Lost New York

Ben Katchor: Picture Stories

by Ben Katchor
an exhibition at the Jewish Museum, New York City,through February 10, 2002

The Jew of New York

by Ben Katchor
Pantheon, 97 pp., $20.00; $15.00 (paper)

North of the Guggenheim Museum, New York’s Appian Way becomes quiet, intimate, and leafy. But inside the ornate mansion that houses the Jewish Museum, a powerful vision of the city’s Manichaean life, its perpetual dance of demolition and construction, unrolls across the walls of a ground-floor gallery. Since the late 1980s, the cartoonist Ben Katchor has been weaving dark, intricate graphic novels about New York—not the gleamingly visible metropolis of the recent booms, the bright archipelago of restaurants, clubs, and town houses, but its backdrop, the dark ocean of faded office buildings, fly-specked cafeterias, and discount stores.

Now a lively exhibition, crammed with Katchor’s scripts and rough drawings as well as with his finished strips, traces the development of his work, starting from his early drawings for Raw magazine and following the many strands of his current interests—which include graphic novels in black and white, elaborate one-page strips in color, and even the sets for a witty, award-winning opera, The Carbon Copy Building. In this cream-colored room, a grimy light-industrial Atlantis, submerged by recent history, comes to the surface.

The inhabitants of Katchor’s city, sunk in deep middle age, dress in baggy, old-fashioned clothes and worry about their dry-cleaning bills. In the restaurants where they slump at tables and counters, food does not arrive drizzled with balsamic vinegar or dotted with pepper by contemptuous waitpersons. In the grocery stores where they shop, they do not find precious fish and perfect fruit heaped up in magnificent, glistening piles. The protagonist of many of Katchor’s strips—Julius Knipl, a middle-aged real estate photographer, who works out of a fly-infested office and spends long days waiting for the light to fall in just the right way on a run-down building—eats $1.29 breakfasts at luncheonettes and $2.50 dinner specials at cafeterias, where he wonders how the proprietors can provide two eggs, toast, and coffee or soup, goulash, vegetables, and dessert for so little.

Few of the buildings in this New York rise high. Along Katchor’s drab, dark streets, salesmen with pomaded hair lounge in the bright doorways of sleazy shops, hoping to sell cigarette-smoking bisque monkeys, novelty key chains, and hat bands that predict rain (Mr. Knipl, ever hopeful, takes a dozen, imprinted with his name at no extra cost). Mr. Knipl ransacks luncheonettes in the vain hope of finding one where he can order the cold drinks of his youth—a cherry lake, a Normona, a Latin cream, a Herbert water—from soda jerks who have no idea what he is talking about. He scrutinizes the runic signs and ponders the curious noises that show that light industry still survives; he racks his memory to determine if subways really once had underground luncheonettes, and men who slowly walked the tracks reading leather-bound books.

The strips that tell these stories have a distinctive texture. Katchor starts with words, writing and rewriting his texts before he begins to draw. And the words sprawl …

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