an interview with ben katchor      
Ben Katchor


When did you begin doing a weekly column?

I had been doing comic strips for years before I started doing this weekly. I never thought of doing a weekly. I had been doing one shot self-contained strips for magazines. In 1988, someone started a weekly paper in New York [The New York Press] and they wanted all original strips, and that's when I thought I'd try doing a weekly. They had a lot of interesting strips at that time. A lot of those people gave up doing a weekly. It's a lot of work. We weren't used to that schedule.

How did you find this character, Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer?

I knew I wanted to do a strip about the city and I knew of this profession: Real Estate Photographer. I didn't really know too much about what it meant except that people take utilitarian photographs of buildings for brokers to use for owners to show. I thought it a strange business because it combines two professions that have all sorts of powerful connotations: real estate and photography and yet it's kind of a pathetic profession, a man that goes around taking utilitarian photographs. It's definitely not art; it has nothing to do with the real estate. There is definitely no interest there so I thought it was a strange position to be in and that's it. He's not really much of a character he's more of an excuse, an observer who passes through a strip. He's a little viewpoint. People always say to me, "Well, you never say anything about him, where he lives or about his family," but I describe everything else, what's in the city, in incredible detail. Everything I haven't described in this city that I've built is this man that I don't really talk about. People sort of fill in the man he must be.

Your strip is full of detail and yet the title character is a mystery.

The narrator and him are two different things. He doesn't really pay attention to things, doesn't know what's going on. So he's not that kind of a character. I don't know what he would make of a strip like this. He reads news strips in the backs of tabloid newspapers. He's not conscious of being in this strip. I don't think he always knows what this all means. He doesn't always make sense of it. Most people go on and see all of these things and take time to reflect but he's caught up in his next job or where he's going to have lunch, all the little emergencies in his life. He goes along with that. I wouldn't say he's introspective at all. He just goes along.

The street names are of your invention but is this otherwise New York?

Yes, it is! Because that's the city I've lived in most of my life. That's the inspiration. If I set it in a city it would be prosaic. Everyone is a tourist in this city; no one knows it. I don't even know it. I'm uncovering pieces and things. I want to feel that every time I draw one of these strips that I'm in a strange city. I'm a tourist in that I discover a neighborhood I don't know, a building I've never seen before.

Is it contemporary?

In my mind it is. People think this is a strip about the past or the near past but a city like New York is just an old city. Everywhere you look, maybe not in this room, but out of this room your are surrounded by the past. You can choose not to look at it or look at it exclusively or you can be somewhere in between. I live in an apartment building built in 1925 and it hasn't been heavily renovated so I feel very much connected to that time and what went on in that place. It is the present viewed by someone who is conscious of the past. Somebody who lived in some suburb and does all their things in malls or shopping centers or industrial parks may look at this and say, "oh, that's the city my father told me about," which doesn't exist. In my mind it exists. It may not be the driving or cutting edge of popular culture I talk about.

You do get to that in the Beauty District, particularly with the musical performance of a tongue lapping cream as radioed in by the composer from his bed at home.

I'm very interested in music and where these sounds of Western music come from. We sort of take them for granted. They've been around for so long, these very pure sounds of violins and pianos. What kinds of things make those things? They are made by pulling horsehair over catgut. These are strange physical animal substances so this is very similar. It just happens to be a tongue licking milk. And milk pouring on a membrane and making a sound so it's plausible as a musical instrument.

Without the accretion of formal structures layering it up to high culture.

I don't get into that or what this really sounds like. It's implied that it's very difficult music.

Yes, a character calls another saying he thought of him because he has tickets for a concert of difficult music.

So, Knipl is invited to this concert. There are all these strange sides to him. He's not that easy to figure out as a character. People always remember the story that talks about him having worked as a dance instructor. Now they'll say, "Well, he must have some interest in contemporary music if this man thought of him." Somehow you can piece together this character. That's how he's constructed.

He is surprised that his free tickets to the concert actually cost $40.00.

He was just noticing that because he was given free tickets. There's a whole business in New York of organizations that fill concert halls. So that's what that is. That's a real business. There are privately sponsored musical events in a large hall and they just want to fill it so you can join clubs for tickets and that's what that sort of organization is about.

The character outside the concert hall is hawking free tickets to passersby and tourists and he can't believe they would ignore him but they do and then collectors of unused tickets buy his trove for exorbitant prices.

I noticed that those are the most valuable memorabilia of a performance. When you look on E-bay or these collectible sites, if they're unripped or unused someone wants the stub for some rock concert that was never used, of someone that just never got there, it was unsold. It's all true. It sounds a little ludicrous in the context of this strip but it's all true, culturally. Absolutely true and based in this culture.

The signage in the Beauty District is for spare parts of theory and art that are to be found for sale in shops.

A lot of these strips are hard for me to talk about because they are constructed in some intuitive way. I don't plot them out to say this is what this means and there is a simple explanation of it. It's hard to say. I do know from my dealings with artists and my own background of painting and making art that people are aware of the commercial background to making art. It's not bought. You don't literally go out and buy it but it comes from things you may have read in a book that you bought, it comes from living in a certain apartment. There is an economic history of art. That's all this is about. This is made incredibly plain in a way it doesn't exist in this world. It's a slightly hidden story. The Beauty Supply District is that impulse made completely manifest in a neighborhood where you can buy components to make art.

