|NOVELTIES THAT LAST
The comics of Ben Katchor and Chris Ware
by Bill Griffith
CIVILIZATION MAGAZINE, June 1998
Were all acquainted with the pleasant disorientation we feel in the realm of Winsor McCays lyrically surreal "Little Nemo" or Cliff Sterretts playfully experimental "Polly and Her Pals". We are in the hands of cartoonist-poets who artfully bend and shape the mediums 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. Katchors 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 Katchors 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 theres the signage. Katchors dream-like urban evironment is puncuated by advertising of all kinds, with one important difference. Instead of the familiar corporate urgings were 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.