The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2014

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FEB 2014 Issue
Art Books

Hand Drying in America and Building Stories

Ben Katchor
Hand Drying in America
(Pantheon, 2013)

Chris Ware
Building Stories
(Pantheon, 2012)

The inside front and back covers of Ben Katchor’s new book of comics, Hand Drying in America, feature an extended episode wherein an undercover reporter named Joseph Fuss visits a Chinese printing plant that manufactures “art books.” Fuss is appalled at the plant’s working conditions (at the end of the episode he contracts ink poisoning), the environmental toxicity of the production (“a minor ecological disaster”), and the dispiriting content of the books themselves. He leaves the plant with the sober conclusion that art books are a worthless luxury, benefiting nearly no one.

Katchor is nothing if not self-conscious. This tongue-in-cheek metafictional commentary foregrounds the nagging question of relevance that all authors who aspire to an audience beyond a sliver of elite connoisseurs must face: are their books frivolous? After all, Katchor is not only asking readers to buy a book of whimsical literary comics, he’s asking us to buy a physical artifact: at Royal Quarto size, it’s bigger than the average book, filled with sumptuous full-color illustrations, resolutely un-Kindled. In an age where content trumps form, Katchor can be forgiven for being defensive, especially when his work acts as its own defense.

Katchor’s book, a series of one-page stories originally published in Metropolis magazine, comprises a number of different urban characters, generally obsessive older white men with strange fixations: open house aficionados, those who wax rhapsodic about variations in windowsill soot, those afraid to enter buildings. Like the man who installs a coat-check room in his house, only to realize there is no one to use it, no one seems to have what they really want. The reader is supposed to regard these characters with benevolence; their episodes wrap up with a wistful shrug, so that we can turn to the next curiosity.

Katchor’s artistry is curiously but crucially circumscribed, his aesthetic off-kilter, realized over the course of many years and fully his own. Though his lens on the city is wider, Katchor’s subject matter is comparatively narrow. The list of subjects Katchor isn’t interested in spans far and wide: the intricacies of human relationships, most politics, non-archaic technologies such as the Internet, race, gender. So what, you may wonder, is left? Mainly the emotional effects of the urban landscape, a comic book psychogeography.

Katchor’s work institutionalizes lived response to the urban quotidian. Take the effects of tripping on a “false step,” which after careful enumeration, leads the narrator to enthusiastically conclude, “The broken sidewalks of our cities must be preserved for future generations to enjoy.” Then there’s the “Field Guide to Air Conditioners of North America,” which introduces a couple who specializes in air-conditioning ethnography. Or the museum of travel souvenirs, which enshrines those objects so cruelly overlooked as kitsch. Moving into Katchor’s world means reconceiving daily annoyances as a wellspring of anthropological delight. Irritated with the sprawl-legged man on the subway? Have you ever considered that “one man in a thousand suffers from acute testicular sensitivity”?

Katchor brings his scenarios to the page with an artistic technique that is as distinctive as his subject. His sketches show their scaffolding: perspective points are often titled to queasy angles; details like facial features are rendered crudely, the people themselves almost two-dimensional; colors and lighting appear tepidly fluorescent.

Then there’s his writing. A simple description of Katchor’s language won’t ever truly do it justice, but since it’s my job to try, I’m going to label it “civic fantasy.” Civic, not “urban,” because Katchor is more interested in tax-defraying real estate than, say, street crime. Much of the book’s iconoclastic charm lies in Katchor’s playful manipulation of city bureaucratese. In his never-named, curiously universal city there’s a philanthropic organization called the Proboscis Institute and a charity called the Sisterhood of Charismatic Slobs. There’s a neighborhood called the Bent Spoon District. The Souwer Breeze Development Corporation specializes in the structurally unsound. I could go on. Add to this a helping of the postmodern melancholy of Calvino’s Invisible Cities, a dash of vaguely Eastern European surrealism of the Bruno Schulz variety, and a smattering of Chandler’s urban noir, and you have a fair—though not all-encompassing—description of a Katchor book.

Hand Drying is stylistically consonant in most respects with Katchor’s previous books, the most notable being the Julius Knipl series. Yet in Hand Drying we see Katchor grappling with nostalgia in a way he hasn’t before, a way that suggests he links a defense of nostalgia to his overall defense of the art book form. Though nostalgia is the umbrella under which all Katchor’s preoccupations fit, he has in the past avoided direct discussion of the concept; indeed, to name nostalgia as such would seem too sentimental or too direct, dispelling the powerful mystique the emotion exerts in these stories. In Katchor’s previous work, you couldn’t really be sure of his attitude toward change. His characters are typically rueful but resigned to it, and though you sense Katchor is sympathetic toward their anachronistic longings, he still makes them seem a little ridiculous.

Hand Drying, however, gives us clearer hints. The last comic, for example, starts out in typical fashion, playfully anatomizing the changes in the composition of television news broadcasts. In the span of a few panels the tone changes, and by the end the narrator is concluding that in current TV news, “constant visual activity seems to displace the need for coherent thought.” In the context of the book’s overall wistful neutrality, this is forthright and opinionated enough to be jarring. Or take “Window Dressing,” which isn’t subtle in its anger about the changes in the art of storefront window display, from a time when “window shopping became a pleasurable end in itself” to now, when “nothing is made to be more than it really is, and still the impulse to buy survives.”

What Hand Drying “really is,” according to Joseph Fuss and the window pragmatists, is a collection of environmentally damning paper and ink. Yet, as Katchor suggests here with unusual vehemence, we need artists willing to create an illusion, a window display worthy of genuine awe.

