Katzenstein, who honed his style with pithy one-panel New Yorker gags, delves deeper into his obsessions in Everything Is an Emergency: An OCD Story in Words and Pictures (HarperCollins, June.).
What tone did you want to strike in this book?
Jokes disarm us. I want laughter to be a way into talking about the stuff that is scarier or less comfortable for me to divulge. I’m kind of a silly person wandering through this world, trying to the best of my ability to convey what’s in my brain.
What scene was the hardest to share?
It wasn’t my favorite thing to draw the story of throwing away my underwear in college. OCD is, for a lot of people, easy to keep to yourself. Divulging some of these loops that were going in my brain, they’re quite embarrassing. The “pure O” stuff—the nightmarish thoughts—they’re often crossed out and darkened in the book. There’s this double-bind hold that “pure obsession” has over people with OCD, which is that if you have a terrible thought, then you have the meta-thoughts of “What kind of person would think this?” and “If anybody knew that you thought this, they wouldn’t want to be close to you.” OCD at its worst is very isolating.
Were there times when you thought, “I can’t believe I’m putting this down on paper”?
There were a few. But, even though I’m trying to be honest and vulnerable, I have lines that I don’t cross, places I don’t want to go, things that I don’t feel like I’m equipped enough at this point to talk about. I love Basquiat’s paintings, and how you can see his process, where he would strike things out so they are half-seen; that’s the same for this book, and it feels intimate to me.
Is there anything you’re worried about being misunderstood or misread?
I worry that people might consider me to be an authority on anything—I am an authority on licking a doorknob when I’m on ecstasy. I’m an authority on Mad magazine trivia from the 1960s. But if you want to know how to lead a healthy life and make art, please take what you need and leave the rest.
You talk about learning and loving to draw as a teenager—do you feel like OCD makes you draw more?
Some of what galvanizes me to make art is that I can be in control, create worlds, and solve visual puzzles. I was afraid that when I started doing exposure therapy, going to group, and taking Zoloft, it would be a deterrent to my creative life. But instead, I made this book, which is the hardest I’ve ever worked on anything. It’s a 240-page refutation of the notion that you need to suffer to make art.