Hand-Drawing, Hand-Drying, and Hand-Wringing in Ben Katchor's America

Artist's Cartoons Have Their Own Unique Architecture

Katchor In The Wry: The artist’s new collection features the visually spectacular work he has done for Metropolis Magazine.
Courtesy of Random House
Katchor In The Wry: The artist’s new collection features the visually spectacular work he has done for Metropolis Magazine.

By Douglas Wolk

Published March 08, 2013, issue of March 15, 2013.
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“A Check-room Romance” may be the best-remembered story here: Katchor and Mark Mulcahy adapted it into a musical theater piece in 2009. It’s a trifle of an idea (a man loves coat-check rooms so much that he adds one, complete with an attendant, to his own apartment), but its 14 panels slyly make the point that shared experience can be so seductive that its impositions can seem like benefits. And “Window Dressing” is less a satire than a pointed observation: Katchor notes that, as a consequence of retail outlets with elegant window displays being replaced by chain drugstores that dump stuff haphazardly behind their windows, “the great illusions of consumer desire have finally been dispelled… and still the impulse to buy survives.”

It’s unsurprising that Katchor’s artwork has a peculiar, well-entrenched architecture of its own. Nothing he draws or writes can be mistaken for anything but the work of his hand, with its upward-sloping dialogue and ragged-straw linework. His characters are permanently squinting and crouching, with a look something like sun-warped tailors’ dummies. One of the Metropolis strips’ signature visual gestures — a central panel that’s twice as tall as the images on either side of it — is nearly unique to Katchor. Few other artists would dare risk the possibility of creating a confusing reading order, but he pulls it off every time; it’s just what he does, in much the same way as odd little built-in metal cabinets beneath kitchen windows (which he eulogizes in “Name Dropping”) are simply a feature of old New York City apartments.

Still, the tone of “Hand-Drying in America” changes, subtly but unmistakably, when it reaches the “Metropolis” strips from the past couple of years — a shift that coincides with Katchor switching from drawing in pen and ink to working on the now-omnipresent Cintiq electronic drawing tablets. It’s the sort of technological intrusion on inefficient but time-honored ways that Katchor has mocked again and again; curiously, the electronically drawn episodes are much more concerned with death.

“I see myself as being very marginal to the culture,” Katchor said in an interview with the scholar and author Derek Royal in the book “Unfinalized Moments.” “I think that there are only a few thousand people in the U.S. who would be interested in my work.” That seems like an exceptionally modest self-assessment from a cartoonist who’s been awarded both a MacArthur “Genius Grant” and a Guggenheim Fellowship. But it could also be an aspirational statement: The parts of culture that his work valorizes are the ones that have found their particular margin and attached themselves to it for keeps. As one of his characters might say, you could do a lot worse.

Douglas Wolk is the author of “Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean” (Da Capo Press, 2007).


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