Guest Review by Paul Buhle
Ben Katchor: Conversations. Edited by Ian Gordon. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2019. 220pp, $25 paperback.
The scholarship of comic art is booming, so far as “booming” means well-attended university classes on comics and the identification of icons among the artists, a la literary theory and teaching. This is not an altogether agreeable development for understanding the history of comic art, first of all because the iconic identification tends to push at least 95% of the artists into the background, also because the background itself, the historical context, can slip dangerously away. Never mind: we take what we can get, often tasty and nourishing tid-bits of a larger, still mostly hidden history.
Katchor is definitely sui genesis, a considerable thinker, In a field where better- and lesser-known artists are inclined to explain themselves through their drawing, and when pushed, to talk about their lives or their own work rather than the comic art of the age, let alone comic history, he is rare. Is it perhaps his being personally soaked in the history of diasporic Jewry, of which his Yiddish-speaking father, survivor of the Holocaust, was a prime example? Or just as likely the boyhood in Brooklyn that he talks about, the now-vanished world of mulit-purpose candy and cigar shops with racks of dime comics?
Whatever the case, Katchor has often said that he identifies not at all with the mainstream Superhero genres and lost interest in them fairly early. He explains that he owes more to his experience in the small-scale, typesetting experience in New York of the 1970s, in another world that has faded so completely that it seems archaic as the once-booming garment trade in downtown Manhattan. This experience offered him, we can guess, a way to orient himself toward the physical presence of older buildings, neighborhood vernaculars of older people in particular, things to keep in memory and rework in his art. His maiden voyage into the book world. Julius Knipl—begun as a newspaper strip in 1988—is a tour through an imagined but not wholly imagined city, reality stretched out and reworked in art and dialogue.
The source of this volume is another key because Katchor was serializing, in at least a few of the alternative weeklies and then more and more. He sometimes shared a page with Lynda Barry (recent MacArthur winner) or the later best-selling Alison Bechdel. He had the steadiness of a schedule to meet, ideas to cook up with art.
Toward the end of the old century, he had a regular gig at a prestige architectural magazine, Metropolis, and he began his long stint of teaching. Within the classroom, he made yet more important observations. His students, uninterested in the Art Speculation market of gallery painting, were more interested in “comics” but not necessarily like any comic art yet in existence. They were entering a phase of publishing and self-publishing, with scant chance of making real money or even having much distribution, but ample opportunity to find themselves within their work.
His own work is so unique, in a way cut off from the history of comics, newspaper comic strips as well as comic books, and yet it is impossible to look at any of his books—Hand-Drying in America, and other Stories is his most recent, until The Dairy Restaurant appears next Spring—and not see the kernel of comic art in what he prefers to call “picture stories.” The German word Bildergeschichte, “combining pictures and stories” (p.77) is certainly workable, but to that general definition Katchor adds the unique notion “autographic writing,” a literary-visual tradition with the very handwriting of the artist inscribed in the work. Lynda Barry has often made a similar point about young fingers getting ready to draw anything: drawing is an extension of drawing around the fingers.
There is another angle of Katchor that I wish to pursue. Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium (2004) edited by Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester, offered a history of sorts, of criticism if not scholarship of comics. Its publisher, the University Press of Mississippi thereby made itself an early claim on scholarship in the field at large, and has continued to be one of the leading scholarly publishers on comic art. As in the title of the Heer-Worcester anthology, comics were for past generations seen as a form of literature. To my mind, Katchor seems to defy rather than accept a “literary” slot for the drawing of a certain kind of comic, but then again, perhaps not.
It is memorable that Gilbert Seldes, whose Seven Lively Arts (1924) offered the first major defense of the popular culture distrusted when not ignored in the genteel culture of the day, was also the first to point out that comics were actually destined to be “despised” in extremis. Their very popularity among the unwashed and barely literate classes of Americans naturally placed comics at the bottom of the bin, most obviously with the most vulgar of pulp productions, i.e., pornography. They were wicked, corrupting literature.
(Not that this association was entirely mistaken. The comic book industry giants arising in the ‘thirties had indeed dabbled in pornography, and the “Tijuana Bibles” had a long and fruitful run until the breakdown of censorship rendered irrelevant.)
The quiet move from genteel rejection to ambivalence and a sort of acceptance tracks with the Depression years to the War years, most notably the Cold War to follow, and the post-Vietnam rethink of American culture at large. As Heer and Worcester note in their introduction to their volume, the largely aesthete Partisan Review, refining its cultural views while moving politically from an anti-capitalist perspective to a ferocious Cold War liberalism, already precipitated by the later 1950s a degree of discomfort. What was wrong here? The complaints against “conformity,” directed against popular culture as much as the manners and morals of suburbia, seemed to apply also to intellectuals steadily making their way upward in the expanding college scene.
