Imagined Cities and Real Nostalgia: Revisiting Cheap Novelties With Ben Katchor

Comics Features Ben Katchor
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Imagined Cities and Real Nostalgia: Revisiting <i>Cheap Novelties</i> With Ben Katchor

Cartoonist Ben Katchor’s distinctive comic strips tell the singular story of a surreal city and the people who live and work there. His recurring character, real estate photographer Julius Knipl, lies at the heart of several of Katchor’s books, including Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay. Attempting to describe these strips isn’t easy: they broadcast on an exclusive frequency and, like the works of novelist Steven Millhauser, turn the odd minutiae of urban life into the stuff of strange and compelling narrative. Cheap Novelties funnels the passage of time and a cultural history rare for the medium.

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In conversation, Katchor is often rueful about the state of the modern city, lamenting the ways in which businesses have given way to greater standardization. He’s also dryly funny—which, given how his strip’s punchlines sneak up on you, makes a lot of sense. In the following interview, Katchor discusses the new edition of Cheap Novelties out next week and how he continues to draw inspiration from the metropolises around him.
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Paste: How long has the new edition of Cheap Novelties been in the works?

Ben Katchor: The original one went out of print quite a while ago. Drawn & Quarterly approached me about reissuing it. So recently. It was the first book I did; it was a small Penguin paperback. And, like most books, it had its life on the shelf and then it was remaindered and disappeared. Actually, it’s the only book of mine that’s out of print. The other ones, somehow, have all stayed in print.

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Cheap Novelties Interior Art by Ben Katchor

Paste: As someone who lives in New York, Cheap Novelties really captures the feeling of nostalgia for an older version of the city, and I feel like the strips have aged very well for that reason. Do you feel like that’s specific to New York City, or something about cities in general?

Katchor: The city in the strip is not identified as New York—it’s just an old post-industrial city, maybe on the East Coast. People who read it in Providence think it’s Providence, and people who read it in Chicago think it’s Chicago. It’s not identified as New York.

But the thing is, what made cities interesting was the variety of street life in a city. You could walk down a block and it was a catalog of every possible entrepreneurial invention. It was this endless discovery, when you used to go for a walk in the city. And I think that’s one of the things that drew people to live in cities. The mall-ing of cities, taking over most of the retail space with chain stores, that’s gone on since that strip was running. I don’t see that turning around.

That just makes it boring to take a walk. Forget about the fact that most of these companies don’t pay their employees and they’re selling horrible products—on top of it all, it makes it boring to take a walk in the city, because all you’re doing to discover is another Starbucks on the next corner. That’s getting worse. That’s just continuing, that trend.

Paste: Are there neighborhoods in different cities where you still enjoy being able to go out and take a walk?

Katchor: Yes. They tend to be cities that have fallen off the radar of developers and corporate entrepreneurs who want to bring them into their system. That’s why the book is subtitled The Pleasures of Urban Decay. To a large corporate developer, these are failed things. The whole idea of a privately run coffee shop, that’s just a failure to them. That is urban decay. That’s not what they have in mind. They want this city where they dominate the market. But there are these little pockets—not every block in every neighborhood, but it’s getting there. I’m constantly surprised.

If you go out to Long Island City or Greenpoint [Brooklyn], these places are… First housing usually comes in, gentrifies the demographic of the neighborhood, and then the stores. It usually happens around the same time. That implies that these kind of neighborhoods are meant for a certain socioeconomic group of people. Since the economy is destroying the middle class, I don’t know what this imaginary group of people would be, other than people who stockpile corporate apartments where nobody lives in them. I don’t know, exactly. It makes it boring to walk around the city. Forget about the fact that people are being driven out of neighborhoods and people are being underemployed and exploited in various ways. That goes without saying.

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Cheap Novelties Interior Art by Ben Katchor

Paste: For the strips themselves, you use an oversize, Sunday paperstyle format. Could you have ever seen doing something with this character in a three or four-panel version?

