“My impulse is to break the windows of Starbucks, but I’d get arrested if I did that, so I make comics about people breaking the windows of Starbucks.”
Cartoonist and MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Fellowship winner Ben Katchor joins us for the first live episode of The Virtual Memories Show (in conjunction with the New York Comics & Picture-stories Symposium). Ben & host Gil Roth talk in front of — and take questions from — an audience of 50 or so about Ben’s career in cartooning, including his new book, Hand-Drying in America and Other Stories (Pantheon), which collects his monthly comic page from Metropolis magazine. During the episode, Ben even performs several of his comics. If you’d like to see the comics themselves, you can download Manumission Houses and Lossless Things.
“People ask about influences and where I get my ideas. A lot of people looked at all the stuff I looked at, and they’re doing something else. It’s not like there’s an equation, like you read Saul Bellow and you look at Poussin, and then you make my comics. It’s not an equation. It’s brute force.”
The conversation and Q&A also cover his work process (with a surprising revelation about how he draws!), how book publishing lost its identity, what he learned from working in other art forms (like musical theater), how he teaches cartooning, the allure of new technologies, his one critical audience demographic, the joy of imperfections, whether he has an ideal era for New York, what happened to his History of the Dairy Restaurant book, how fear of shame keeps him productive, how Google can help when you need to draw a Russian prostitute, what he picked up from the Yiddish humor strips he read as a child, which one book the Library of America should withdraw, and how to pronounce “Knipl”! He didn’t win a “Genius” grant for nothing!
“It’s a golden age of art comics. It didn’t exist when I started. Most bookstores wouldn’t carry a comic, or even something that looked like a comic, back then. I can’t imagine what it must be like for a young cartoonist now, when these things are taken seriously and there’s an audience for them.”
About our Guest
Ben Katchor’s picture-stories appear in Metropolis magazine. His most recent collection of monthly strips, Hand-Drying in America and Other Stories, was published in March 2013 by Pantheon Books. Up From the Stacks, his most recent music-theater collaboration with Mark Mulcahy, was commissioned in 2011 by the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library and Lincoln Center and was performed at both venues. He is an Associate Professor at Parsons, The New School for Design in New York City. For more information, visit www.katchor.com.
Credits: This episode’s music is Big City Blues by Sun Ra and his Arkestra. The conversation was recorded in the Bark Room at The New School in NYC on a pair of AT2020 mics, feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. Mr. Katchor’s readings and some of the questions from the audience were recorded on a second Zoom H4n. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB mic into Audacity. All editing and processing was done in Garage Band. Photo by Amy Roth.
Time for another installment of movie reviews! All documentaries this week!
Bigger, Faster, Stronger: This is a documentary about the use of performance-enhancing drugs by athletes in America (well, North America, since Ben Johnsonâ€™s 1988 Olympics disqualification gets some play). The documentarian, Chris Bell, is a young man whose brothers â€” one older and one younger â€” are both on the juice, trying to build careers in pro wrestling and professional weightlifting. The narrator brings a folksy, light touch to the film, discussing the myriad hypocrisies in our legal policies toward PEDs, their demonization. I do think he bites off more than he can chew when he tries to make the point that the beautiful people in advertisements are a big factor in peopleâ€™s decisions to use steroids and the like. That segment is also the one where he models for both the â€œbeforeâ€ and â€œafterâ€ sections of a fake nutritional supplement ad in one day, to show how misleading those ads can be. The saddest but best part of the film may be the segment where he interviews the father of â€œsteroid suicideâ€ Taylor Hooton, poster corpse for President Bushâ€™s bizarre anti-steroid announcement at the 2004 State of the Union address. Despite his childâ€™s other risk factors, including use of an anti-depressant known to cause suicidal ideation in teens, the father declares that he â€œknowsâ€ steroids killed his son, and doesnâ€™t care what science or research has to say. The filmmaker treads the difficult line of showing the manâ€™s willing ignorance without overtly humiliating him (or getting his ass beat). Overall, itâ€™s a pretty entertaining documentary about a culture obsessed with getting over.
Harvard Beats Yale 29-29: And then there was a documentary about a 1968 game between a couple of Ivy League schools. I knew nothing about this game when I picked up the DVD, except that Tommy Lee Jones was on the Harvard team that year. The movie rounds up a ton of players from both sides, and a weird trend emerges as theyâ€™re introduced: while the Yale players fit the stereotype of WASP-ish legacies and other wealthy scions, many of the Harvard players come from hardscrabble, public school backgrounds. (Which made me think Harvard had lower admission standards for its team, but also made that team a bit more sympathetic than the blue-bloods of the Yale squad.) The filmmakers make virtually no direct intrusion into the film, instead alternating between interviews and footage from the game itself. Thereâ€™s an attempt at framing the game in terms of tumult of its 1968 milieu, but the story of the game itself, Harvardâ€™s incredible comeback, and the personalities of a few of the players â€” Harvardâ€™s backup QB Frank Champi, Yaleâ€™s QB Brian Dowling (inspiration for Doonesburyâ€™s B.D. character), and Yaleâ€™s lineback Mike Bouscaren â€” sweep the film along. Bouscaren, in particular, illustrates a certain type of self-delusion that must be seen to be believed. Most of the men, 40 years later, are capable of stepping back and saying, â€œIt was just a football game, not life and death,â€ but you can tell how much resonance that November afternoon had in all their lives.
In Search of Steve Ditko: This is British chat-show host Jonathan Rossâ€™ hour-long documentary about superhero cartoonist Steve Ditko, the man who (co-)created Spider-Man and Doctor Strange for Marvel Comics, then inexplicably quit the company. Ross, a lifetime comics fan, treats Ditkoâ€™s legacy with reverence and interviews many subjects about both Ditkoâ€™s work and his life, focusing on Spider-Man, but also taking a trip into Ditkoâ€™s bizarre Mr. A stories and his Ayn Rand/objectivist fixation. The twin culminations of the documentary are Rossâ€™ interview with Stan Lee and his attempt to meet Ditko at the latterâ€™s Times Square studio. I was touched by how reverent Ross was, and how so many of the interview subjects geeked out over the same passage we all did: Spider-Manâ€™s struggle to get out from under a giant machine in issue #33. The biggest drawback of the show was the inane decision to render all text in Comic Sans. If youâ€™re a comics fan, you really oughtta watch this documentary sometime.