Walker in the Imagined City
Now Katchor, often described by Spiegelman as the "most Yiddish" of all the comic artists, visually recalls large chunks of that world, freely inventing particulars as he goes along.Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay (1991) introduced his latest protagonist, Julius Knipl (whose surname is the untranslatable Yiddish knipl, the handful of change or small bills required to get by or just get home from some unforeseeable urban adventure), real estate photographer and hence participant-observer of the scene. Then came the sequel, Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer: Stories (1996) and The Jew of New York (1999), a singular historical epic in which a Jewish past in the US theater is traced to the early decades of the nineteenth century, with the retailing of seltzer water, among other developments.The Beauty Supply District returns to where Katchor has spent most of his time in weekly strips, even if they sometimes take place on a vacation island (where a kind of retro Miami Beach setting intensifies the urban Yiddishkayt) or other odd spots.
The spirit of anonymous invention highlights each strip, a subtle reminder of how the vast details of popular culture appear and disappear constantly, leaving behind tantalizingly ambiguous clues. Occasionally Katchor boils this down almost didactically, explaining that apartment-house developers a century ago often bestowed upon new buildings the names of deceased wives, favorite vacation spots or mythological characters, signage later mostly painted over but somehow still there, like the faded but semivisible commercial messages not altogether effaced from old buildings of all kinds. Mostly Katchor tantalizes, leaving the interpretation to the reader.
A special note on the title page of The Beauty Supply District, tiny lettering plugging the See-Thru Printing folks who did the technical work, indirectly reminds the reader of Katchor's quasi-artisanal origins in job shops that epitomize popular-culture anonymity. He grew up in Brooklyn with an Old Left father who took him to radical student meetings. Later he went, on and off, to art school and to Brooklyn College. But Katchor's main art education was reading comic books not far removed from The X-Men. Underground comics were gone by the time he began working seriously, and the attempts by him and his printshop co-workers to produce a graphics magazine, Picture Story, in the seventies fell flat.
He and his fellow artisans were marginally more successful as businessmen, printing and/or typesetting everything from takeout menus to crank pamphlets by self-published authors. The experiment prompted him toward an art or philosophy of urban detritus. Meanwhile, Raw, the visually brilliant and financially disastrous venture put out by Spiegelman and François Mouly during the eighties, was Katchor's good break, because it introduced him to an international audience (which appreciated Raw quite a bit more than Americans did) and encouraged him to syndicate Knipl.
Leaf through Beauty Supply District--distraction is the proper mood in which to approach Katchor--and you learn the significance of rubber garnish greens in little butcher shops or the golden age of street cleaning (ending a bit before the fiscal crisis), about the strange collective sense of loneliness experienced when apparently useless neighborhood storefront shops close and lots about the mental wanderings of those compelled to try to make sense of the patterns of small-scale commercial activity around them. The district, we learn later in the book, doesn't even exist anymore: Electronics wholesalers have taken over, relegating predecessors to those signs on vacant lots. Only a dreamer could become fixated on it all.