Ben Katchor had been a bit of a cultural phenomenon for nearly a decade before he became a MacArthur fellow--a first for a cartoonist--this summer. But that is not even close in charisma, as he reminded this writer, to the comic-strip artists of old (for instance, Harry Hershfield of Abie the Agent, the first popular Jewish strip in the English-language press), who made frequent appearances on radio and figured as public personalities bigger than Charles Schulz could ever be. On the other hand, Katchor represents the extension of recognition to (some) comic-strip artists as "real" artists, a designation that not even Hershfield enjoyed and that the New York Times and others have only gradually begun to accord to a select few, perhaps following foreign press coverage or capitulating to the academic vogue of popular-culture subjects.
Back in 1993 The New Yorker ran an amiable profile by Lawrence Weschler of Katchor, whose reputation, apart from a few appearances in those august pages, rested mainly on a syndicated strip in about a dozen local alternative papers and in the Jewish Forward. (A few of his strips were also dramatized by Jerry Stiller on National Public Radio in the mid-1990s.) But Katchor clearly had an underground reputation, a phrase we might employ in this instance to suggest certain subway stops that everyone seems to have forgotten about, leading to urban settings somehow untouched since, say, the thirties, forties or, at latest, the early fifties. There Katchor perennially walks, in his mind and with his pen, reconstructing the ancientness of a certain civilization and its odd but also eerily familiar habitants.
There's another important sense in which the "underground" rises to visibility through Katchor. He's a descendant in many ways of the underground comics (or "comix") that flourished from around 1969 until their main outlets, the incense-and-bong-selling "head shops," closed down and most of the hundred or so working artists stopped drawing professionally. Among the cartoonists of that now distant age, we can count R. Crumb (the best-remembered if by no means the most widely seen anymore), Bill Griffith (his Zippy strip is syndicated in mainstream dailies) and Pulitzer Prize-winning Art Spiegelman, who introduced Katchor to The New Yorker.
We can see better now, through Katchor, that hidden somewhere behind the transgressive sex and dope themes was the artists' detailed referencing of a disappearing urban ambience. Crumb's artistic rambles began in the Cleveland of the early sixties, with the past etched in tenement skylines and the anonymous art of outdated storefront signs and advertising logos. Crumb's intimate pal and longtime collaborating scripter, Harvey Pekar, continues his American Splendor comics with ethnic (and black) faces and remembered accents encountered by real-life hospital clerk Pekar--although appearing less often these days are the legendarily short and furiously gregarious lower-middle-class Jewish guys who spoke for hours with self-created authority on any given topic.
There's even another, yet deeper and more curious connection. Few of today's Nation readers will likely remember the Morgn Freiheit, a Yiddish left-wing daily that prided itself on precise use of language (unlike its more popular rival, Forverts, guilty of too many Americanisms) as well as unflagging faith in international revolution. Katchor's immigrant father was a major supporter of the Freiheit in its later decades, when it raised hundreds of thousands of dollars annually from related garment workers just to keep publishing. Katchor Senior would have known well the father of Trina Robbins--founder of women's liberation comics in the early seventies--who was a radical Jewish tailor and writer in Yiddish. Among those several thousand intense reader-supporters west of the Hudson, the Freiheitniks also numbered a certain Mrs. Pekar, way out in Cleveland: member of an almost invisible, if proudly unassimilated, secular Jewish community.
Well, it could all be a coincidence, but I don't think so. The humor that came to the yiddishe Gasn (Jewish streets) of New York in the 1910s found a home in the theater and early cinema as well as in left-wing Yiddish political meetings, where a stand-up comic would get the audience awake for sterner stuff. But it also came in the vastly popular satirical weekly Groyser Kundis ("the big stick"), whose intimate knowledge of ghetto life focused on personalities--like Forverts editor Abe Cahan, whom it ceaselessly ridiculed as a capitalist bully--revealing in themselves the zest of ghetto life. In the same generation, virtually anonymous Yiddish poets delivered a volume of published lyrics about New York City life larger than that of all their counterparts in any language for the rest of the century. It was a humor thing, but even more, a street thing: the American counterpart to the French flâneur's observations; closer to home, the vernacular counterpart of the Ashcan school of city painters.
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.
But wait, there's something funny here, and (if it's not redundant to say so) altogether Yiddish. As in Cheap Novelties, the crank theories of older men about sexual hygiene offer insiders direct analogies to the fervently Marxist theories of the autodidact Jews of Katchor's father's generation: They've got it all worked out, a near-cryptic science of something-or-other, and now, if only the world would listen....
This is not so much a satire of these generations and their ideas as it is an oblique, poetic comment on their world in dialogue and drawing, a sort of displacement that nevertheless sums (or summons) up the original. Today's eldest left-wing Yiddish pedagogue, Itche Goldberg, who at 96 is still editing the bimonthly Yiddish Kultur from a little Manhattan office, once analyzed the paradoxical Jewish nostalgia for roots in the era of a rebellious break from older generations, resulting in what Katchor calls "remembering remembering." The recurrent impulse triggered by a semiconscious questioning of self-identity or self-location outside the bounds of either religion or nationalism thus finds its latest Dante in Julius Knipl. If Cynthia Ozick was not altogether wrong in a CUNY forum last year to describe the revived interest in Yiddish as a "betrayal" of Jewish causes (her Jewish causes, that is), it's because something vernacular taps feelings of Jewishness a lot more accessible in Seinfeld than in the synagogue. And you don't even have to be Jewish for the yearning, although it surely helps.
Dwellers in today's nineteenth-century cities, Katchor avows, can still drink in the ambience of the vanished automats, where the coffee called for an iron stomach but the conversation lasted forever; or revive visits to small shops whose very merchandise was a mystery. If this is a dream world, then more and more apparently want to join it. Reminding us that George Herriman's Krazy Kat was made into a ballet during the twenties, Katchor's strip "The Carbon Copy Building," is now an opera with his own libretto, which premiered in Italy and recently played, fittingly, in the former factory town of North Adams, Massachusetts. If this is an emerging public art, then perhaps in some alternative universe, everything is Katchoresque. It's a nice thought, hopeful in the way that André Breton used to promise his followers that someday Surrealism would abolish the barriers between sleeping and being awake. That imaginative leap demanded something beyond socialism, but Katchor's world surely bears a rather stronger resemblance to the old romantic phrase rarely heard these days, "When you're in love, the whole world is Jewish."