Hand-Drying in America

The front and back covers and the endpapers and the indicia and title pages of Ben Katchor’s sumptuous new collection of strips from Metropolis magazine (appearing originally from 1998 to 2012) constitute a “bonus” story of sorts, seemingly coextant only with this project. The topic of the new piece? How wasteful, environmentally unsound and generally unworthy is the production of books in general and large, glossy art books in particular. The nearly criminal charges are leveled through the intermediary of one of Katchor’s great obsessive amateur experts, Josef Fuss, who inveighs against many offenders, including “a deluxe full-color edition of an esoteric literary comic strip.” In other words, against the very book the reader now holds.
Such a wry, dubious, gently self-effacing attitude is of course a trademark of Katchor’s art. Like the many amateur sleuths, neurotic busybodies, lost souls, hedonistic aesthetes, naïfs, and faux savants in his strips, he focuses on matters and objects theoretically too small to sustain weighty disquisitions: light switches, doorknobs, blackboards, rubber tips of crutches, the disparate commercial lives of identical buildings. The presentation is bashful and diffident, yet somehow also bold and assertive. (An ancillary figure in Katchor’s art is the blowhard, wild-eyed scam artist, but even such greedy types are often self-deluded dreamers.)  Katchor and his avatars don’t really want to bother anyone, but they are inflamed by their passions for things the rest of us overlook, and so demand to be heard.
Under Katchor’s gloriously tawdry, jittery pen — his artwork aligns with that of Ben Shahn, Charles Rodrigues, and Roz Chast — and in the manic speeches he attributes to his stand-ins, these trivial, quotidian items and speculations become Blakean grains of sand in which the whole universe might be apprehended. That’s the consistent miracle of Katchor’s oeuvre:  to direct our attention to the universal “kipple and gubble” (to employ Philip K. Dick’s terminology) going unnoticed beneath our feet and under our hands and eyes. But whereas Dick saw the shoddy constituents of our cosmos and culture as entropic and despair-making, Katchor sees them as affirmative and uplifting but also engendering a certain omnipresent melancholy. Katchor is the living Western comics artist who has best captured the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, “an aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection,” as Wikipedia has it.
Each generous page in this big, cosmically deep book generally features one self-sufficient strip, although occasionally a narrative will span two pages (“What Bruno Yule Heard” or “Locked Out,” for instance). This presentation allows Katchor’s detailed art lots of room to breathe, and its subtle coloration and washes, reminiscent of the hues found in the children’s books of Edward Ardizzone or Ludwig Bemelmans, fairly leap off the pages. The colors — sometimes restricted to just patches on a black-and-white page — are keyed to certain panels, and so also teach one how to read Katchor’s dynamic layouts, certainly the most spectacular and witty of which is that for “Cartone Shoes,” which features, sprawling diagonally across the whole page, the Italianate “carpeted portico three kilometers in length” used for testing new shoes for fit.
Loosely speaking, Katchor’s topic in this collection is architecture — interiors, exteriors, and appurtenances, their quirks and almost lifelike traits — and how humans react to their sometimes comforting, sometimes hostile artificial environments. Peepholes in doors, the space under beds, tiny hotel trash cans, light bulbs that resemble flames: such things provoke loving, thoughtful exegeses, as if we were listening to people recalling distant dead relatives. Sometimes the things are fantastical or imaginary. In “Name Dropping” we learn about the extinct “small metal cabinet built into the wall just below the kitchen window” and intended for the storage of vegetables. In “The Weekly House” we contemplate a dwelling shaped like a seven-day pill dispenser. If only such fixtures and homes had ever existed! But Katchor makes us believe in his fanciful creations for the duration of each strip, fashioning a parallel universe of even more whimsically perverse elaboration than the one we actually inhabit.
Nostalgia and longing for older eras that featured less homogeneity and technology and more catering to simple human concerns permeates Katchor’s work. In a strip such as “Ping Tung Market/The Serpentine Bank for Savings,” a once-glorious financial temple, repurposed as an Asian market, is contrasted with the ATM kiosk maintained by the legacy institution. Katchor doesn’t hit the reader over the head with his message, but it’s inescapable anyhow. Such riffs are a constant throughout. As “Locked Out” reminds us, nowadays “a coarseness pervaded all areas of industrial production.”
But sometimes Katchor’s critiques of modern lifestyles are more blunt. The enemy in “A 21st-Century Sweatshop” is physical fitness as insanity. “The Same” takes a jab at chain store retailers, while “International Competition” lambastes television news, concluding with the observation that “the constant visual activity seems to displace the need for a coherent chain of thought.” Generally, though, Katchor’s satire, while spot-on, is more diffuse, aimed at shared human ridiculousness.
Katchor’s visual depiction of humans rivals his prowess with buildings. He’s never presented such a vast panoply of humanity before. The teens who indulge in a strange kind of vandalism in “The Decorative Impulse” are just as vivid as the businessmen in “Niente’s Restaurant” or the elderly AC spotters in “Peabald’s Field Guide to Air Conditioners of North America” or the bereft young woman in “Lossless Things.”  Another facility of Katchor’s involves names. They flow through this book in an unending stream of evocative places and people and things (Herbert Swolve, Melti Bordo, Harmon Kiscure). Not only are dialogue and captions filled with such rich and unsettling coinages as “the Vagus River” and “Catsboll Quarters,” but also the omnipresent signage heralds such appellations as “Brazen Drug” and “Sumerian Foods.”
Katchor’s narratives — which often end as bloodily as any Edward Gorey fable — meander in a fashion that seems haphazard but really covers all his desired plot points in the most elegant and evocative way. Part of this accomplishment derives from his unique use of word balloons. The speech in them is often a serial monologue, even though different characters are mouthing the words. The flow of language, improbably passed from stranger to stranger, provides a unifying link to carry the reader through the narrative.
In “The Board of Education,” an elderly man who possessed a photographic memory for all his life, thanks to his childhood indoctrination with classroom blackboards, is mystically rendered nearly senile as schools replace their old-fashioned chalkboards with “panels of a plastic composite.” Unique for Katchor, the final panel features not a rich cluttered landscape but the lamenting man against a featureless white expanse. This is Katchor’s concept of the ultimate dystopia, a sterile, featureless white room devoid of any human design. But so long as he continues to create his art — “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” as Eliot said — then humanity is saved from such a fate.

The Speculator

Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review.  He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.