Or perhaps it was a professorial search for newer subjects, newer angles of vision likely to be interesting to undergraduates and the publishers of high quality paperbacks. More interesting critics and mostly younger critics, in any case, began to look in new directions. They were for the moment swimming against the tide washing over the New York Times as well as the literary magazines.
Someone described Robert Warshow, a favorite writer of the PR and surrounding circles, as possessing a 1950s view of movies and comics much the same as the cop in his cruiser, assigned to policing the ghetto, “understands” the dangerous neighborhood. The “Free Enterprise art” (in Henry Luce’s memorable phrase) of the high culture alternative seemed to repudiate, in one fell swoop, the Popular Front art of the New Deal era, anti-fascist Hollywood, the WPA-funded post office murals and the 1930s-40s literature of social struggles. Not that all of the painter-abstractionists, by any means, agreed with existing Cold War politics. Some were committed anti-capitalists and a few, following Picasso, even remained Communists! But the trope held fast until—it broke.
After Vietnam, even during the later years of the invasion and mass bombing of Southeast Asia, the older assumptions of Cold War liberalism, artistic quite as much as political could not be sustained. Surely nothing repudiated these assumptions quite as drastically as the Underground Comix, arising out of the equally rebellious Underground Press. Ferociously antiwar (if also, at times, noxiously sexist) and even ecological, their very presence inspired youngish men and women to experiment with the familiar “vulgar,” genre, seeking to reinvent what a comic could be.
The underground generation and a somewhat younger cohort would create the feminist comic, rediscover the “wordless comic” (of the classic 1920s-30s woodcuts, along with older versions) and in Raw magazine, show proof that global art, global audiences had come to a new stage of defining comics, and just in time. Comics no longer occupied the center of attention in a newspaper trade that was dying, anyway. That painting genre that meanwhile survived and even flourished among the investors’ set actually disguised an important positive kernel: figurative art had made a comeback. Alice Neel an elderly leftwing counterpart, in her way, to the most artistic-minded of the younger comic artists, could stand for the ongoing artistic rebellion. Neel, too, Went Naked.
Here we may return comfortably to Ben Katchor, The lush color pages of Hand-Drying in America seemed to bring out something never hidden but never quite fully expressed in his previous work. He would say afterward that the imaginative depictions of an early Manhattan (and fictional offshoots, the re-imagined favorite vacation spots of lower middle class Jews generations ago), along with the inhabitants and their language, were in fact his own dreamscape. Hope is not quite lost, in the troubled real world around us, because anything is possible for the dreamer. “No one,” he commented to a critic after the volume was published, “has yet seen these strips as a dream critique of the waking world.” We could fairly call this observation “surrealist,” but in spite of a fondness for elements of the vernacular, surrealists were largely caught within a set of assumptions about what is revolutionary or not. Katchor evades the distinctions.
He does, however, share the harsh criticism of capitalism that marked the surrealists, now so many artistic generations ago. He is not and cannot be a literalist in his work, but he has become an insightful as well as a ferocious observer about the direction the system is taking us. Occupy Wall Street, centered in the very neighborhood where he practiced the small business of the typesetter, seems to have loosed something in his mind, awaiting a spark. And then there’s repression. “I feel like we’re replaying World War I, with the Espionage Act being revived and journalists being threatened for merely doing their jobs,” he tells an interviewer. “And on top of that, the ecosystem is collapsing. It’s a nightmare…”
He adds, in a note to the reviewer, that Julius Knipl was, after all, a critique of the world, “aligned with those people who were unhappy to see the gentrification” of yesterday’s New York, with the end of the street and cafe life that made it so interesting. If his fellow art school students of the 1970s saw making comics a form of professional suicide, Katchor saw this as a political act. He quotes the formidable art critic Meyer Schapiro, writing under a pseudonym in the New Masses of the early 1930s on an art exhibit of the John Reed Clubs, as insisting that a good revolutionary picture “is not necessarily a cartoon, but it should have the legibility and pointedness of a cartoon, and like the cartoon it should reach the great masses of workers at little expense.”
Too soon, the John Reed Clubs were folded into the American Writers Congress and once again, the famed novelists drawn to anti-fascist politics were exalted, with their prestige and style far from comics (that the last phase of the Writers Congress, in Hollywood, would highlight scriptwriting for Hollywood is another contradiction too distant for consideration here). The Daily Worker itself had a couple of excellent comic strips for some years. It cannot be said that they were taken seriously as an art form.
Now, perhaps, after all this time, including the rise and fall of the wildly explosive and critical EC comics, followed by the rise and fall of the underground comix genre, something is on the way again. If it happens, if it is actually happening, we can thank Ben Katchor for his insights as well as his own artistic contributions. He’s a deep thinker of a genre that has few, indeed.
Paul Buhle is actively producing radical comics.