If you buy Hand Drying in America off Amazon, you’ll be offered a package deal with Chris Ware’s latest book, Building Stories. The coupling makes sense. They’re both literary comic artists intimately concerned with the urban experience. Both authors believe buildings have personalities. On a less superficial level, there are ideological similarities: both are self-reflexively nervous about the state of the art to which they’ve dedicated their lives.

“With the increasing electronic incorporeality of existence it’s reassuring—perhaps even necessary—to have something to hold onto,” reads the back of the box that contains Building Stories, echoing both the placement and the playfully didactic tone of Katchor’s “Fuss” episode. Nothing foregrounds the question of the printed book in the digital age more than a comic book divided into 14 parts and comprising several hardbound booklets, some accordion-fold pamphlets, a couple pseudo-newspapers and a game-board-style triptych, all housed in a 16.5 by 11.5-inch decorated box retailing at $50. Building Stories proudly announces itself as an artifact. You can’t read it without (physically) grappling with it, and without actively participating in its telling—in deciding, for example, which section to read first.   

Building Stories is more than merely an artifact, however. It has all the narrative complexity, nuanced characterization, and pathos that we expect from a fine literary novel. While Katchor styles himself an urban sociologist in the vein of Zola or Benjamin, Ware focuses on the domestic. Though the story takes place in Chicago and an adjoining suburb, we see very little of the city, aside from the occasional subway shot. Instead, Ware gives us an intimate view of the residents of one building, a century-old apartment complex. Most of the episodes revolve around a woman who goes from lonely mid-20s to married 30s in the course of the book. At the start of her story she’s a mediocre artist, a floral shop employee, unhappily single and an amputee; in other words, the perfect vessel for the desperate anomie Ware mined so successfully in 2003’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. Other booklets deal with the unhappily partnered working-class neighbors a floor below, the life story of the building’s geriatric landlady, and the travails of Branford, a bee who gets stuck in the basement window screen.

Branford the Bee perfectly exemplifies Ware’s method (compulsion is probably more accurate): expanding minutiae from within, anatomizing daily life. There are endless, beautifully rendered mundanities: laundry day depicted with an animator’s attention to gesture, the main character waiting for the plumber, a recurring image of a plate of apple slices covered in plastic wrap. Ware’s fascination with the close-up serves him well here; he even makes sure we see the pictures inside the frames on the apartment’s walls. It must pain him to look away from something without drawing it.

In order to sustain this maximalist attention to the miniature, Ware must be equally obsessive about constraints. Limiting the subjects of his story to one apartment building is the most obvious of these. Yet Ware’s style, too, amounts to an aesthetic of containment: the intricate page compositions often comprising some three dozen panels, the clean sharp lines and miniature block letters, the defined solid colors. If Ware’s style resembles anything, it’s Frank Lloyd Wright’s Cooley windows, with their preschool colors and delightful clusters of circles and lines (Ware lives in Wright’s beloved Oak Park, as do the woman and her husband in Building Stories, after they move out of Chicago proper). Ware has developed his stylistic packaging throughout his career, and now it’s his job to expand what he can contain within it. Like a Belle and Sebastian song, everything seems cute, but not everything is cute. The cleanliness of Ware’s drawings stands in direct contrast to the messiness of his subject matter, which is always about loneliness or lack of connection, with forays into sex, suicide, and the emotional rabbit hole that is chasing past lives on Facebook. Just because it’s messy doesn’t mean he can’t contain it within his precise, defined style. Ware seems to relish the challenge, even drawing the sound of a lick of guitar coming from downstairs. At one point we see a memory of when the main character was in art school, critiquing a classmate’s work. The painting the classmate makes is a deliberate foil to Ware’s style: it’s a sketchy vagina that stretches across two pages and says “fuck me harder” in dripping stencil. The drips are more offensive than the message; after so many clean lines, the oozy paint feels violent. Because this is supposed to be someone else’s art, Ware allows it to stand outside his own stylistic box, but nothing else escapes: even the Pantheon logo has the signature Ware touch.

Like Hand Drying, Building Stories uses meta-fictional moments to defend the author’s project. Years later, when her daughter is a young woman, the main character describes a dream of coming upon a book in a bookstore (a type of bookstore, not coincidentally, that she recognizes as anachronistic in itself): “it had EVERYTHING in it … my diaries, the stories from my writing classes […] everything I’d forgotten, abandoned or thrown out was there … everything … All of the illustrations … were so precise and clean it was like an architect had drawn them.”

The protagonist is shy about revealing this dream. She seems to think the vision of the book of her life a bit ridiculous, perhaps self-indulgent or irrelevant. Yet it’s also clear she feels validated, honored that an artist would think her life worthy of such attention. This, then, is Ware’s defense for the insecurities he outlines on the side of the box: that sustained artistic attention to everyday life is an honorable enterprise, justification enough for the tenuous place his and Katchor’s books occupy in the marketplace. Ware and Katchor may believe that only the width of a bone folder separates them from irrelevance, but the fact that they plunge ahead despite the complexities and contradictions of their artistic endeavors is something for which readers can be truly thankful.


Clarence Harlan Orsi

Clarence Harlan Orsi’s essays and fiction have appeared in The Believer, Boston Review, Chicago Review, Indiana Review, Kenyon Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, New England Review, n+1, and others. He is a graduate of the PhD program in writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a former Bread Loaf tuition scholar. He is an Associate Professor of English at Cecil College in northern Maryland and lives in Baltimore.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2014

All Issues