The artist Ben Katchor is a master of a visual urban milieu that echoes post-war New York City, but really isn’t that at all. Populated by stocky characters who tramp about and explore an oddly familiar, yet completely invented universe, Katchor’s picture-stories (as he likes to call them) are stirring forays into the urban absurd. Awarded with Guggenheims and MacArthurs, among others, Katchor creates a kind of visual poetry comprised of everyday artifacts and activities. His ability to bring everyday objects and activities to the forefront of his visual narratives lends his work an imaginative, absurdist quality fired by light switches, peepholes, wheelchair ramps, coat check rooms and invented occupations, like spittoon pump engineers and rhumba line organizers. Katchor sees what we don’t in pedestrian objects and events and crafts short, comic narratives out of them. His books, which include Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer, The Jew of New York, and The Cardboard Valise, are part of his continually expanding oeuvre, which has come to include operas based on a number of his stories.
His most recent publication, Hand-Drying in America, is a compilation of full-color, one-page picture stories that appeared in the urban design and architecture magazine, Metropolis. Like most of his work, they take place in an invented Katchoresque urban world. I sat down with Ben recently to have a meandering discussion about it.
Eddy Portnoy: Your stories are full of unusual names of people and places, are any of them real?
Ben Katchor: It’s strange when someone tells you that you’ve made a literary, or cultural, reference in a strip to someone you’ve never heard of. It’s something I made up, but then they say that’s the famous Israeli comedian. Somebody wrote a whole thesis centered around the connection between the character, Kishon, in The Jew of New York, and the Israeli writer, Ephraim Kishon, who I had never heard of. I just like the sound of the name, like a cushion or a pillow (in Yiddish). Some, like Harkavy, in The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island, are real references (in this case, to Yiddish author, Alexander Harkavy).
EP: Jewish names and references sometimes pop up in your work. Is there a Jewish component to this book?
BK: Well, only that the the author had parents who grew up in a more traditional, early twentieth century Jewish culture.
I met Harvey Pekar in 2005. On a whim, I gave him a copy of my book, and he really liked it. A series of awkward interactions at comic book signings led to a small collaboration for the foreword of a book about the history of Jews and comics. A few months later he asked me to work on an entire book with him about the history of Jews and Israel.
In 2008, we began what is now known as Not The Israel My Parents Promised Me, a graphic novel published by Hill & Wang and available here. The graphic memoir interweaves his gradual disaffection with the modern state of Israel with a comprehensive visual history from Biblical times to the present. Told over the course of a single day in his hometown, the book follows Pekar and myself as we wrestle with the mythologies and realities surrounding the Jewish homeland.
Producing this book was a bittersweet project for me. When Harvey passed away two years ago, I went from being a hevruta to chevra kadisha. For the better part of four years I was one of a handful of artists working with Harvey on various projects. However, I suspect that the Judaic focus of our relationship was quite unique. I like to think he didn’t call everyone boychik.
Although Harvey cultivated a curmudgeon character on screen and in print, the man himself was quite kind and surprisingly encouraging. Harvey expressed complete faith in my creative vision and was always telling me to “do my thing.”
I got a kick out of Harvey’s sense of timing. He would call me at the most inopportune moments. First thing Monday morning as I sat down to my desk job. Saturday night while I was at a pub with friends, or my favorite, 8:30 AM on Thanksgiving morning.
Harvey had his own way of doing things. He didn’t use the computer. No email, just phone calls and photocopies of his hand written scripts. Decoding his prose, dividing it into digestible chunks, and offering my spin was part of the fun of working with Harvey. Even now, when I recall all those conversations about Judaism and its people, and talking about baseball, Harvey continues to make me smile.
However, finishing the book without Harvey over the last two years was heavy. I wish I could say it was fun. But I missed my collaborator and friend and I was drawing him everyday, so it was a particularly bizarre process of mourning and creativity. Which I guess is oddly appropriate for a graphic novel about Israel.
My Pekar years were full of crazy amounts of joy and sadness and taught me a lot about the type of person and artist that I am. I was lucky to be in the graces of a comix legend and be given the opportunity to be myself and represent another person through comix. I trust that Harvey would be proud of the way the book turned out.