Thursday, July 10, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #191: Hand-Drying in America and Other Stories by Ben Katchor

Some people think that "comics" is a genre -- or, at most, a small, tightly-knit collection of genres, all action and adventure and similarly straightforward boyish things, able to be easily typed and then neglected. That's untrue, just as "opera" isn't a genre, and "TV" isn't, either -- all of those things are mediums, able to tell just about any story in their own ways.

One of the best arguments for comics-as-medium is the work of Ben Katchor, which is about as far from the typical superhero comic in audience and style and matter as Einstein on the Beach is from the songs in a Gidget movie. Katchor's comics depict explorers of the oddities of urbanism, or stories about architecture, or vignettes concerning industrial design -- all told in a scratchy, quick line underneath blocks of carefully-chosen and always tasteful colors. Katchor's comics are elliptical to many of us -- mostly, I think, because we're not familiar with the bases of his work; we're expecting Kirby or Eisner when Katchor is thinking Jane Jacobs or Louis Wirth.

Hand-Drying in America and Other Stories is a major Katchor collection, bringing together strips he did for the magazine Metropolis over a fifteen-year period, starting in 1998. There are a few two-page strips in this large-format 160-page book -- and a new narrative that spills from the endpapers onto the copyright and title page -- but the vast majority of these pieces are complete in one page; one idea or concept brought to life and set free.

All of those ideas are about design and architecture, specifically, or about living in an urban environment more generally -- the psychology of commercial spaces, the different uses one building can have, permanently sealed windows, the choreography of pulling out a wallet and paying, traffic, public water fountains, anti-theft cages, and many many more. These are not the concerns of anyone else's comics - this is an area and a genre Katchor has entirely to himself, miles of territory with no one else to harvest it. (Plenty of people would say "comics about architecture" is a territory not worth harvesting, but all art is worth making.)

I'll have to admit that I didn't love this book -- it look me nearly two years of stop-and-start to work my way through it. Katchor's work can be chilly: his people tend to be monomaniacs who have no personality traits beyond their love for the particular architecture feature he's examining this time out. His work is primarily about the ideas -- a building that mimics the residents' bed within, a hotel with only ocean view rooms, a man who deliberately and secretly breaks damaged chairs, a giant artificial forest, the decline and fall of shop-window arranging, grown men who emulate the dress and style of valet car-parkers, a house designed like a daily pill dispenser, an apartment building whose tubs all descend to the aquifer thousands of feet below, ATMs as social gathering places. And one big idea at a time is usually enough -- this book is probably best read in fits and starts, to mimic the way it originally appeared, strip by strip in Metropolis.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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