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.