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.
Certainly, the locked door can be seen as a symbol of our fear and distrust as well as the social conditions of life in the city. “Why insult our friends and neighbors because a hypothetical drug addict has his heart set on our old stereo tape deck?” asks Selladore while buying a frozen custard from a corner stand. The streets the architect walks while marveling at his invention seem not quite contemporary, the often half-revealed signs in capital letters on the crowded storefronts suggesting goods — HOT SANDWICHES, ESCORT DRUG, and ... URETY, whatever that may be (the beginning is cut off) — and services (24 HOURS All BOROS AIRPORT). Even the sidewalk trash can, half-full and surrounded by detritus that didn’t quite make it in, seems something out of New York pre-Mayor Bloomberg.
Selladore is smart enough to realize there are drawbacks to his breakthrough: “Modern man, without a key and chain chafing his thigh, feels naked — another neurosis to be overcome in time.” But the deadbolt advancement’s biggest problem, the almost certain possibility that one will be locked out of one’s own apartment, is seen as an advantage by its designer. Selladore believes that locking oneself out with the new hand-warmth-triggered mechanism is a comfortingly familiar experience, one users of the new-style lock will equate fondly with their old key-lock mishaps.
So it goes through this omnibus of 159 examples of capricious design. There’s a spittoon refashioned for the mouth-watering salivary response generated by the visual stimuli of modern print advertising. There are living-room floors laid with strategically located drains that anticipate the inevitable spill. An Italian shoe dealer solves the problem of how to test a new pair of shoes inside a cramped store space by including a walking corridor that trails down a mountainside for three kilometers. A sandwich shop nestled between high-rises is designed to look like a grotto. Its architect tries unsuccessfully to get other businesses to embrace the cave concept. All these things seem absurd. Yet the needs which these solutions meet are real. Mostly.
Katchor’s strips have been appearing in offbeat places since the New York Press began serializing his comics about a Manhattan real-estate photographer in 1988. The photographer, who wanders around the city capturing its quirks and disappearing commercial landmarks, has been the focus of a trio of books: Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay; Julius Knipl Real Estate Photographer: Stories; and Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer: The Beauty Supply District. The Knipl books are the perfect Katchor vehicles. The photographer goes around documenting a city that holds, as pictured on the back of Stories, unlikely pockets of strange businesses consisting of self-service cafeterias (advertised above its competitor, the “Regularity Cafeteria”), the “Beauty Spot,” “Out of Pocket Clothing,” and the “Mother of Mercy Brand Aspirin Hall of Pain” (open to the public). Nearby, a Department of Sanitation street cleaner scours the curbs next to the “Rough Neck Dept” of “Ornulo Brothers.” A sign boasts “All on 7 Floors” but doesn’t say what all is.
Katchor’s only true, book-length graphic novel, The Cardboard Valise, leaves Manhattan behind to follow a habitual tourist from Fluxion City who totes a flimsy, oversized suitcase to a pair of destinations. First is the city of Occupatia on the Tensint Islands. After the island is destroyed by the vapors of dry cleaning fluid, he journeys to Outer Canthus. The book is the most complete presentation of Katchor’s worldview, with its emphasis on the material objects we carry through life (and how cheaply made they are) and the false promises of the travel industry — and all industries — contrasted with regional realities. The book itself comes with fold-out handles for easy toting.
Those handles are the kind of innovations one finds addressed in abundance in Hand-Drying. Katchor has taken our inventive, patent-happy culture and found advancements that serve only the perceived need of some twisted thinking. You don’t have to look very far to see something that’s familiar, like the line-herding velvet rope and stanchion, “that most pernicious symbol of corporate greed,” as Katchor labels it, or the ubiquitous riot gates that protect storefront windows after closing. Katchor turns the gates into bits of nostalgia, spurred by the day-marking grind of the their raising and lowering. They’re also visible reminders of the riots that inspired them.
Then there are things that actually exist, but for purposes you’ve only suspected, like the fountain in your neighborhood mall. In Katchor’s world, it turns out that the fountains are a national chain of profit sources, seeded each morning with a handful of coins and then, after closing, swept clean of the change those with wishes faithfully toss in. Features familiar to us all become individual obsessions. An architect sees the common, built-in tissue dispenser prevalent in hotel rooms as reason for a crusade. “The sneeze is not a random act of nature, but an event that we can anticipate and address architecturally.” How often do we see this kind of well-meaning thinking forcing its way into our collective consciousness? The list of questionable inventions designed to make money — such as the Popeil Pocket Fisherman — is endless.
Katchor has a rough sketchlike drawing style that somehow manages to communicate exact, integrated complexity. His characters are frequently stout and balanced on short-legged centers of gravity. His faces are all of a type, yet vastly different in character and expression. The almost scribbled lines of hair and clothing invite readers to look beyond surfaces, especially when he’s working in black and white. His perspectives constantly change and are framed in ways that suggest a photographer’s point of view — one panel drawn as if seen from the curb, the next focused on a roof’s edge with a plane leaving a contrail overhead. His shading when addressing the backlit world of red exit signs is eerie, and his toning — sometimes in contrasting blues and yellows — brings immediacy to his subjects. Combined with his exacting, blunt, and frequently surprising writing style, his panels imprint us with mental as well as visual images.
But he doesn’t stop there. Katchor is hyper-observant and what he sees is further magnified by his imagination. The results are images that aren’t limited by time or practicality. His capturing of commercial trends, marketing signs, and architectural styles serves to reflect on the personalities that live and lived, often happily, under these influences. He knows that our craving for the new and different often leads to foolishness, and he skillfully manipulates our emotions as easily as our emotions manipulate us. In this way, he engages us with a kind of anti-marketing.
One story serves to illustrate this effect. It surrounds the book, beginning on the volume’s first inside pages and then picked up again on the endpaper. The investigative reporter Josef Fuss uncovers the labor and environmental outrages that accompany the publishing of a book like Katchor’s. Occasionally, he tells us, a despondent printer will throw himself off the roof. Even ownership of these “luxury printed editions” carries social, physical, and mental costs. By the time we come to the table of contents, there’s a certain guilt associated with reading further. But do read on, especially to discover the fate that awaits Fuss at the end of the book. The story, like almost everything depicted here, makes just enough sense to make us laugh, if uncomfortably. ◀
“Hand-Drying in America” by Ben Katchor was published in March by Pantheon Books/Random House.