In today’s installment of the Visiting Scribe, Eddy Portnoy sat down with Ben Katchor to discuss his newest book, “Hand-Drying in America: And Other Stories,” which will be published by Pantheon Books on March 5. Their blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
The artist Ben Katchor is a master of a visual urban milieu that echoes post-war New York City, but really isn’t that at all. Populated by stocky characters who tramp about and explore an oddly familiar, yet completely invented universe, Katchor’s picture-stories (as he likes to call them) are stirring forays into the urban absurd. Awarded with Guggenheims and MacArthurs, among other prizes, Katchor creates a kind of visual poetry comprised of everyday artifacts and activities. His ability to bring everyday objects and activities to the forefront of his visual narratives lends his work an imaginative, absurdist quality fired by light switches, peepholes, wheelchair ramps, coat check rooms and invented occupations, like spittoon pump engineers and rhumba line organizers. Katchor sees what we don’t in pedestrian objects and events and crafts short, comic narratives out of them. His books, which include “Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer,” “The Jew of New York,” and “The Cardboard Valise,” are part of his continually expanding oeuvre, which has come to include operas based on a number of his stories.
His most recent publication, “Hand-Drying in America,” is a compilation of full-color, one-page picture stories that appeared in the urban design and architecture magazine, Metropolis. Like most of his work, they take place in an invented Katchoresque urban world. I sat down with Ben recently to have a meandering discussion about it.
Eddy Portnoy: Your stories are full of unusual names of people and places. Are any of them real?
“Up From The Stacks” is musical theater, but like no other performance that you may have seen.
The show, which originally appeared in 2011 in New York and had its West Coast premiere February 23 at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, tells the story of college student Lincoln Cabinée, who has a part-time job as a page at the main building of the New York Public Library. As we watch Lincoln retrieve books from the stacks below, we encounter a cast of characters populating the catalogue and reading rooms above. Given that the play is set in 1975, decades before 42nd Street was made family friendly, it all takes place against a backdrop of seedy shops and porn palaces.
The offbeat stream-of-consciousness libretto, written by cartoonist Ben Katchor and sung by his collaborator, composer Mark Mulcahy, itself renders “Up From The Stacks” unusual. But what makes the libretto stunning is the perfectly timed projection of Katchor’s colorful panels onto a huge screen hanging above and to the right of Mulcahy and his three-member band. Although there is motion in some of the scenes, it’s not quite what you would call animation.
Fresh from being attacked by comedian Andy Dick as a “shallow, money-grubbing Jew,” with a “big fat hook nose,” Howard Stern has a new way to be his provocative heebie self. The shaggy-haired star has his own comic book that gives him new opportunities to mouth off.
The “Howard Stern” title is part of a line of comics aimed for the 18- to 35-year-old male market, said Darren G. Davis, president of Bluewater Productions, Inc.
Larry “Ratso” Sloman, who worked with Stern on his books “Private Parts” and “Miss America” is not surprised by the interest in Stern. He told The Arty Semite that Stern is popular because he has the courage to say what others won’t. “Beneath that image,” Sloman continued, “Howard is probably the hardest working guy I’ve ever met.”
What is on Gary Shteyngart’s mind? Only a clairvoyant would know. It’s much easier to surmise what’s on his bookshelves.
The Strand Book Store in Greenwich Village has set up a display in which well-known writers take turns exhibiting their favorite books. In June, it looked as though a bookcase in Gary Shteyngart’s living room had come to life, strolled into the book store, and tripped, dropping all its contents neatly onto a table.
Shteyngart has bonded with the store. As he writes on the store’s website: “When I was a half-starving New York writer (1995-2002), the Strand offered salvation in its 50% off aisles, cast-off reviewer copies that lined my first IKEA bookshelves.” He adds: “I will never forget the days of saving up two $20 bills to score a whole bagful of books from the Strand, my stomach filled with cheap hot dogs and a poor man’s version of Pepto Bismol…”
It’s not every day that one gets to see an opera illustrated in comics and sung by rock musicians, but happily, May 7 was one of those days. That night “Memorial City,” the latest musical theater piece by comics great (and former Forward cartoonist) Ben Katchor and composer Mark Mulcahy, had its Manhattan premiere as the culmination of a daylong conference organized by New York University’s Humanities Initiative and The New York Institute for the Humanities.
The conference, titled “Second Thoughts on the Memory Industry,” explored ways we bear witness to and memorialize tragic events — from photojournalism to truth commissions to artistic endeavors — and how those acts have become “increasingly reified, stylized, fetishized, instrumentalized, hijacked and ossified,” according to the press release.
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