Ben Katchor and a Million Pants

Ben Katchor unpacks the city’s cupboard of day-to-day idiosyncrasies with a blend of gray washes, wobbly lines and poetic narration. Mr. Katchor is the author of Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer, The Jew of New York, and The Cardboard Valise. His comic strips, which have pushed the genre to the brink of an evolutionary leap, can be found in select newspapers across the country.

Nine months after this interview Ben Katchor won a "genius" grant from the MacArthur Foundation. William Waltz spoke with Mr. Katchor over the telephone one autumn afternoon.


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conduit: Friends in New York have said the city is being overrun by corporations like Barnes & Noble and Starbucks, franchises sprouting up everywhere. What would Knipl think of such developments?

ben katchor: There was a strip I did about a chain store and somebody figuring out how to see these minute differences in branches of one chain, how each Starbucks is unique, different than the next, on a level of subtlety that most people can’t even see. It’s just more boring. A lot of these very specialized stores that you used to only find on Madison Avenue are now in every mall in America. I think hopefully the way the internet is allowing people to buy things from these centralized places will end all of this. They’ll realize when they go out in the street that they don’t want to have this limited choice of things or see the same store every 20 blocks.

I like the idea that people can see my strip all over the world if they happen to look at this one place []. It’s the same kind of centralization that Burger King wants. People want this world market. Anyway, that’s what Knipl was about, all the pleasures of this kind of 19th century variety. To see the city as this gigantic expression of all kinds of little businessmen. The Cardboard Valise is more about this internationalistic impulse, that it’s crazy that we have to have a million different kinds of pants in every country. The world is too small. It doesn’t need all these varieties. That’s being worked out in the strip whether it’s insane or not.

conduit: It seems to me that Julius Knipl and Willy Loman might actually inhabit parallel universes. As archetypal figures, what do you think differentiates the two?

last name: In Knipl’s world, these people are trying to make the best of the situation. The small businessman who’s managing to stay above failure, above desperation. One of the impulses of the strip was to figure out all these things that seem like very miserable results of some business deal, looking for something bearable about it or some poetic material found in it. It’s all fodder for poetry, different kinds of poetry. Knipl is not a direct call for political action. Maybe it is.

conduit: Growing up in Ohio I developed an interest in decay.…What about decay appeals to you?

last name: The alternative to decay is preservation, perfect preservation. With decay at least there is a kind of change. If things don’t change, then they are in this embalmed state. I think people equate decay with death, but I equate just the opposite. The decay of an organic thing ends at some point; the thing just becomes minerals or something. In a city it’s decaying, and then it’s somebody putting up something new. It’s just change. That’s something I like about the city: a sign of things passing through, a density of activity that really leaves a mark behind. I don’t know if that’s a good word for it, decay. It’s more like wearing out. I don’t know why I called it decay. That title wasn’t such a great title [Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay]. There’s some strip about a committee, how it would be possible to set up some alternative to historic preservation like a committee for historic neglect.

conduit: I heard somewhere that the makers of Pop Rocks, the candy that explodes when it comes in contact with saliva, reintroduce the candy every few years. Apparently, their strategy is designed to capitalize on the novelty of the candy with new consumers and on the nostalgia with consumers who re-discover it. This seems like your territory.

last name: Well, it’s how all big businesses have to think. They have this narrow market that they have to tap into. You can’t make something that appeals to everybody. In that particular case, it’s getting them coming and going. Most merchandise is targeted to an age group or an economic group, and they know the minute a person is out of the group they wouldn’t buy what they’re making. That’s funny because they’re actually trying to capitalize on someone remembering it, and then wanting it again. With most things, when people remember it, they actually regret that they ever bought it. It’s probably like people listening to older pop music. Everybody listens to 60s music. When I was a kid, it was a pretty esoteric thing for a young person to want to listen to music from the 40s and the 30s. Candy is a timeless thing, so you can just keep bringing it back. It’s a strange business that they let it disappear for a while. Usually you don’t have to. Something is new to some child everyday. You don’t have to take it away to make it new.