Thursday, June 5, 2008

Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer

Delivery is the fifth of the five canons of rhetoric. It is also is the most overlooked, which makes a lot of sense if you think about it. For thousands of years, most of the population was illiterate, so the only method of delivery that really meant all that much was oral.

As a student of rhetoric, I have become fascinated by this neglected canon. So much of its study illuminates questions that need to be asked, especially in an age where the same content is often transmitted in different forms, e.g. newspapers in print and on the web.

But with the modern notion of a transparent text, which focuses on content rather than presentation, many issues have been overlooked or dismissed. Not to bang the Pinter drum again, but the anthologizing of his plays in a different font and arrangement on the page caused me to view the text differently. For a playwright that relies on silences and pauses so much, a certain amount of white space on the page created the proper rhythm for the reader. But in the anthology, all the white space was gone, and a 100-page play was condensed to about seventeen larger pages. Changing the delivery changed the meaning.

In Maps and Legends, which I read last month, Michael Chabon celebrated cartoonist Ben Katchor and his strip, Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer. A week or so later I one of Katchor’s collections at a used book store and quickly picked it up. And while I enjoyed the strips for what they were, the presentation didn’t work for me.

The Knipl strips were originally published in The Forward, a weekly Jewish newspaper published in New York City, over four or so years. Even a regular reader would only be exposed to a strip on at best a weekly basis. Depicting a surreal and humorous NYC, the strip does have a certain charm, and it is easy to see why someone like Chabon is such a big fan. But to be presented this way in a book, meant to be read in only a few sittings, this surrealism tends to overwhelm a reader. Strips begin in the midst of narratives and end well before the narratives finish; the absurdity provides the humor rather than any sort of punch lines. But reading strip after strip of such with such absurd premises caused me to develop a block to the very humor Katchor was creating.

In essence, Julius Knipl is likely a strip that I would enjoy very much if I read it on a weekly basis in our weekly newspaper, as it was originally intended to be presented. But to change the delivery system into a book of nothing but several years worth of the comic, instead of being one strip surrounded by all the Jewish news that’s fit to print, alters the reception. Just like the anthology containing Pinter’s play, changing the delivery changed the meaning.

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