Katchor: I think eight to nine is getting about as short as I would like, to make a complicated dialectic where you can put the punchline at the beginning and then analyze how it came about. If it gets too short, it gets, for me, too abbreviated. I’ve never wanted to make it shorter. And it doesn’t matter—the kind of syndicate who run those kinds of strips would never run this strip anyway. This was designed for the so-called “alternative press,” and it ran only in those papers. They would give you a third of a page to run a strip of that size.

Paste: I first encountered your work in Metropolis magazine. Do you find that there’s a subset of your readership who come at it from the architectural or design side?

Katchor: I’m still doing the full page for Metropolis; that’s been running for a while. The only thing I’ve discovered in hearing from readers over the years is the only thing that they have in common is that they don’t have any interests in common. The comic readers are not my readership. That’s a small overlap. Most of my readership is in the rest of the other world, the larger world.

I just discovered that one of my readers was this great historian of Baroque art, Donald Posner. He died about ten years ago. Someone like that. I don’t think he was, in general, a comics fan. Maybe he liked some comics. These strips ran in newspapers, so someone would pick them up to look at the classified ads to rent an apartment, and incidentally read my strip. They were not going to go to comics shops to look for my work. And it ended up in books! They’re in bookstores now, where people are wandering around looking for all sorts of things.

That’s all I know from hearing from people. They say to me, “I don’t know what’s going on in comics. The form doesn’t particularly interest me, but I read your stuff.” I haven’t done scientific market research on that, but that’s what I hear. Maybe I don’t hear from the comics fans. Maybe European comics, more in that world. It’s a big world, and comics are a small part of this bigger audience that you can have for a strip.

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Cheap Novelties Interior Art by Ben Katchor

Paste: One of the strips in this book is about a sign painter who paints signs in windows on floors that are much too high to be read from the street. That seemed like a very specific detail—was that something inspired by a real-life building?

Katchor: I mean, I’ve seen it. It was based on something I noticed: signs painted in windows on incredibly high floors. A lot of these strips are based on things that I’ve seen, and I try to explain them. In that case, it’s, Who’s to say that it’s too high? Is the eighth floor okay but not the ninth floor? Where is the cutoff? Depends on the eyesight of the person looking up at these signs. Not that people depend that much on window signage any more. I think, with most modern buildings, you have no sense of what’s going on floor to floor. They probably don’t want you to know what’s going on.

Paste: The strip about how the idea of naming buildings going out of style also felt very resonant.

Katchor: Most of upper Manhattan was developed in the early part of the 20th Century. It was this idea that a building should have a name, not just be a number. I’ve always seen these names. They try to evoke different things: classical references or references to European culture. I don’t know what was going on in the mind of these people. That’s all I was trying to figure out. Why shouldn’t it have a name? The building I’m in doesn’t have a name. It was from that period, but it doesn’t have a name, as far as I know. Maybe some of these names were effaced. Unless they were put in stone, they manage to disappear or be forgotten.

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Cheap Novelties Interior Art by Ben Katchor

Paste: When you have a strip centered around a particular piece of architecture, are you generally working from memory or referencing photographs or other source materials?

Katchor: I live in the city; I live right on Broadway on the Upper West Side. I can look out my window and see architecture. But architecture is something that’s invented on paper before it’s built. So it’s really an easy thing to invent on paper. And if you want to evoke a really particular style, yeah, you can look at it and see what made it particular. The geometry of architecture is all paper-based. It started as a drawing. That’s an easy thing to draw.

Paste: There’s one strip that mentions that Julius had once been a dance instructor. Do you have a longer history that exists for him, or do you use him more as a way of getting into certain situations?

Katchor: He is a fictional construct, and he’s only as deep as he is in each strip. I don’t work out his life history. I could. If it comes up in a story, or I need it for a story—in that story, I was talking about clothing items that were connected to ex-jobs, like hats or jackets from gas stations. It came up, that he also has clothing from an older job that he had. But I wouldn’t say that I feel it’s necessary to construct all the details for that. It’s a façade that evokes everything else. It’s not this kind of literal world-building, like in a video game where you have to build every street in a neighborhood. It’s an evocation of all of this stuff. I think that’s important, to evoke it in a way where people can say, “I can imagine what this dance studio was like.” But that’s not part of the story. The story just needed that piece of information.

