Katchor's Cheap Novelties is One of Paul Buhle's Top Five Comics

“Paul Buhle picks his top 5 comics! ” / Verso Books / John Merrick / August 26, 2015

To celebrate our week dedicated to our graphic novel selection we asked Paul Buhle (editor of some of our most popular graphic novels including Wobblies, Che, Bohemians and many more) to pick the five comics that have most inspired his work.

Comic art has been in my life since at least age 5, when I can recall my (older) sisters reading them aloud, a decisive part of my learning to read. If nonfiction comics happened to be my destiny, then Classics Illustrated, especially the William Tell comic with its heroic attack on the authorities, must have been predictive. Jump down to 1959 and Harvey Kurtzman’s Jungle Book, a classic satirical assault upon modern American business culture-- wholly written and drawn by Harvey Kurtzman, the very first comic to appear as a paperback original—was my first of five. Too bad, for the massively influential creator of Mad Comics, that it was a commercial failure.

So-called Underground Comix transformed the art, but as a kind of continuing collective work, rarely abandoned the anthological form. Justin Green’s Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary (1972), oversized and unique in every other way, is said to have invented the autobiographical format through the artist’s hilariously tortured childhood story of religious confusion, somewhat fictionalized. The rich literary tradition of agonized memoir had no previous role in comics but with Green’s influence, was to blossom in the next thirty years. Green, very much part of the Underground scene centered in San Francisco and represented as an artistic force in many of the publications, hit the then-huge readership with a zany lucidity.

Because the Undergrounds crashed by 1980 and artistic outlets dried up, major artists and key anthological projects (including Wimmin’s Comix, originally It Ain’t Me Babe) struggled along and then, mostly, disappeared. “Alternative” comics of various types, erotic to historical (Jack Jaxon’s sagas of Old Texas the best representative of a new kind of nonfiction comic), and numerous reprints of 1900-1950 classics, included a small handful of precursive graphic novels like Milt Gross’s He Done Her Wrong (1930), arguably the very earliest of such in English. Art Spiegelman, whose future Maus began appearing during the 1970s, was, with Bill Griffith (of Zippy) co-editor of the doomed anthology Arcade, clearly on his way….to the avant-garde RAW magazine. There, as a short-time assistant, the artist with the next of the five Biggies for me took the field.

Cheap Novelties: the Pleasure of Urban Decay (1991) by Ben Katchor does not fit either within or outside any easy definition of graphic novels. Katchor’s semi-legendary cityscapes, his wonderfully oddball characters and above all the sense of a vanished lower-middle-class Yiddishkayt once common in Manhattan and Brooklyn, added up to a world vanished but leaving traces behind.  It was imagined history, imagined social history with the details overwhelming the story, and like Binky Brown, accomplished something never seen before in comic art, a narrative realized in art with the artist’s originality stamped on every page.


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