Weekly Process Roundup 3/18/11

The weekly process roundup is a collection of sketches, pencils, inks, thumbnails, everything other than finished product, from The Long and Shortbox of It's favorite artists and illustrators, hitting every Friday.

Talk Over Balloons: comicsmith Ben Katchor

Ben Katchor is among the most honored creators of sequential art alive today. The first comicsmith to be awarded a MacArthur Fellowship as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship, he is a standing associate professor of illustration at Parsons-The New School and, perhaps most importantly, was declared by Michael Chabon to be "the creator of the last great American comic strip".

The strip in question is "Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer", a unique creation of poetic verbiage and expository narration; urban culture sprinkled with imaginative speculation; truly American in nature but with European roots. The work is stylistically experimental yet the content is so quotidian as to be almost boring. And boring it would be if not for Ben's good humour and sharp powers of observation. His work has been collected in "Cheap Novelties", "Stories", "The Beauty Supply District" (all three "Julius Knipl" collections), "The Jew of New York", and most recently as of this month: "The Cardboard Valise".

The Long and Shortbox Of It asked Ben a few questions about his thinking and his work. He has generously supplied us with answers. Here is the L&S interview with Ben Katchor (@benkatchor):

Jon Gorga: Your stories often take place in a highly dynamic and multi-cultural version of the American urban-center. Different eras' architectures and different ethnicities' traditions mix in a true melting-pot. Do you yourself make daily notice of the patch-work elements of urban life like Mr. Julius Knipl, the specialized real estate photographer of the strip's title?

Ben Katchor: Sure, the great energy and ingenuity of first-generation immigrant neighborhoods and business are always exciting -- a transplanted piece of an Asian or Latin culture, designed according to an individual's sometimes eccentric vision and catering to the tastes of fellow countrymen. The strip of Indo-Pakistani businesses on Lexington Ave., the Dominican businesses on the upper west side, the cheap import/export district around 28th and Broadway make living in Manhattan bearable -- otherwise, it's become a corporate strip-mall.

JG: The only place I've experienced that felt to me like what you portray in strips like "Julius Knipl" is Manhattan's Nolita. North Of Little Italy. Chinatown mixes into it liberally. It's home to the Puck Building (former host to the Museum of Comics and Cartoon Art Festival) among other unique buildings. You're a New York City local, are you familiar with the neighborhood? Would you consider it emblematic of a mix you try to represent?

BK: Once a neighborhood in NYC is given a name invented by real-estate agents, it's usually into a social and economic upswing that ruins its character. The business districts I described in Knipl were on their way down. The city invented in Knipl was filled with light industry and lower-middle class families. While the buildings are still intact, the social and economic makeup of that area above Little Italy has changed into something much less interesting over the past 20 or 30 years.

JG: Your work has a poetic storytelling quality to it that I enjoy very much. Ideas flow free-form. I particularly like the simple, but revealing, strips where the last panel alludes to or directly connects with the first, creating a nice 'routine of daily life'-cycle. Like "The First Wife" for example. Is that something you have always done intentionally?

BK: The stories that involve an ongoing situation can usually be evoked with a circular structure. I'm very interested in the kind of free-associative connections that make up the texture of a city -- the distribution of business on a given block or a given floor of a small-office building. If these structures arise through a kind of dreaming, their actual construction on paper is very intentional.

JG: I also enjoy that your work can shift without warning into dream-like speculative territories. I've heard you state publicly at R. Sikoryak's Carousel night that your work is not speculative fiction. How do you reconcile the occasional introduction of a 'novum' (science-fiction's 'the new thing') in your work, with this stance?

BK: I may have said that because I don't like fiction that's concerned with examining ideas at the expense of describing the texture of experience. I want my readers to become highly aware of the invented and improvised quality of the manmade world and, hopefully, become inspired to reinvent it for themselves in some way.

JG: A college professor of mine said that all art's value exists half with the creator and half with the audience. Tell us about the new book "The Cardboard Valise"? Like the Julius Knipl books before it, it's a collection of previously published strips, correct?

BK: It's an absurdist novel in the form of a collection of weekly picture-stories about travel, national identity and print culture. The stories appear in the order they were originally published in weekly newspapers, but have been annotated, or expanded upon, with some new pages.

JG: Does it include the piece you projected on the wall and read aloud at the Carousel night in April about the man who moves house over and over to continue enjoying the most advanced living accommodations possible? That is an example of your work that, to my mind, is both entirely quotidian and yet introduces a few small technologies or concepts not seen in reality. I really enjoyed it.

BK: No, that was from my series in Metropolis magazine.

JG: Ah, I see, they are separate strips. Moving into more formal territory, what do you think of the word 'cartoonist'? Or for that, matter of 'comics'? I noticed you avoid their use in all your bios. As someone whose work is quite far from cartoony or comic-al, and whose primary occupation is in higher education, do you feel the terms apply to you and your work at all? Is there a single word that captures, to your mind, what you do as a creator of "picture-stories"?

BK: Those words seem to have outlived their usefulness in describing the kind of text/image storytelling we're seeing today. Most of the work I like exists outside of, or in opposition to, the comic-strip and comic-book traditions of the recent past. Probably a better description would be autographic writing -- that is, writing concerned with handwriting of words and images.

JG: Interesting. Will Eisner always stressed that he was a writer in pictures and the evidence of the gesture of the hand brings so much both to his artwork, and yours. Now, even "The Jew of New York" was a weekly strip, correct? Any future plans to produce a full-length original graphic novel? And, if not, what's next for you in sequential art? What would you like our readers to know about?

BK: Yes. Almost all of my work has lived in the short serial form. I like the concision demanded by a single page. The novel built only of words needed many pages to evoke a palpable world -- I just need a few drawings. I'm working with Mark Mulcahy on a new music-theater production set in the NYPL on 42nd Street. It will premiere in Oct. 2011.

JG: Exciting! Thank you, Ben, for making the time to answer some questions for us here at The Long and Shortbox Of It!

Ben Katchor's narrative art can be seen monthly in Metropolis magazine and selected strips are available for viewing on their website here.

More information about Ben Katchor's collaborative stage projects (and more sequential art!) can be found at Katchor.com and Ben's elegant WordPress blog. Ben's work is well-worth checking out and he will be speaking with another unique comics-creator, Jerry Moriarty, at the Powerhouse Arena at 37 Main St in Brooklyn, NY at 7 PM TONIGHT. I know I am going to be there.


Quote For The Week 3/13/11

Even when left to his own devices, Kirby’s architecture and costumes seem toylike; Kirby routinely went cosmic, but his “cosmic” still seems contained — if not entirely by his panels, then by the nickelodeon box of his imagination
Chris Lanier, for hilobrow, on Jack Kirby's 2001: A Space Odyssey