« This peephole was smeared when I moved in »
Originally appearing in alternative weekly The New York Press in the late 1980s, Ben Katchor’s Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer belongs to that most exotic breed of comic strips, those that suddenly awake the mind to the medium’s grand possibilities. Said experience can be abrupt and dizzying, but in this particular instance, it’s soothing and bittersweet, full of rightful yearning for things that possibly were or surely should have been, glimpsed in a daydream by the low flame of the fantastic mundane.
Mr. Katchor (born November 19, 1951 in Brooklyn, New York) is blessed with a vision of startling depth and singularity. By its nature and scope, it’s not everyone’s thing, but the rest of us likely wind up as lifelong admirers, and isn’t that just the ideal audience?
Much has been written elsewhere, often brilliantly, about Mr. Katchor and his œuvre; it’s work of a calibre to inspire theses, dissertations and papers, so I’ll mostly stick to presenting some samples. The passionate plaudits these strips have inspired tend to obscure the fact that most people just haven’t had the pleasure, or at least the opportunity, of encountering such rich material.
These vignettes were collected in 1991 as Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay. Oddly enough, it was the only one of Katchor’s books to go out of print… the situation was remedied in 2016 by Montréal’s Drawn & Quarterly, who brought it back in a lovely hardcover edition.
From the collection’s back cover blurb: « In a vast and shadowy city of old skyscrapers, neglected warehouses, juice stands, and coffee shops, Julius Knipl, a rumpled, middle-aged man in a suit and hat, wanders the streets photographing buildings and pondering the details: the scent of the past that seeps into the present; the ghosts of other values and culture embedded in the urban landscape; people and behaviors almost gone that linger on. He sees what others overlook, a Borscht-belt Buster Keaton. »