Those seeking a glimpse of a lost, haunted and very particular old New York are probably familiar with the comic strips of Ben Katchor, whose work has appeared in the Jewish Daily Forward and New York Press. With strips devoted to "Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer," Katchor tried to capture the essence of late-night diners, moody janitors, scheming geniuses in one-room, cold water flats, old men with harmless but puzzling fetishes -- a weird, chiaroscuro look at the Manhattan no one sees in its day-to-day traffic.
Now Katchor has brought that perspective to a full-length graphic novel, "The Jew of New York," which interweaves a half-dozen different stories in and around 1830s New York City.
Theatre as a subject figures strongly in the book. The title refers to its central story: a new play, titled The Jew of New York, is opening at a local theatre. That drama purports to tell the story of Major Mordecai Noah, who hoped to establish a Jewish homeland, not in Israel, but between Buffalo and Niagara Falls. Unfortunately, the play is written by an anti-assimilationist anti-Semite, who hopes it will paint an ugly portrait of its lead character. Another character in the book is the egotistical but fanatically dedicated lead actor, who wants to get every detail of Noah into his performance.
Other plot-points in "The Jew of New York" include a business plan to carbonate Lake Erie, another to catalogue mankind's array of burps and groans of indigestion, and another about a beaver trapper who feels so much remorse about his success in the profession, he renounces it and begins living like an animal in the forest.
All these tales come to a head the night the theatre burns down -- annihilating the hateful playwright in the process. A special exhibit to coincide with the book's publication has been on display at New York University's Bronfman Center (7 East 10th St.), running through Feb. 26. The exhibit features drawings from the novel, accompanied by pseudo-"artifacts" (designed by Scott Rodolitz) related to the book, such as a pump for creating soda water and "fleshings" for actors to wear during nude scenes.
"The Jew of New York" (104 pp.) is published by Pantheon Books.
-- By David Lefkowitz