● Hand-Drying in America: And Other Stories
By Ben Katchor
Pantheon, 160 pages, $29.95
Ben Katchor knows well that the city is an incredibly weird place. Specifically, it’s a place where weirdness has accumulated over time, propelled by the endless cycle of commercial solutions to urban problems and by the new problems the solutions create. That insight underscored Katchor’s long-running Forward comic strip — originally called “Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer,” later various other names — which was usually set in the demimonde of dry-cleaning operations, dry-goods wholesalers, resource-parched municipal agencies and the perpetual scrabble for some kind of new business niche. In one of the greatest strokes of genius in the history of comic strip syndication, when “Julius Knipl” was dropped from The Village Voice in the mid-1990s, Katchor exhibited his new strips in a vitrine attached to an Upper East Side papaya-and-hot-dog spot. It’s the kind of plan that might have been the payoff to one of his own “picture-stories” — his preferred term.
Since 1998, Katchor has contributed a monthly full-color page to the big square design-and-architecture magazine Metropolis, of which the visually spectacular run to date is collected here. The Metropolis stories have no recurring characters; they’re also much more about the buildings and objects that facilitate life in the city. (And by “the city,” he means the city: Although Katchor usually comes up with names along the lines of “Saltine Avenue” or “The Nigh Building” or “Herminal Heights,” he’s pretty clearly always talking about New York.)
Katchor’s forte is nudging a real-life absurdity one or two notches too far, which means that these stories occasionally mock an actual architectural trend. (“Our deep-water bathtubs descend through the building’s foundation into the aquifer below and onto an unknown depth…. These tub shafts were drilled in the night by a succession of private contractors and so no one knows for sure how deep they are.” “Are they porcelain all the way?”) The best joke here may be “The Price of Tassels,” in which a corporation, in search of greater productivity, redesigns its drab, stifling offices to look in every way like a 1970s-style Chinese restaurant. (“The natural light is filtered through layers of heavy red drapery, neon signs and dust.”)
More often, the wit in “Hand-Drying in America” comes from tweaking the way the solid materials of the city outlast the transient urges they satisfy. In one strip, Katchor introduces “the Brotherhood of the Immaculate Consumption,” which destroys possessions that lack sentimental value and whose original purchasers have died; in another, he invents a history of built-in tissue dispensers; in a third, he hypothesizes that sterile cash-machine storefronts might become social nexuses if only they would incorporate public restrooms.