"I still do some work for a man who does sleazy mail-order catalogues," Katchor relates. "He was looking at these with a serious eye to which ones were possible."
Trashy promotional trinkets and the eponymous cheap novelties take on a shabby talismanic quality in Katchor's work. Kazoos, erasers, bottle openers, magnets, paperweights, harmonicas, peep viewers - anything that can be given away and then thrown away. As one strip comments, In the design and manufacture of everything, there is a blatant lack of worth. It is the defective mortar which manages to hold each consumer enthralled for the brief span of a lifetime.
"I was trying to figure out if Knipl is idealized," Katchor reflects. "I know it's not naturalistic. And I just happened to read this E.M. Forster quote. He said: `In the heart of each man there is contrived by desperate devices a magical island. We place it in the past or future for safety, for we dare not locate it in the present. We call this memory or a vision to lend it validity, but it is neither, really. It is the outcome of our sadness, and of our disgust with the world that we've made.'"
So why is the urban island he evokes so haunted by decay?
"It's just that everyone's pleasure in the city is at the expense of someone else. Everything that's made, the minute it's made it starts to decay. It gets worn down so rapidly." The wearing down is inevitable, Katchor's strips suggest. In one there's a statue that's been effaced simply by being stared at by so many tour-bus travelers over the years.
All this may explain why Katchor and his wife moved out of New York City several months ago. They live now in Providence, though he's a little hard put to explain how they chose it.
"I think I spent a day here about ten years ago and was not impressed," he says. "We wanted to have some foot out of the city. I don't travel much in this country, so I have very little sense of what it's like." They checked out Baltimore, but "it was too hot." New Haven was too close to New York. They talked to a guy he knew in Providence who "had only good things to say about it. Every other town or city I heard of, people hated. They had only terrible things to say about it."
He says he hasn't been in Providence long enough to figure out whether he likes it yet. "I guess I was looking for a smaller New York, which it's not." He kept his studio in Lower Manhattan and comes down every couple of weeks for a few days to get his business done.
I take another stab at goading him into promoting his book. When I ask him how it came about, he says RAW's art spiegelman "had a commitment" with Penguin to package a few other books as RAW One-Shots. "I was one of the RAW contributors who hadn't done a book yet."
Spiegelman edited Cheap Novelties and did some of the design. I ask Katchor why he thinks "serious" comics such as spiegelman's best-selling Maus II are now getting such serious attention from critics and finding such a receptive market.
"I don't know why," he muses. "I'm always sort of amazed at this tremendous audience for movies. It's a little less glamorous, but comics are the same thing. It's just a story with pictures. Maybe if comics were a little more glamorous, maybe done with photographs of movie stars, it'd be even a bigger market.
"I think it is the most accessible art form," he continues. "It's fun. It's very painless to read a comic. Minimal effort involved." Then he pauses and adds the expected down note. "I don't know. Maybe next to watching a movie, it's agony to read a comic strip."
Talking about the book brings him back to decay.
"I don't know what the purpose of the book is," he muses. "The strip has its life in the newspaper, really. The newspaper is the perfect format. It decays rapidly. It disappears in the garbage, like our whole culture. You read a newspaper quickly, on its way to the Dumpster." He pauses. "Of course, you could say that about a paperback book, too. It's ephemeral. It falls apart quickly." The notion seems to cheer him.
By this point I'm not surprised to hear that he hasn't been doing a lot of publicity for the book. I ask if he's done any book signings, and he says, "No, but I was thinking about doing a milling." A what? A "milling," he explains, was a spoofy nonevent thing humorist Jean Shepherd used to arrange. You just get a bunch of people to mill around on a street corner somewhere.
Katchor adds a characteristic twist of his own. "Preferably it'd be somewhere that's no location. A traffic island on Broadway and 43rd Street or something.