Books

A Fictional Photographer Chronicles a Changing City

For several years, Ben Katchor explored in comics the vanishing (or long gone) rituals we associate with life in America’s metropolitan centers.

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A page from Ben Katchor’s ‘Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay’ (© Ben Katchor, Drawn & Quarterly 2016) (click to enlarge)

For several years, cartoonist and MacArthur Fellow Ben Katchor explored in comics the vanishing (or long gone) rituals we associate with life in America’s metropolitan centers. His clever black-and-white strip “Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer” debuted in the New York Press’s first issue in 1988 alongside work by Charles Burns and Mark Newgarden. All three artists were by then contributors to RAW, a groundbreaking comics and visual art magazine helmed by current New Yorker Art Editor Françoise Mouly and her husband, comics creator Art Spiegelman, whose Pulitzer Prize–winning Maus originated in its pages.

Katchor published a self-contained volume of Julius Knipl in 1991 under the title Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay. Over the years — and again now, on the release of its 25th-anniversary edition from Drawn & Quarterly — the book has been deemed a “graphic novel.” It’s not, and the distinction is important; Knipl’s serialized sidewalk-chess matches and 50-cent cups of coffee are as lost to history as flattening out and soaking in your Sunday newspaper’s full-color comics section is. Katchor unearthed these customs in his chronicling of an unnamed Depression Era–city we’ll call New York, while also gesturing fondly in the direction of the funny pages and their legacy.

“Kids used to camp out on the floor,” Katchor told critic Sam Adams of reading newspaper comics. “I remember opening the paper, the news was small, but you needed to just lie on the floor.”

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A page from Ben Katchor’s ‘Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay’ (© Ben Katchor, Drawn & Quarterly 2016) (click to enlarge)

In the new landscape hardcover of this long out-of-print collection, Knipl mulls over ever-changing city blocks, inspecting their shifting typography and, in the tradition of such reporters as Gay Talese or Joseph Mitchell, profiling its uncelebrated sign makers and pharmacists. A mock newspaper page includes a Knipl comic and the illustrated vintage ads that line the book’s cover interiors a fresh addition that complements the original strips, in which Katchor’s photographer pores over headlines at a luncheonette and brushes past neat piles of paperweight-ed broadsheets at corner newsstands. Unrefined line work and smudgy, newsprint-esque textures are offset by sequences that make use of a dynamic array of angles. We rarely see Knipl snapping pictures, but the panels are rendered with a photographic, reportorial sensibility. Bystanders catch their reflections in the “glistening crust” of a deli’s fresh danish; other strips include close-ups, bird’s-eye views, and medium shots. The script is as buttoned-up as terse newswire copy, too. Just as Katchor holds to an economical meld of black inked figures and gauzy gray watercolor, he tells touching and funny stories while keeping his word count to a minimum.

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The cover of Ben Katchor’s ‘Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay’ (© Ben Katchor, Drawn & Quarterly 2016)

“Every week,” wrote novelist Michael Chabon in 1996, “in the eight panels of a new installment of Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer, Ben Katchor manages to teleport the reader to a particular urban past — a crumbling, lunar cityscape of brick and wire that was young and raucous in the heyday of the Yellow Kid.”

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A page from Ben Katchor’s ‘Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay’ (© Ben Katchor, Drawn & Quarterly 2016) (click to enlarge)

Sketched in scratchy contours and donning a hat and boxy slacks, Knipl would hardly look out of place in the old papers — and comic strips — to which Katchor pays visual and thematic tribute. The reverence for newspapers here is often as prominent as the nostalgia for grandiose storefront signs and cheap deli sandwiches, and it’s worth remembering that Cheap Novelties assembles strips that first ran on pages not unlike those that gave birth to Katchor’s art form as we know it. This is no graphic novel — these are comics, and while bookseller-friendly parlance solves a shelving conundrum, it also affords a euphemism for those who would still deem such work “low art.” Not calling Cheap Novelties what it is severs Julius Knipl from the legacy of his late 19th-century forebears; worse yet, it just ignores history. That’s the last thing Ben Katchor wants.

Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay is published by Drawn & Quarterly and available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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