merged, and an accumulation of place and proper names that seems to have been shaken free from the pages of a Yiddish-to-Greek lexicon. Katchor begins the show with an invocation of sorts, welcoming his audience to Trampoline Hall, a location that crops up infrequently in his strips. The attendees are invited to remember their childhood visit to the hall; Katchor reminds the audience of the sand in the cigarette ashtrays and the indelible impression it made upon them. With accompanying panels from his strips continuously projected behind him, he immediately draws the audience into his fictive city, which is always New York, no matter how different the names are.
The first half of the lecture discusses the importance of remaining a tourist in oneâ€™s own city. The speaker raises to epiphany the moment of approaching an intersection from an unfamiliar direction, a concept that informed the entire evening. Progress and manâ€™s reaction to it are the basis for most of the jokes and the false histories.
I donâ€™t mean to treat the program as a serious lecture. Still less do I want the speaker to be mistaken (necessarily) for Ben Katchor; the man who vigorously inveighed against the travel industry and the Golyak Travel Agency in particular that evening bore little resemblance to the soft-spoken, perpetually rumpled individual who afterward signed copies of his books and drew head-shots of Julius Knipl looking at something in the middle distance. First and foremost, the lecture is an entertainment, filled with Katchorâ€™s strange characters, places and products. Harold Alms, impromptu speaker, is mentioned, as is the American Tapeworm Sanctuary over on Purkinje Island. And Katchorâ€™s delivery on most of his jokes was impeccable; attendees belly-laughed during much of the lecture.
Iâ€™m curious, though, as to how the lecture has been received elsewhere in the country. Katchor has performed the lecture for more than a year in such locations as the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., the National Yiddish Book Center near Amherst, MA, the St. Louis History Museum, the KGB Bar in New York and several bookstores around the city. Its humor seems particularly New York-oriented, but perhaps it transcends this through its ties to Yiddish culture. The flagship of the â€œJulius Knipl Syndicateâ€ is the Forward, a Jewish weekly formerly published in Yiddish, and both Amherst and St. Louis have strong Jewish populations.
The funniest part of the lecture is its â€œintermission.â€ Before the second half of the lecture, Katchor plays an audio-recording of â€œThe Directory of the Alimentary Canal,â€ a strip he adapted for NPR. The â€œradio-stripâ€ revolves around a defunct weekly directory that enumerated the gastrointestinal condition of every resident of the city. The stripâ€™s narrator discusses the importance of such a directory, how restaurant and theater openings hinged on this information. During the strip, Julius Knipl attempts to reach various leads over the phone, only to learn that each of them is â€œindisposedâ€ at present. Throughout, a voice-over reads from the directory: â€œEagle, M. 104 Moly . . . Aerophagy, colitis, sluggish bowel . . . Eaglet, T. 36 Samson . . . Proctalgia, fugax, gas, diarrhea . . .â€ Voicer were provided by Jerry Stiller, â€œProfessorâ€ Irwin Corey, and others. Evidently, this was the last Julius Knipl â€œradio-stripâ€ that was produced. Some listeners sent outraged e-mails to NPR, protesting the gastric extravaganza. Still, Katchor reported that the network received a record number of e-mails calling for more episodes when the series ended.
The second half of the lecture is adapted more or less from â€œThe Evening Combinatorâ€ serial from Katchorâ€™s most recent collection. The speaker presents his plans for a city designed to resemble the area around an elevated subway line. However, in Carfare City, the electric streetcar will run directly through residentsâ€™ apartments at 15-minute intervals. This combination of transit and private life creates a state of â€œtransportational flux,â€ in which â€œmodern man never has to go home . . . he can travel between â€˜homeâ€™ and the â€˜world,â€™ but never have to reach either end point.â€ By running a streetcar through the apartments, says the speaker, â€œthe mysteries of private life become the details of a passing landscape.
Carfare Cityâ€™s raison dâ€™etre is the moment in which a commuter returns home and fails to recognize it. â€œFor a moment,â€ says the speaker, â€œyouâ€™re happy toÂ be in this strangely familiar place with its enamel sign bearing your name in two-foot-high letters.â€ It is the epiphany of the deliberate tourist. The silly but strangely evocative place-names in the city serve the same purpose for Katchor; though the settings are derived from reality, the act of renaming allows the artist himself to remain a tourist.
In all, Katchorâ€™s lecture is a profoundly entertaining program. While it probably has little appeal to those who arenâ€™t fans of Julius Knipl, it might make Katchorâ€™s weekly strips a bit more comprehensible. Katchor himself is a delightful speaker and his question-and-answer session following the program revealed interesting facets of Katchorâ€™s work process without wrecking oneâ€™s enjoyment of the strips.
One further note: as enjoyable as the lecture was, the audience was a story in itself. As opposed to a traditional comics-related event, Katchorâ€™s lecture was attended by elderly couples, orthodox Jews, middle-aged men in suits, and only the occasional twenty-something comics reader (like your humble correspondent). Prior to the lecture, a number of attendees discussed the significance of the Julius Knipl comics in their lives. Several recounted their â€œfirst time,â€ reciting the text of the strips verbatim. The reverence in their voices offered up some (although probably deluded) hope for a mature comics readership.
–Gil Roth Â© 1998
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Seeya next week with more Classic Comics Criticism!