In my last article on The Comics Grid, I spoke about Ben Katchor’s use of the palimpsest; specifically, how the past persists in the present and is “never fully erased” (Augé, 2000: 79).
In my earlier example, the traces of the past were quite present, although hidden away, similar to the ghost writing featured on a palimpsest. The palimpsest notion of history is only part of the story. Indeed, when Katchor goes beyond the notion of the visible trace, more complex notions of memory and narrative come to light. One such example can be seen in the following 1989 strip from the Cheap Novelties collection. Here, a building from the past has been erased, with the name of the lost theater standing as the only reminder of its existence. In so doing, Katchor evokes a sense of the ruin that preserves the past through reflective narrative, as opposed to the more literalized narrative evoked on a palimpsest.
In this sample (panels 1-8 on page 144) a lost building thrives in name only. The Kozma theater is shown in the seventh panel as a glittering showplace, and Julius Knipl (the character depicted in this strip) states that “everyone wanted to cash-in on that name.” The reader is taken on a visual tour of the city which features six different buildings, each bearing the Kozma name. In a visual twist, the only site that lacks that name is the parking lot that replaced the theater when it was knocked down.
Here, the reader sees literalized what historian Pierre Nora argues about the ruin. Ruins, in and of themselves, lack the “will to remember,” and it is up to the individuals to unite a site with a narrative, lest the “place of memory… becomes indistinguishable from the place of history” (Nora, 1989, : 19). The unity between memory and history is literalized by Katchor in the seventh panel.
In this panel the old Kozma reappears, surrounded by an almost angelic glow. The atmosphere changes from daylight to nighttime in order to highlight the glowing marquee. Knipl evokes this image in the previous panel by stating, “I remember the Kozma,” and the act of memory is literalized as the theater manifests itself. Memory, sparked by the site of ruination, allows the readers a glimpse of history. One can imagine that a less educated observer without the direct memory might be curious as to why each business on that corner bears the Kozma name. Such reflection can lead to memory narratives: “What used to be there? What is the Kozma?” With enough interest, these questions could lead to research about the “painfully strange appellation” described by the narrator. Such curious research could lead to a deeper sense of history, butonly so long as the Kozma name remains on the surrounding buildings.
Unfortunately, things do not look good for the remaining Kozma structures. The parking lot, as previously stated, lacks the Kozma name. Further, in the eighth panel’s background, a bar is visible and also lacks the Kozma name. The other businesses are older and devoid of presence, from the Kozma Luncheonette’s empty lunch counter, to the Kozma Menswear shop where the ghostly mannequins take the place of customers, the isolation of this block is a likely harbinger of more erasure. As the narrator makes clear, it is the sheer number of Kozma-monikered businesses that make this site unique. The more that succumb to the wrecking ball, the less likely the memory of the place will hold.
Even Knipl hurries on by once he completes his reflection on the Kozma. As James Young argues in The Texture of Memory, “under the illusion that our memorial edifices will always be there to remind us, we take leave of them and return only at our convenience” (Young, 1993: 5). Would Knipl have stopped at all if the shops did not continue to bear the theater’s name? Likely not; in fact, the Kozma name itself is even questioned in the strip as being more “befitting [of] a river in Eastern Europe or a patented coffee substitute.” This confession again suggests that only the most curious will dig below the surface of the name, while the majority will make assumptions that are not true to the site’s roots. The site’s history and the memories related to the lost building are thus shown as being on the precipice of extinction.