I first experienced the work of Ben Katchor more than a decade ago when I read his graphic novel The Jew of New York, a wild tale about a scheme to carbonate Lake Erie and pump seltzer water directly into the tenements of New York City. I loved both the creative wit and the spare drawing style that brought this tale to life. I am very excited to finally meet the man behind the many tales when he appears here next week in a rare Los Angeles appearance.
I had a chance to chat on the phone with Ben recently and I asked him how he started doing graphic novels. Here’s what he told me:
I was exposed to comic strips as a child, growing up in New York. They were always something that existed outside of the certified educational system, a kind of forbidden literature for children. By the time I got to high school I outgrew them in terms of stories, but I still liked the drawing. I realized that the drawing was the thing that really interested me.
So I ended up studying art in college, but I felt in painting there was something missing for me, and that was the human voice. I realized there was a form that combined both, and that it was a form I had read as a child: comics. It worked more like theater or movies where you can have a text line running along a picture. I just went back to it as an adult. Some people responded more to the stories in comic books, and they became writers. I responded more to the way they created visual worlds. The form of the comic book itself is an incredible idea. Like the notations of staged drama, basically, like the way you would notate a play with text and image. I didn’t see a future for me in galleries with paintings hanging on the wall. I love that my art can be reproduced so very cheaply.
Find out more from Ben when he speaks at the Skirball next week. See you there!