julius knipl, real estate photographer: the beauty supply district by Ben Katchor (Pantheon), 108 pages, $33.50 cloth. Rating: NNNNhaving grown up near the big Apple, I sometimes recognize my own New York dreamscape in works of art, but no one has tapped into this territory as deeply as Ben Katchor.
In grey ink-wash drawings, the cartoonist creates a world of shadowy old office building and low-rent storefronts with signs featuring Yiddish puns or medical terms, populated by lonely middle-aged salesmen, recorders of little-noticed phenomena, artists of bizarre projects performed on bus routes or apartment radiators. The period could be the 40s -- I was surprised to learn that this poet of urban decay is a baby boomer. The former typesetter embellishes his world with realistic urban printed detritus: ticket stubs, flyers, menus, business cards.
Frustrated with underground comics' lack of distribution, he once displayed a weekly strip in a glass case he set up outside a Papaya Hut. On the recommendation of his friend Art Spiegelman (Maus), New York Press commissioned him to do a weekly strip, of which the books Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer and The Beauty Supply District are collections.
Most of the eight-frame comics are self-contained, with a few narratives extending over several strips.
Women are notably absent from the Katchor universe, and those who do appear are commanding figures dwarfing the males. At the end of The Beauty Supply District, his protagonist Julius Knipl has a sexual experience, a subject that Katchor has previously avoided, during a concert at Foyer Hall. I hope in future he remains his enigmatic self and doesn't go the way of explicit underground comics.
The beautiful frontispiece, a panorama of the beauty supply district -- with storefronts advertising "Samuel Gross Understatements, Surface Meaning Refinishers, Blonje's Ambiguity Warehouse" -- alone shows why he deserved the MacArthur Genius Award.