We don’t always have time to look up from, or in to, the very places we make most of our lives in, and Ben Katchor writes and illustrates the guidebooks to our own, alien home towns.
In his surreal scenarios and slouching lines and dense, dashed compositions and infra-red silent-movie sepias and fuller palette of fading-newsprint-Parrish twilight eggshell hues (a lovely dimension of his work displayed in this new book like in no previous one), Katchor, yes, catches the mirage-like impression of people’s inner yearnings and crazy drives as they blur past sight in busy cities. His pseudonymed boomtowns and allegorical settings are a mirror-image, but not a distorted one; mistopias, if you please, of absurd and charming idiosyncrasy surfacing through the sturdy urban structures of architecture and attitude that most of these spaces’ own inhabitants can’t pause to ponder.
His landmark new collection Hand-Drying in America and other stories (named for one of the many ignored but omnipresent objects raised to mystic relics in his point of view), has been building, literally, for a long time — in strips tucked into the high-design architectural journal Metropolis which have always been available online, and are now gathered in an almost walk-in tome. Katchor’s last book came with a fold-out suitcase-handle, asserting the non-screen tactile object, and this one, through the simple expedient of its old-school vinyl-record square size, insists its bookness even more. This materiality might seem paradoxical for the man who is only the most deceptively antiquarian of cartoonists, forever dealing with the yellowing parchment of passing daily experience but in real life attached to the Cintiq and, in the life of his mind, always looking back from one step ahead in the future.
But the bookness dissolves instantly, its broadsheet pages like a grand gate into his dream cities. There’s a seamless partition between the plans for these imaginary places and the full surroundings of them; each of Katchor’s compositions give thought to the architecture of the comic itself, the panel gutters like street grids, often surrounding a central dominant image or dividing middle transition that the story navigates. In Katchor’s world, you’re always new in town, but the skeleton of the city blocks and the bloodflow of its dwellers’ wanderings show you the way around it. This work is the intuitive counterpart to Chris Ware; Katchor’s urban landscapes still feel grown as much as built.
Katchor’s stories often seem to take place in towns that don’t know they’re ghosts; no matter their real time period, we feel we’re seeing an old movie as it’s shot. In this collection of his comic strips for a magazine on current dwelling trends Katchor confronts the modern moment most specifically, with as keen a viewpoint and as strong a sense of retrospect; he knows how crazy what we see as normal (or don’t notice at all) will come to seem, but his eye for it is affectionate. These already-lost worlds are, for him and us, rare finds.
Midway through the collection, an account of a visionary merchant who fashions special pillows for turning away from your TV and internet and spectating life out of city windows provides what could be the book’s epigram: “Over time, the most prosaic view yields a form of poetry.”
The narratives tend to play out in two languages, either ambient voiceovers explaining unique phenomena and strange unselfconscious customs of the city and its dwellers — the airspace that defines cozy lo-rise ancient shops; a commerce in fragrances made from the silt of beloved demolished buildings — or self-captioning soliloquies from fabulist inventors, scheming developers, obsessive context-buffs, all of whom intone in the announcing style of biblical prophets, who could be the only living thing in sight but knew they had an audience in the future, or in god’s ear; an insightful portrait of the essence of archetypal city folk who are at the center of their culture and so perceive no such thing as being alone.
Katchor’s other collections have been full-length graphic novels (The Jew of New York), long-running comic-strip lifetimes (several volumes of Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer), or accumulating narratives on connected themes (The Cardboard Valise); the one-page monuments of Hand-Drying are the purest notepad of his ideas yet, contained yet expansive reflections on every point he stops at — the longing of neighborhood-nomad spectators who drift between empty apartment open-houses; the nostalgia of computer addicts who huddle under decaying newsstand awnings buying chapstick; the melancholy of stalker-historians who mourn the decline of water fountains as pillars of public sharing. All together, the eccentric perspective of what’s really going on in the hurried, neurotic, original individual lives of the city, when the walls talk to him; for each address, an ode.