Performance by artist Ben Katchor kicks off Cooper series

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

A significant crowd braved the wind and rain last night to hear artist Ben Katchor read several of his comic strips and discuss his craft in a Science Center lecture room. The lecture and performance, entitled “A Date in Architectural History and Other Stories,” was the first Cooper Foundation event of the semester, and was additionally supported by McCabe Library and the Art and English Literature departments. College president Al Bloom was in attendance, along with Dean Bob Gross, many students, faculty and other members of the Swarthmore community. Physics professor Amy Bug introduced the artist by recalling her delight upon discovering his work in the Village Voice, and passed around newspaper clippings of his early Julius Knipl series comics. Bug remarked particularly upon Katchor’s adroit language “He chooses proper nouns like Matisse chose colors,” she said.

Katchor, whose comics combine sometimes lengthy blocks of narrative text and dialogue with skillfully colored drawings of cityscapes and their inhabitants (“some are about New York, some are invented cities,” he said), read nearly a dozen of these works as the corresponding images were displayed on a screen.
His performance lent each comic strip extra character as he told his stories peopled with men who empty the crumb traps of apartment dwellers’ toasters and patron saints of jaywalkers. One strip mused about the origins of the light switch’s “click,” another on the architectural beauty of the human lap, and one imagined a future in which condiments are only available in single serving packages. The audience laughed often and applauded after each strip.

During the course of answering questions after his reading, Katchor commented on college campuses as paradises in the middle of the commercial world and called Swarthmore a “country club college… nicer than a country club, actually.” He spoke of his work as striving towards using a “full spectrum of meanings,” from the abstraction of the written word to the more concrete and alive visual image. Comics were an accessible, living art form to him as a child growing up in Brooklyn, he said, and he continues to enjoy the freeness of the medium.

Most of the comics Katchor presented have been published in Metropolis magazine, and his musical theatrical piece The Rosenbach Company recently premiered in Philadelphia. An exhibit of his work will be on display in McCabe until October 12.

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