Ben Katchor illuminates the results


The graphic novelist speaks at Sixth & I

by David Holzel
Senior Writer

Ben Katchor pondered the topic of sardine cans during his appearance at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in the District last week. Katchor, creator of graphic books including Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer and The Cardboard Valise, was asked about an illustrated story of his that considered the transition of sardine cans with key openers to ones opened with pull tabs.

It was a Katchor situation, ripe for his deadpan images and text. That transition in food canning technology reflected a singular moment in time, he said. That we no longer open sardines with a key isn’t necessarily a loss, but certainly there is no going back.

“Even if you were to bring back the sardine key, it wouldn’t be the same,” he said. “It would be a retro sardine can.”

That little observation brought a sheepish grin to his face. With the mien of a mellower Walter Matthau, Katchor sounds a lot happier than he looks. He’s touring to promote his new book, Hand-Drying in America and Other Stories, a collection drawn from his work for Metropolitan.

In a voice reminiscent of a 1940s radio announcer, he treated his Sixth & I audience to a number of those stories: “The Wide Rider,” in which researchers investigate the reason men sit in subway cars with their legs so far apart that they take up three seats; “Lossless Things” which introduces technology that allows people to keep track of things they’ve lost for the rest of their lives; and “Public Housing,” where a rich man moves into a low-rent apartment because he likes the 1950s architecture. Each is a wry projection of where our society might be leading.

“My strips aren’t about political personalities,” he said, but then had to backtrack. “The Jew of New York is about a politician” – Mordecai Noah, circa 1830 – “the first professional Jew in America.”

The health of the publishing industry being as poor as it is (“Google’s ads can find you wherever you are. You don’t even need content anymore.”), Katchor is diversifying by teaching writing and drawing at Parsons, the New School of Design, in New York. He gets his students started by asking them to write an essay, “like ‘I was an accomplice to a crime’ ” and illuminate the results. That’s how Katchor works, incidentally: words first. “I leave the drawing until the last minute.”

One person in the audience asked Katchor if he bemoaned, along with her, the fact that people are so involved with technology that they are losing the ability to notice details of the world around them and to ponder quietly.

Katchor said the ability to reflect is socioeconomic. “If you look at the history of Western art, you need someone’s sponsorship to have the leisure to contemplate things. I think if people had the leisure, they would.”

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