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Ben Katchor at the AIHA

by John Rodat on April 13, 2011

Cartoonist Ben Katchor’s newest book, The Cardboard Valise, begins with an episode in which a young man takes an inexpensive suitcase on a test run. He has packed the case with “a hundred pounds of old medical textbooks, back from when they were printed on that heavy, coated paper.” He found them, he tells the cab driver bringing him home from his day trip, “in a dumpster on Pitgam Avenue–they’re diseases no one suffers from anymore.” The point of the exercise, he explains, is to test the sturdiness of his luggage in anticipation of a longer vacation, during which he will carry the entire contents of his single room, including old phone books, tax returns going back to 1970 and New Year’s Eve noise makers, so as not to arrive at his location “like a new born baby” primed for overpowering, and apparently unwelcome, wonder at the exotic locale.

In this brief and slightly surreal exchange many of Katchor’s own thematic go-tos are highlighted. This is the world he has depicted in his books and in cartoon strips that have run in a variety of weekly presses and magazines such as Metropolis and The New Yorker: a world in which the mysterious and the mundane jostle and gibe with one another; a world of day trips, lousy tips, dated publications, crap luggage and yesterday’s musty ailments. Katchor, a second-generation American raised in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, is not only a masterful chronicler of the urban, immigrant experience, but a creator of that very experience for his readers. His watercolor-washed illustrations evoke the nostalgia of old photographs; and the dry, slightly weary wit of his writing has both an Old World wisdom and a seemingly endless fascination with the weirdest details of routine.

All of which was evident in Katchor’s lecture and slideshow presentation, titled—grandiosely or whimsically, depending on your orientation—“Graven Images in the Yiddish Press and Other Objects of Idol Worship,” held at the Albany Institute of History and Art last Sunday, April 10.

Katchor’s talk was a co-production between the art department of the University at Albany and the New York State Writers Institute, as part of a series staged by the university’s Center for Jewish Studies (if I followed the credits correctly). It, of course, makes sense that there were so many invested parties, as Katchor’s work can easily be viewed from multiple perspectives. Based on the questions at the end of Katchor’s talk, it seemed that many of the attendees were most interested in the socio-historical aspects of the subject. One audience member went so far as to preface his statement, “I’d argue with your thesis,” as if we were auditing a doctoral defense.

Katchor, himself, is slightly tousled and carries himself with a slump-shouldered modesty that seems almost self-deprecating; with his Brooklyn accent, he came across as a professorial Peter Falk.  Nevertheless, the presentation’s tone—for one familiar and fond of his work—was, though informed, less academic than amused.

Katchor took as a point (or picture) of departure the publishers’ portrait in one of his fathers’ favorite Yiddish language newspapers, Morgen Freiheit. The “crappy” half-tone image of Moissaye Olgin, which was projected on a screen behind Katchor, fascinated him. There was, Katchor said, “something akin to contemplating a ruined piece of Greek statuary” about the muddied, deteriorated depiction of the paper’s founder and publisher, a man whose words were so valued he was known during his lifetime as “The Golden Pen.”

This disproportionate prioritization of the text in Jewish culture had a flip side: a “blatant disdain for quality of image,” which Katchor associated with the historical prescriptions against idol worship. Katchor wryly pointed out that according to the Talmud, the three cardinal sins were “idolatry . . . murder and incest.” Katchor provided a gloss of the print media’s transition from engravings to the half-tone process in the late 19th century, allowing that the economics of reprinting images also led to their diminishing quality; but speculated that there may have been some sub- or semi-conscious neglect by the printers, who like others in the Yiddish community, were raised with the monotheist’s suspicion of the image.

As mentioned, not everyone in the audience found Katchor’s case compelling—if even it were meant to be. For his part, Katchor seemed unmotivated to argue his case, or to take sides in the text vs. image dichotomy he had proposed. He cited Goethe: “Wonder-working images are usually but ugly pictures,” and said of himself, “I use both text and image because I don’t trust either on their own.”

At the conclusion of the lengthy Q&A that followed Katchor’s talk and slideshow (which had included only one of his drawings), he read two of his comic strips with the original art projected behind. The audience responded warmly and without quibble, laughing heartily at the strangely familiar and fondly odd wonders of Katchor’s text and images.