It's a boomtown for sign makers as trends and fashions of thought change.

They keep changing. They'd be selling different things.

So why does the "Symmetry Shop" close down?

The guy probably retires. He's waiting; he has no one to take it over. The customers go into these more up to date aesthetic businesses. I think he's just retiring. He's talking about his son not wanting to take over the business. He wants to retire but he's sort of one of the last...the whole neighborhood changes anyway. There's just a shift of the neighborhood. It becomes an electronic wholesale district. So that's what happened.

The character looking for the shop keeps asking for the symmetry shop, the symmetry shop, a symmetry shop?

He doesn't realize, this customer, that the whole neighborhood is changing. I don't know if you've ever had that experience of going back to some part of the city thinking you'll find something in its place and it's completely effaced. That's what happens.

You replaced the optimistic text of the Beauty District merchant's signs to "shock electric" and "gangland" merchants.

This is the wholesale electronics business. The city is covered with text and so a comic strip that brings image and text together is a strip about the city. There is text in it even if you didn't have these speech balloons and words. The narration of the city is such that it is part of this city, this urban world. It's insane outside with the density of signage in Times Square.

There is so much information but nary a working clock for blocks.

There are not too many public clocks, even in airports. There is a tiny digital number on the bottom of an arrival sign. It assumes that everyone has a watch, I guess. I never wore a watch. I always depend on public clocks and stores have clocks but that is strange. I think there is one on one of the hotels. It looks like a real sort of a period clock with hands.

If there were a clock amidst the overload of digital and visual information, it would give you a reason to look.

I remember as a child I could tell the time by what TV show was on. So maybe there's something like that with the digital monitors. This thing is on it must be two o'clock. It is a strange thing that in places like a train station there are not visible clocks and everyone is thinking about time and where they have to be. A strange modern design, someone either forgot or purposefully forgot or didn't want it there.

They left off the public service element of the structure.

The subways for a while had advertisements with a clock and an illuminated advertisement. I think they're pretty much all gone now; they were hanging from the ceilings.

They are gone. There aren't even clocks in the token booths.

That was a pretty useful thing those clocks. You almost need a watch. I never needed one but that's what's happened. I'll have to get one, I don't know. I do find myself not being able to see the time, even on the street. I ask someone.

Living downtown, I can depend on the ConEd building or the Carl Fisher, that clock is still kept up.

Dry cleaners always had very visible clocks for some reason but not that much anymore. For some reason, there was nothing else to put up on the wall as a decoration so they used to put a clock up. I don't know what that is, shopping places, they don't want a person very conscious of what time it is.

You won't find a clock in a conference room for the same reason.

I think that's why. If you put a clock up—didn't classrooms, I think, when I went to school, have a clock that you could really watch and wait for the class to end? It's probably a very purposeful decision not to do it, not to have them. Whenever I find myself drawing a clock into an image it seems very archaic like in hotels they have clocks of the world and time zones but I don't know. Maybe everything else has it. My computer has a built in clock so I tend to look at that a lot. Maybe people are just so connected electronically they always have a little clock. Maybe this is kill-the-wall-clock business, all these little displays.

Perhaps. Cell phones have a clock.

So who needs one? It's probably not enough to just be a clock. They just put up that clock in front of Lincoln Center. It's okay. The face is nice: it's in perspective, reverse perspective. The numbers on the bottom are smaller and they get bigger as they go up and it's at an angle and it seems it should be the other way.

Is it an advertisement?

It's not an overt advertisement. It's meant to be a stone structure with faces on all sides. It's illuminated; you can see it at night. It's pretty good. Anything like that, a public service is good.

As a manifestation of community.

They're a clock company, they have a vested interest in doing it and reminding people of clocks and watches. If you have your own watch you can always doubt it, whether it's right or not. That's what public clocks are good for: somebody's thinking about this.

They are reliable, have a higher fealty to correct time.

You can have your own watch and always doubt it. If I had a watch I'd probably always be doubting it or the batteries would be dying. I just know that people always have trouble with their watches and that's why I like public clocks. A clock that someone else is watching, setting, keeping.

So the clock on the building down the street is better because it is always accurate.

Yes, that would have been someone's job in a town, to set the clock, Big Ben. Someone probably did that as a job: made sure that it was right and was chiming. I remember when I was in a hotel room in Amsterdam where I couldn't see out to the street but I could all day tell the time by very elaborate half-hour and hour chimes. That's another good thing but that's probably too noisy to hear them in most parts of the city.

It also depends on how nice they sound and whether you can discern them, hear them over the din.

You couldn't even hear them, probably, in most parts of Manhattan but that was how I told the time. There's a strip in here that is all about public scales. The thing about this strip is that after doing it for so many years almost any subject can come up and I can say, "Well, there's a strip about that." There's a strip about meters. Public meters, not clocks per se but other kinds of strange meters.

The "Measure the Atmosphere of Success!" meter.

The weight of the earth, a parking meter, a sidewalk thermometer. Why people like these things.

"Would you stake your life over the accuracy of an oven meter?"

There are meters that count off the population on the earth. And then all of these things breaking down.

A weather vein, a leaking mercury tube and then people lose their own sense—"I think it's beginning to rain, I can't be sure."

Yes, you doubt. But if you could judge the time just by looking at where the sun is, most people wouldn't know how to do that, would they? So, in the city, you need these things. There's that famous public debt meter...

interview by Catherine McWeeney

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