Cheap Novelties by Ben Katchor
A real estate photographer reflects on the decaying metropolis around him: he remembers a time of sodas floating in corner-store iceboxes, of shaped iron weights keeping stacks of newspapers from flying through the streets, a time when men could order a Herbert Water with lunch or a fizzing Bromol after a particularly greasy diner meal. But these moments are gone, eaten away by dreams of urban progress. He watches as a square of sidewalk is replaced and worn by “weather and human accidents,” until “the appearance of those mysterious black spots”, but, “because of the composition of new concrete, it will never sparkle at night.”
The comic strips compiled in Ben Katchor’s fine collection Cheap Novelties read like inky urban visual haikus: with the exception of the longer one-shot “Cheap Novelties” that ran in RAW, each strip is constricted to a single page and snaps one of these fleeting city moments. The unfortunately-named photographer, Julius Knipl, acts as an all-seeing eye, capturing city minutiae like fireflies in a mason jar. Drawn in beautiful gradations of ink on paper, Katchor approaches his strips like a photographer prepares his shots: he waits, listens, feels for natural light and its subtle movement across the frame.
The “strip” format is rarely utilized by literary-minded contemporary cartoonists, but Katchor’s hazy timelessness masterfully embraces its constraints. Each begins with a fresh new title frame with Knipl’s name and credentials on an object: what begins as a simple business card evolves over the strip’s lifetime to a dustpan, a bank-teller lollipop, even that hanging thing from which deli twine is pulled, each with Julius’s name sneakily integrated. It’s a clever titling that subtly suggests that all urban detritus could be Knipl’s calling-card; he’s an umbrella in a storm, a doorstop, a cheap cigar. Further, Katchor boasts an acute awareness of the last frame, traditionally reserved for punchlines. The careful pacing of his reflections, across the eight-or-so frames of each strip, allows an emotional turn as its memory is completed. It’s not necessarily a laugh or a smile (rarely is, in fact) but a heartfelt tug at one’s receptors for nostalgia.
In an article about “The Wonders of Salvage” that appears in Katchor’s self-published newspaper “The Daily Pigeon” (which also appears on the cover of this new edition of Cheap Novelties), a wordier Katchor can be found, dealing directly with the emotional complications of time’s passage:
If the reader, sitting in a comfortable living room, will, for a moment, take careful notice of those things which make up his immediate surroundings — an old worn lamp and shade, a late model television, a favorite old carpet or painting, a nicely broken-in pair of slippers (each reader will allow his eye to fall upon different things). Now, just for a moment, imagine that you are no more and that these beloved objects are in the cold street, just in front of your building. Most people will shudder at the very thought of this exercise. To these people, the true wonders of salvage will forever be denied.
Although originally published in New York Press in New York City from 1988-1991, the landscape of Cheap Novelties is not quite the Big Apple. It’s not quite Chicago, or Boston, either, but then again it’s not so much a place as it is a time. This is a city before our present-day cities, not necessarily an old New York but that feeling of what you missed before you moved to the capital. And this feeling will be there when readers pick up Cheap Novelties decades from now. Katchor reminds readers of the ever-presence of a past: no matter where — or when — you are, there is always something missing. But if you look closely, and wait for the newspapers to fly by, and for the new concrete to set, you might be able to bask, bittersweetly, in its former, fleeting glory.