I can trace the first mention of the cartoonist Ben Katchor to a moment precisely seventeen months and twenty-three days ago. My memory is hazy, but I’m fairly confident that the day involved inhaling the pungent fumes of nail polish and sobbing something about how my father used to beat me into a Bergamasco Sheepdog’s hearty flocks. The dog urged me to read a book. Or so I thought at the time. The sound the dog uttered was somewhere between “Woof!” and “Bark!” It was hard to understand what the animal wanted. I was told by many reliable sources that dogs did not speak English. But being a guy who has many books in his life, it seemed only natural to make the leap from “Work!” or “Booof!” to “Book!”
“You should check out Ben Katchor,” said the dog’s owner, who was then considering whether or not some private service could throw me out of his apartment.
“Why?” I said, tears streaming down my eyes, recalling how my father was fond of cutting off my toes after a drunken night out at the Elks Grand Lodge.
“Well, he’s pretty darn tooting!”
I’m afraid that I was not fated to continue my acquaintanceship with a man who said “darn tooting,” although I have no prejudice against the phrase.
Three days later, I received two emails within two hours telling me that Ben Katchor was the bee’s knees. The two emails didn’t say “bee’s knees,” although I’d like to think seventeen months and twenty days later that it was there. The Katchor recommendations came unprompted. Maybe my mien caused these individuals to peg me as “a Ben Katchor guy.” Perhaps there was the collective sense that I needed cheering up, although I had no reason to suspect any unseemly propaganda campaign. Whatever the reason for their suggestions, since I was not at that moment contending with dogs belonging to acquaintances who would later disown me because I had offered one too many naked displays of tough-to-swallow emotion, I began to conclude that there might be something to Ben Katchor.
Yet I stayed away from the Ben Katchor Reading Experience. This was largely out of laziness.
So imagine my surprise when Pantheon sent me two copies of a rather large book called Hand-Drying in America, a collection of mostly one page stories that was serialized in Metropolitan between 1986 and 2012. I opened one of the books and began reading a black-and-white strip about the environmental impact of books. I was informed that “the days of gentlemen publishers are long gone” by a dude with a goatee who was very close to the front of a blood red panel.
This struck me as a pretty ballsy way to begin a book and, looking at the many tomes around me, I began to sympathize with the book fetishists who wanted to disregard the ecological report. Was it wrong to long for a good-looking book responsible for 8.85 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions? Possibly. But this is a much better pastime than dousing your beehive with a full can of hairspray for a Saturday night on the town. Of course, I don’t have a beehive. I am a man without hair and the upkeep is pretty easy and probably does not involve a good deal of greenhouse gas emissions. Or so I would like to think.
I hadn’t even made my way to the stories and I was already feeling bad, but in a good way. I wondered if I could find another Bergamasco Sheepdog who would put up with my emotional state.
I very much enjoyed “The Faulty Switch,” which suggested how the sound of a switch often set the tone for when you entered the room. I felt bad for “The Carbon Copy Building,” an edifice erected by a developer who had worked from the same plan. The “original” building had thrived, but the “copy” had languished, with the delivery of a half-eaten slice of cherry cheesecake being the only solace. But I felt that with this story, Katchor had stacked the deck a bit. Because how can you judge a building’s condition based on seven panels? If I had learned anything from reading Chris Ware’s Building Stories, a graphic narrative involving a building required multiple layouts to capture the ambiguities of life.
“2nd Thought Mail” was a touching story, if only because Saturday mail delivery had just been canceled. And an elaborate operation devoted to ensuring that stray sentiments returned in ten days seemed like a heck of a great idea. Except that most of us used to handwrite these sorts of letters on a Saturday. And now with that day gone, and email so easy, we’re probably going to forget to pop one of those letters into the mailbox, which is now becoming as unloved as the pay phone. And I’m sure Katchor couldn’t see any of this coming. But perhaps it’s too late for these forward-thinking campaigns.
“It’s hopeless!” says a woman in “The Office Building Demystified.” “Each building is as impenetrable as the next. There’s no way of knowing what goes on inside.” I’ve often felt this way myself with buildings. There’s an intriguingly jagged precision to the way he draws lines. He likes to draw characters with slightly arched shoulders and some of his men have the upper body heft of a character in a Bill Plympton cartoon.
Katchor also enjoys having his characters live on funny street names and he is quite original with this. I Googled “Saltine Avenue” out of morbid curiosity and could only find it used in Chapter 3 of a Cowboy Bebop fan fiction tale.
What’s great about these Metropolitan strips is how inventive Katchor stays over the years. I was delighted to see a counterman’s butt crack and a wall crack (but not crack cocaine) in a story called “The Cracked-Cup Inspector.” I loved the idea of a false forest planted in Southern New Jersey and a “high visibility vest” standing out in a strip inked largely in blue tones. And there was one indelible image in an anti-Starbucks story called “Hotwaters” of a man sitting alone at a table surrounded by the waste of empty paper cups, proudly announcing, “I want to drink my coffee from a brand-new container that’s never been stained by lipstick or gnawed by nervous men.” Given how much Katchor seemed to be concerned about the environment, I wondered if he felt any guilt in making these beautiful strips. Was this a creative way of forcing the editors at Metropolitan to fire him? Who knows? Cartoonists are often peculiar people, which is why they should be hugged.
There is something very 20th century about the way that Katchor works these wonderful strips, but I don’t know how many people in the 21st century still care about this sort of thing. But I do. There are modest prevarications contained in this review, but the following statement is not one of them: I like Ben Katchor. And I’m fairly certain you will too.