The comic strips, graphic novels, and story-images of Ben Katchor are one of a kind. Many of his strips manage to touch on something particular to being Jewish and American. Michael Chabon – the well-known Jewish American novelist – said that Katchor is the “creator of the last great comic strip.” Because he often deals with characters that are schlemiels, his work speaks, in countless ways, to the concerns and interests of schlemiel theory.
I have taken special interest in his 1998 graphic novel The Jew of New York, and I have written on it in relation to its portrayal of a Jew who journeys into the Adirondacks and goes “wild.” But I have been wanting to write on his 1996 book, Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer for quite some time. Katchor’s main character draws on many different aspects of the schlemiel and his curious wandering mind and stumbling body; always in search of something new, always ready to make a deal, while, at the same time, losing track of time as he traverses through space. (Think, for instance, of Mendel Mocher Sforim’s Sendrl and Benjamin, Aleichem’s Motl and Menachem Mendel, Singer’s Gimpl, or Bellow’s Herzog). But what makes these strips so amazing is not just the endless flow of urban comic imagery but also the words that seem to come out of nowhere yet always at the right time. The words have a certain speed to them that is, for lack of a better word, embodied in the character. (My personal favorites are the scenes over food and before meals, when there is a sense of hunger; it’s as if Knipl is not just moving between scenes or photographs but between meals and conversations. To be sure, Katchor gives the schlemiel a Bloomian kind of feel.)
I thought about the book recently when I stumbled across a series of audio clips that take segments of the book and perform them (in the fabled American radio-play-style). The translation of the strip into an audio clip, which was produced by David Isay and his “sound portrait” project, is a delight. (In the recordings, one can hear the legendary comical voices of Jerry Stiller, Irwin Corey z’l – the “World’s Foremost Authority” – and Joey Faye, amongst others.) These recordings add yet another dimension to the strip. They make the images leap off of the page, fly into our ears, and spark our imaginations. The schlemiel comes to us, so to speak, in two mediums and since one medium is visible and the other not it gives the listener and reader an opportunity to share in the imagination of the schlemiel.
If you haven’t clicked on the hyperlink to the audio clips above, click here.