The Austin Chronicle on Ben Katchor

“Ben Katchor: Drawn, You Might Say, to the Texas Book Festival” / The Austin Chronicle / Wayne Alan Brenner / November 2, 2016

Gene Luen Yang isn’t the first cartoonist to win a MacArthur Foundation award, and he points this out after I congratulate him on the recent honor.

“Alison Bechdel and Ben Katchor have also won MacArthur fellowships,” the author of American Born Chinese and Boxers & Saints tells me.

We can take this information and draw a Venn diagram or two, as if we handled pen and ink as well as a celebrated cartoonist would. Because both Yang and Bechdel have won MacArthurs – and both Yang and Bechdel won’t be at this weekend’s Texas Book Festival. And because Ben Katchor has also won a MacArthur – but he will be at this weekend’s Texas Book Festival.

Thus, having distracted your visual thinking apparatus with an idea of overlapping circles, do I shift the focus of this blogpost from Gene Luen Yang to Ben Katchor.

Ben Katchor, while not, as noted, the only cartoonist to’ve won a MacArthur fellowship, is the only cartoonist to have won an Obie award. That’s a theatre award, the Obie, and it resulted from Katchor’s collaborations in musical theatre with composer Mark Mulcahy. For instance: A Checkroom Romance.

And what does that have to do with Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay a classic, reissued in a gorgeous hardcover edition by Drawn & Quarterly, the most recent book associated with Katchor and the one he’ll be presenting at the TBF?

Maybe not much – except that those musicals were also part of the milieu the artist tends to traffic in, and so it’s at least sufficient to justify the connection.

The milieu?
Which milieu, journo?

Listen: In a recent installment of The Q&A Hole, the actor (and indie comics fan) Shannon McCormick, in responding to the question What, besides the traffic, is the worst thing about Austin, Texas? said this: “Austin is not a built environment that fosters walking around very much. It’s not a pedestrian-friendly environment. It’s not a dense urban environment that you could exist in without a vehicle. And with that, of course, comes horrible traffic; but part of it is an infrastructure situation. I really like dense, urban environments – it’s why I prefer New York to Los Angeles. And we’re not dense enough, baby.”

That’s the milieu: New York City. The Big Apple. Knickerbockernalia. A built environment that definitely fosters walking around … and is dense as fuck. Dense with material, dense with increments of time.

Ben Katchor – often through his comic avatar: Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer – explores every inch of that storied city in his comics, has done so for years and years, scrutinizing its geography and architecture and inhabitants, capturing the actual and enhancing with the whimsically fictional, rebuilding in sequential panels, on page after page, the structures and habits of a centuries-old, slowly transmogrifying urban environment.

Cumulatively, it’s astonishing.

And though this city, as ye olde McCormick asserts, is not a pedestrian-friendly environment nor even one-tenth as dense as The City That Never Sleeps, the area around the Texas State Capitol does foster a certain amount of foot-traffic. And will, this weekend, be dense with authors from all over the country, mingling and mafficking as part of the annual Texas Book Festival.

And Ben Katchor, not a cheap novelty but a venerable artisan of image and text, will be among them.

So, in case I get caught in, I don’t know, a cattle stampede somewhere beneath the big Lone Star sky and can’t make it into town? Please tell him that Brenner says howdy – and don’t be a stranger

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