Anyone who still doubts the intellectual potential of the comic strip is clearly not familiar with the work of New York-based cartoon artist Ben Katchor. Like Art Spiegelman, the creator of Maus, Katchor takes the medium to new literary heights. His sparse, no-frills sketches, often just a single page of panels, are dark and intentionally poker-faced; many are not particularly funny. The stories that accompany them are less like linear narratives than brief vignettes, and ponder such oddball topics as the fate of outdated phone books or the erosion of concrete sidewalks. A broad survey of Katchor's quirky oeuvre, "Ben Katchor: Picture -- Stories," began at the Jewish Museum in New York and now moves to the new Magnes Museum, where it will be the inaugural show marking the merger between the Jewish Museum San Francisco and Berkeley's Judah L. Magnes Museum.
Admission is free-$4
Ben Katchor presents an illustrated lecture on "The Great Museum Cafeterias of the Western World" Thursday, March 21, at 7:30 p.m. at the Delancey Street Theater, 600 Embarcadero (at Brannan), S.F. Admission is free.
Katchor's first major retrospective, "Picture -- Stories" brings the line drawings off the page with a multimedia display. The show includes work from both recent comic strips and graphic novels, including Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay; Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer: Stories; and The Jew of New York. Also on display are set designs created for the Obie Award-winning opera based on his strips, The Carbon Copy Building, and radio renditions of his most famous character, Julius Knipl, produced for National Public Radio and read by Jerry Stiller and Professor Irwin Cory.
Katchor based Knipl, a disheveled nebbish and loner, on his childhood in Brooklyn in the '50s. Firmly rooted in the urban experience, Katchor's work is particularly relevant to New Yorkers and Jews, but his portrayal of big-city life appeals to urban dwellers of all kinds. Though his narratives are old-fashioned, they exist in a surreal, timeless world that is Katchor's own. Some may wonder what appeal the East Coast cartoonist could have out west, but readers of his syndicated strip Hotel & Farm, which runs in this paper, should already know. A saga that switches between urban and rural milieus, the comic captures the city denizen's need to get away from it all; Katchor's characters escape to the fictional Echoic City, no doubt a nod to the chicken farm/communist hotel that the artist's father ran in upstate New York. Katchor uses the minute details of daily life and a sharp wit to explore the big questions of alienation and loneliness. His hapless characters -- loners like Knipl who toil away as tour bus drivers, kosher butchers, or salesmen of 8-foot balloons -- are especially poignant in these hard-knock times.