Julius Knipl "is sort of an idealized, disgusting world," Ben Katchor says. "It's a place where you can eat pastrami and not die of a heart attack."
Maybe to you that doesn't sound like an effective sales pitch for his first book-length collection of Julius Knipl comics, Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay (Penguin, 102 pages, $12.95). Ask him to try again. "Well, it's a quarter of an inch thick. It doesn't take up much room." Or how about the fact that each strip is "only eight panels. You get your foot in the door with people who would never pick up a book."
So he's not the best pitchman for his own work. That's fitting for the guy who draws the rabbinically contemplative Mr. Knipl, philosophical purveyor of a prosaic art, melancholic observer of the urban lower-middle depths. Not the world of the real down-and-outers, but of the people hanging on for dear life to the rung just above that - the world of all-night-deli countermen and venetian-blind salesmen, corset makers and day-old bakeries, lonely pinochle players and "dead storage" warehouses.
It's "The Cheap Merchandise District," where the ready-made wig shops have names like Cleopatra Palace, and the bus that used to go past "the convertible sofa workers' union cemetery" has been discontinued. Where guys from the rooming house run in from the rain to order a Herbert water or a Hoyvel's coconut champagne, while earnest middle-age subscribers to Sexual Progress magazine gather at the Garden of Eden Cafeteria to say things such as, "You'll find the root of capitalism at the base of the urethra," and "The Industrial Revolution is still going on in our underpants."
"It's sort of sad," Katchor says in a soft, slow voice that sounds like Knipl talking to himself. "But it's the best idealized world I can think of. It's somewhere between a utopia and something..." His voice drifts off, but you know where he's heading. The corner of Deadpan Alley and Pathos Street, where the Live Fish truck is parked and a professional doorknob polisher is reading The Daily Pigeon with the headline "LOUIS JINK HAS A BIG FAT ASS."
Katchor grew up near there - in Brooklyn, in the Fifties and Sixties -though he says it "was more first-generation immigrant" than Knipl's world. "My father was born in Warsaw and came here before the war. So his whole circle was a little less assimilated than Knipl is."
Katchor and his friends "were all sort of comic-art connoisseurs," he recalls. "That was the only figurative art I was exposed to. In those days if you wanted to look at drawings of figures and objects, comics were it. I sort of knew there was such a thing as Western painting. I was taken to the museum once in a blue moon. But that was old. This was a living tradition.
"I was as much an art connoisseur then as I've ever been since. The way an expert can look at an unknown Renaissance painting and know who the artist is from how the ear is painted, we could look at a comic panel and say `Well, Ditko drew it, but it was inked by some mediocre hack.'" (Steve Ditko drew Spiderman and Dr. Strange.)
When he was in junior high he took life-drawing classes at the Brooklyn Museum. Later he studied figure painting at the School of Visual Arts, but "only for a year and a half. I didn't really graduate from that school."
In the mid-Eighties he and friends did two issues of a comic fanzine, Picture Story, and he began contributing to RAW. He created Julius Knipl for New York Press in 1988. It's since been syndicated by New Times, as well as papers in Washington, D.C., Providence, and other cities. Cheap Novelties pulls together 85 of the almost 200 Julius Knipl strips he's done, along with "The Cheap Merchandise District," which at seventeen pages amounts to a Knipl novella.
I ask him where the inspiration came from.
"Years before the strip, I was researching something in the library and came across an entry from an old Popular Science, `A Promising Career in Real Estate Photography,'" he says. "The term stuck in my mind. The name Julius Knipl was chosen for its sound."
The dreary but dogged characters Knipl deals with on his daily rounds - the door-to-door rubber band salesmen, unscrupulous sign painters, sidewalk pitchmen and proprietors of save-a-lot clothing outlets - come from Katchor's business experience. "I was a partner in a small typesetting business in Lower Manhattan for about ten years. I dealt with a lot of these small, desperate business people. We did the lowest-level stuff up to national magazine ads. Gypsy fortuneteller cards, stickers for the back of fake street watches that said fourteen-karat gold, delicatessen take-out menus. When I walked down the streets at the height of our business, the streets would be littered with our work."
The work included what he calls "sleazy graphics," such as a mail-order lingerie catalogue "that folded after one issue." The end papers of Cheap Novelties are a backhanded homage - they're pages from a fake mail-order catalogue filled with funny, sad, useless junk such as false eyebrows, lost-hair scrapbooks ("Quick...Preserve your youth...NOW!!"), button-hole removers, automatic hat cockers, smell-of-money aerosol, weeping-man noisemakers, and artificial salad.
"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.
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