Ben Katchor’s world, portrayed in his strangely drawn, strangely told comics, is as much a forgotten place as an imagined one. His newest collection of literate cartoons, Hand-Drying in America and Other Stories, featuring material first published in Metropolis magazine from 1998 to 2012, explores mostly imagined architecture and its accompanying artifices, creations that are only slightly probable yet not completely improbable. The time in which these stories are placed, without being specified, seems of various periods, suggesting the Manhattan of the 1970s, the 1950s, and the late 1930s all rolled into one. The streets are lined with hot-dog shops, cosmetic stores, and newsstands. The sides of buildings carry oversize advertising for made-up coffee companies and “dentifrice” that promises “that specious smile.” There’s not a Starbucks in sight.
It’s in this world that the visionary architect Selladore invents a device to free mankind from “the degrading ritual of ‘locking up.’” He designs a deadbolt that is always open until it’s activated by the warmth of a human hand on the door knob. Imaginary problem solved. To quote the inventor, who reveals all his motivations: “The doors of the city can be left unlocked, day and night. People will go to sleep without bolting their doors behind them. Bathrooms will be occupied without shame. A sense of mutual trust will be engendered in the population. Selladore will become a household name.” The complete story comes on a single page.
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