The comics of Ben Katchor and Chris Ware

by Bill Griffith


We’re all acquainted with the pleasant disorientation we feel in the realm of Winsor McCay’s lyrically surreal "Little Nemo" or Cliff Sterrett’s playfully experimental "Polly and Her Pals". We are in the hands of cartoonist-poets who artfully bend and shape the medium’s conventions to evoke a new way of experiencing comics. The furniture is familiar, but the territory is unmapped. There is a dreamy, seductive quality to the world created by these artists; the language, both visual and verbal, seems to obey a logic all its own. Cartoonists of this caliber come along rarely and, when they pop up in our own time, there is cause to celebrate. Two such modern masters are Ben Katchor, creator of "Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer", seen in weekly newspapers across the country, and Chris Ware, whose "Acme Novelty Library" comic book series often features "Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth". Though the two have little in common stylistically-- Katchor relies on a moody, noirish/expressionist palette while Ware evokes the precise line work of turn-of-the-century illustrated magazines and early animation--they both create highly realized, densely layered comic landscapes. Katchor’s people seem to live and work in a strangely Mitteleuropean version of lower Manhattan, struggling to figure out their place in the human beehive. Acting like immigrants from an unnamed country, they frequent seedy gymnasiums, discount department stores, cafeterias, derelict warehouses, and "Brand X" business operations like the "CROWN O’ GLORY" unisex haircutting salon and the "PHLEGMCO" 24 hour drugstore. When the strips’ eponymous hero turns the corner and walks down a previously unexplored block, what we are really visiting is another corridor of Ben Katchor’s idiosyncratic mind. In this underground city, everyone is a philosopher, everyone has an observation on the human condition. Knipl is like a sleep-walking archaeologist, digging through layers of complex meaning, fusing unlikely connections between the artifacts and human specimens he uncovers. The strips are often narrated in a voice we might expect more from well-crafted fiction ( "At a sumptuous dinner party, a crowd gathers near the cheese platter to watch Chaim Pharos ruin his appetite") , all too rare in comic writing. Then there’s the signage. Katchor’s dream-like urban evironment is puncuated by advertising of all kinds, with one important difference. Instead of the familiar corporate urgings we’re constantly assaulted with in real life, the billboards and storefronts Knipl wanders among contain darker messages like, "FORGET ABOUT IT! DRINK OBLIVION WATER", or "MORTAL COIL MATTRESSES" and, more enigmatically, the name "OTTO MOSINE" in three-foot letters on the side of a jack-knifed bigrig.

There is a strong pull of nostalgia in "Julius Knipl". Nostalgia for the pre-Disneyfied cityscape, with its undigested quirks of personality. Reading the strips can fill you with a sense of loss. It’s a good thing Katchor has reinvented New York - the real thing is slipping away, one Calvin Klein bus stop ad after another. Nostalgia for a lost aesthetic is a big part of Chris Ware’s appeal. His "Acme Novelty Library" series takes place in a cosmos which admits almost nothing generated before World War Two. Put together in several compatibly "old fashioned" drawing and layout styles which faithfully recreate the look of teens-to-thirties pulp magazines and old Sunday comics supplements, his approach is arcane and media savvy. If you don’t have at least a passing familiarity with Felix the Cat cartoons, old cigar labels, early Popular Science magazines or the original Johnson Smith novelty catalogs, you may come away perplexed. But nostalgia is just the jumping-off point for Ware. He manages to bring off a tricky comics high wire act, balancing an intricate, beautifully made "old time" look with a real sense of deadpan comic absurdity. His work is srangely both pre- and post-modern at the same time. While he doesn’t exactly deconstruct the past (he loves it too much for that), Ware appropriates and cobbles together a half dozen different historical styles to create his own.

Again, as with Ben Katchor’s work, it’s the writing, the narrative voice, that makes it all worth the eye strain. And speaking of eye strain, Ware’s clever use of typography (often in point sizes which send even the youngest readers to their magnifying lenses) is essential to the gestalt of his books. Not only does he play with and rework various art styles, he also sends up the very idea of type and layout, from dead-on parodies of fifties comic book ads and fast food drink coupons to elaborate cut-and-fold "winter projects". Ware rides the line here between anarchic playfulness and genuine seriousness. The tension between those two impuses permeates all his work, always toying with the readers’ knowingness and gullibility. We’re never quite sure whether we should be chuckling or taking notes for a quiz. Ware has recycled an entirely new kind of comics out of the treasures found amid the flotsam and jetsam of comics history.