That’s what a comic strip is: it’s an eight-panel model, but if you look outside of it, there’s nothing there but the back of the piece of paper.

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Cheap Novelties Interior Art by Ben Katchor

Paste: The strip where Julius is looking back on things he’s remembered as he walks through the city, and trying to figure out if they’re real, is very affecting.

Katchor: I think if you were brought up in a certain place and you look back on your childhood memories, you’ll have a lot of doubtful memories. That’s all it was about. The things that exist may be fairly strange, but maybe you misremembered them or you mixed them up with a dream. The whole city is a construct of people’s dreams. People dream of being a real estate developer, they hire an architect, and they put their dream into some kind of physical form. A lot of these dreams don’t get realized. I think if you live in a city with all of these inventions, it’s natural to extrapolate and think, Did I really see that? I’ve had that experience. It was mainly from childhood—vague memories where I’m not sure if they were real.

Paste: There are also a few mocked-up newspaper clippings throughout this book, including on the cover.

Katchor: Sort of like the Daily Mirror from 1950. It’s a strange thing—it’s packaged like a novelty catalog that someone made a cover out of a piece of newspaper for. It’s a completely strange object in that way.

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Cheap Novelties Interior Art by Ben Katchor

Paste: Was there anything that struck you about this book as you were preparing to bring it back into print?

Katchor: I can’t look at something I did last week. The reality of serial production, like a journalist, is that you do this work like a utility. There’s a deadline; you don’t go back and revise. You just keep making new work. It’s like an actor or a magician; they’re not the ones appreciating what they do. It’s for an audience to come to. When you come to it without having thought about making it, you’re reading it in a very different way. My reading of it is not the norm.

I don’t sit around re-reading my old strips. I would try to wonder why I would have done it that way. They’re not really made for me. I’m the one person they’re not the appropriate audience for.

Comics are in the tradition of theater or film. It’s the audience that comes to it, and they hopefully find it as a finished object. They’re not really involved in the genesis of it. And either it works for them and there’s a good payoff, or there isn’t. And it’s a matter of taste—everyone has different taste in stories and in drawing.

It was printed once, and I like the idea of things staying in print. Most of my books are old books. I think it’s topical, in that cities of that age still exist and they’re still being changed in the same way. I think, in that sense, people will understand what it’s about. If you look at old political cartoons, they don’t make any sense at all. I don’t do strips that are topical in that sense. I’m also interested in the idea that someone could have been born while that strip was just being started, and now they’re old enough to read it, and what they would make of it. I’m reading a book that was written in the early 19th century, and it’s relevant to me. It’s not that old.

Paste: You mentioned the theater just now, and I know that you’ve also done work for the theater. When you talked about a comic as something that exists on only one side of a piece of paper, that sounds like a description of the nature of a stage. Do you see a connection between the two?

Katchor: Well, theater is the first place that text and image were put together in an art form before printing existed. It’s the same thing going on: you’re combining the stage image with this dialogue or narration. It’s a paper notation, just like a play script. You make people read play scripts—it’s just that the images are missing. Bertolt Brecht made these playbooks that had photographs of each moment in his plays so that they could be re-created the way he wanted it to look. You could notate a play in panels just like a comic strip.

The difference is that a play tends to use live actors or puppets, and a comic strip uses drawings. It’s just a graphic notation of the events rather than staging the events with physical objects. And a person can go backwards in a comic strip, if you don’t get something, you can step back. That’s hard to do in the theater.

They physically work in different ways, but they are an art form that goes from text one moment to image, and how those things play off each other. So does film. In that, they have a lot in common, as opposed to pure prose or pure painting, where there is no text/image combination happening.

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