I’m no expert when it comes to comics, but I have always liked the work of Ben Katchor, particularly his old strip Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer. He made news in 2000 by becoming the first cartoonist to land a MacArthur Fellowship, but the year before he’d achieved another first—creating a comic-book opera. Composers David Lang, Michael Gordon, and Julia Wolfe—all key members of Bang on a Can—had been invited by Turin, Italy’s Settembre Musica Festival to create an opera, and they approached Katchor about collaborating.

The Carbon Copy Building
(Cantaloupe) premiered in 1999, and last year it was restaged in England. More recently a CD of the music was packaged in a lavish 48-page book featuring Katchor’s drawings and text—which functions as the libretto. The story—if it could really be called one—focuses on two identical seven-floor buildings constructed in 1929 in a city that looks very much like New York. The Palatine, the first to go up, was well-maintained and eventually provided a home to “several philanthropic organizations, and a number of esteemed literary publishing houses,” while the Palaver Building, 20 blocks away, was eventuall subdivided into crumbling low-rent offices. Katchor’s text compares the two edifices, a kind of metaphoric illustration of the gaping divide between rich and poor. The illustrations are terrific and the writing focuses on some nice details, but I have to say the score—minimialist chamber rock with show-tuney singing—doesn’t do much for me. Katchor’s writing doesn’t seem particularly well suited to songs, and sometimes it seems like the vocalists are compacting or extending words to fit within bar lines. But you be the judge; here’s a track from the album, “I Blame the Tenants.” You can listen below or click here to download.

Gordon, Lang, Wolfe, & Katchor, “I Blame the Tenants”

Katchor will give a slideshow performance this Wednesday, April 18 at the Abbey Pub