New York cartoonist Ben Katchor is one of those unique characters who can only exist in New York City.
He’s a winner of the MacArthur “genius” grant and has worked on critically acclaimed comic strips such as “Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer” and “The Cardboard Valise”; he’s written musicals and he’s a professor at Parsons School of Design.
“Knipl,” perhaps his seminal work, began in 1988 as a weekly cartoon strip in The Jewish Daily Forward, and other alternative weeklies. It follows the title character as he chronicles small business in a city that is a dreamlike riff on NYC. “I tried to invent this city where in every corner you’d stumble upon this revelation, an incredible invention someone came up with,” Katchor says. “Designing a coffee shop in a way it had never been designed before.”
The strip was collected in the book “Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay” in 1991, and that book is now getting a snazzy new hardcover edition, which Katchor, 64, will be signing at 192 Books on Oct. 6.
The cartoonist says that he wants people who read the book to ponder the potential for a unique, wondrous city — instead of the homogenized strip mall that New York too often resembles these days. “It’s a kind of speculative fiction, and the purpose of that is for people to put the book down and say, ‘Why isn’t it like this?’” Katchor says. “It’s all a dream, somebody had these dreams to make gigantic chains of indistinguishable coffee shops. That was somebody’s life goal. So you can come up with other goals. That’s what I’d like them to come away with.”
The book is filled with poetic cartoons about hot dog joints and odd little storefronts advertising, “Joke Headlines Printed While-U-Wait.” The author has no interest in chain stores on every corner. “This large scale chain operation tends to reflects this incredible poverty of the imagination,” Katchor says. “It’s like they figured it out once, and now they just want to replicate it all over the world. That makes it boring to walk around the city.”
Katchor has a fascinating thought process that inspires his work. He wonders whether today’s youth will have a “desperate search,” as he calls it, for the “tremendous variety in every Starbucks.”
That mentality makes the comics collected in “Cheap Novelties” timeless and intriguing. Even if you never experienced the dearly-departed New York City that inspired the strips, Katchor’s vision transport you there. “Back when I started ‘Knipl,’ I wanted to talk about this kind of dream city that was really in this perfect state of equilibrium,” he says. “All of these things, these crackpot things, could go on, a newspaper about the dreamlife of the city. Every other corner would be this big, all-night cafeteria — everybody’s dream could be manifest in a storefront and that kind of a city would be really interesting.”