Whither Julius Knipl? The book-reading public last saw Ben Katchor’s lumbering everyman, one of the last great characters of newsprint comics, in 2000’s The Beauty Supply District. In that volume’s concluding story, Knipl—flâneur, authorial stand-in, Real Estate Photographer—numbers among the select audience members present at a concert that could double as a wake for the twentieth century. The soloist performs the piece remotely, in his pyjamas, like any modern-day internet savant. Likewise, the composer has shopped out the work, to be authored by proxy, while the business that actually composed the music has gone under, victim of an economic collapse that levels these old-fashioned concerns and spawns instead a clutch of electronics wholesalers. At a reception following the concert, oblivious to the millennial restiveness around him, Knipl simply empties a jar of olives onto a plate, and wanders off into the background, unnoticed, upstaged by his own pickled fruit.
Katchor’s characters have often felt like men and women out of time, but few so much as Knipl, that reticent, bemused wanderer. He would be even more out of place in Katchor’s latest collection, Hand-Drying in America and Other Stories, which begins Knipl-y enough, with its fantasias about want ads and letter mail and the carbon copy, but which soon satirizes the glad-handing grins of the ultra-modern quick-adapter more often than it eulogizes those proudly stubborn hold-outs in the modern world. This gradual change in Katchor’s focus—from nostalgia to now, from fabricating the past to projecting the future—was probably inevitable, and takes place in fascinating fits and starts throughout this new book in a way we could never have asked of Knipl. Picture our man in the new century, schlepping a DSLR of impressive megapixelage, altering Realtor.com listings on his paper-thin tablet, checking Yelp reviews of organic malted drinks at locavore diners. No, for Knipl, that olive-spilling adieu was as timely and fitting a farewell as Fritz’s ice-pick in the back, Zuckerman’s dumping his mentor’s manuscript in the trash, Ethan Edwards’s striding off into the wilderness in The Searchers. The America to come would no longer be the one that Knipl knew.
But where has that left Katchor? Happily, just as Knipl was shrugging into his jacket, dabbing at his moustache, and making for the door, his creator was already settling into a new venue for his ruminations on city life, his mock-monographs on cheap novelties and urban decay. Starting in 1998, and continuing apace today, Katchor has presided over a full-color single page in each issue of Metropolis magazine. The bulk of these efforts—fourteen years worth of wry, restless, deeply curious cartooning—are now collected in Hand-Drying in America, and comprise a kind of Knipl sans Knipl. While the Julius Knipl feature would often give its leading man the week off and focus on some other fellow citizen, the present volume constitutes a compendium of such asides. Motley and ungovernable, the Metropolis strips bear no uniform title, and no recurring character haunts their streets. (Even Katchor’s wonderfully Uqbar-ish travelogue, The Cardboard Valise , had identifiable personages around whom the author’s whims could fillip and digress.) Unlike the New Yorker or such like-minded lit mags, those traditional havens of character and storyline, the purview of Metropolis is instead architecture and design.
And at first glance, Katchor’s strips fall neatly within those bounds: a series of essays on objects and their uses (“The Built-in Tissue Dispenser,” “The Miniature Trash Can”), or a learned disquisition on certain interesting edifices, like the hotel that offers an ocean view from every room. But while this work finds inspiration in such things and places—mere gadgets, glass, and concrete, one might think; lifeless, abstract—the end result is far from impersonal. Instead, the book is positively teeming with humanity, with people’s creative responses to environments that are too often anonymous, presumptuous, constraining. In having done away with Knipl, his everyman, Katchor frees himself to take on everybody.
Few books are as communal, as catch-all: every page a new hero, a new tale, a new voice. Or, rather, the same voice, a collective voice: Katchor yanks at his sentences with his characteristic taffy-pull between narration and dialogue, so that each merges into and props up the other, so that each person talks like the rest, and everyone contributes to the same conversation. A strip that begins with a narrator pondering the “velvet rope and stanchion” as “that most pernicious symbol of corporate greed,” accompanied by a management figure extolling the system’s virtues, soon opens its ranks to welcome in people off the street—“middle-aged men with hernias, unwed teenage mothers and tattooed first offenders”—who stage small, symbolic acts of rebellion, ducking under the ropes, violating the inflexible rules of the queue. “The physical expression of our free will,” they say, as Katchor draws them teetering, acrobatically off-kilter but assured in their acts of defiance. The effect is bathetic, of course—a bold “act of transgression” turned quixotic, the body awkwardly contorted to ridiculous effect and little gain—and yet Katchor, and the people who populate his America, will find their triumphs where they can.
Elsewhere, Katchor’s people—always the same lumpen figures, at odd angles with their surroundings, leaning into the pull of their obsessions—forge brief utopian alliances simply by reading over the shoulders of strangers (“Now we have something in common”). Or they take to “long-term window watching” with the aid of a customized pillow, weaning themselves off of electronic media, finding their new celebrities in the streets, piecing together the fragments of stories that unfold there below, discovering unwonted nuance and change and poetry all around them. They pay minute, painstaking attention to the “senseless flow of traffic” on the highway outside their city, tracking individual drivers with the fanaticism of the baseball statistician or the soap opera follower. The freeway, once dreary and commonplace, transforms into engrossing and meaningful spectacle.
Everywhere Katchor and his characters are willing to find these kinds of virtue in deadening necessity, to find meaning in the mass-produced and ascribe lofty purpose to the baldly pointless. “Let us celebrate the unique sound of each city’s garbage collection while we still can,” implores the narrator in one strip, while in another a man teaches his son the niceties of hasty “slop work,” the finer points of shoddy renovations, inculcating in the boy a sense of awe at human impermanence and cheapness. Garbage collection, slop work, hand-drying in America: meaning proliferates in Katchor’s world, where all of our activities become imbued with rich, suggestive significance, where each seemingly colorless social convention is in fact one more node in a vast people’s history. An emblem for his work, then: a panel from a strip entitled “Memorial City,” where “the sidewalks are encrusted with commemorative plaques,” and a pedestrian halts, immobile, eyes cast downward, frozen in contemplation of the dozens, hundreds of negligible stories intrinsic to every inch of urban space spread before him.
One suspects the world, for Katchor, is similarly encrusted. Every object, every occasion, gives rise to some insight, whether it’s buying shoes, holding an elevator door, or reaching for a paper towel that isn’t there. Two of the strongest pieces in the book revolve around the legacy and import of the sardine key, used to open tins of fish in an era before pull-tabs, and the history of the over-sized magazine (self-reflexive, that: the first strips in the book hail from the period when Metropolis was still published in decadent proportions, before shrinking down shortly after Katchor’s arrival). The cartoonist acknowledges the diminished quality of our experiences with either commodity today, but chooses to ignore this contemporary triviality in favor of a deep engagement with them as historical objects. He revivifies these artifacts of a now-ancient culture, allowing them to speak out of the past about their accomplishments and genealogies, remarking on the way that magazines inhabited the homes of their readers (Life spilling out of suburban magazine racks, Interview splayed on coffee tables in converted lofts), or the way the sardine can metaphorized the constraints of modern urban life, while its key embodied the promise of escape and relief.
These are the trappings of Knipl’s America, however, the bygone glories of yesteryear. They provoke a valorizing of the vanished past that may be tongue-in-cheek—a kind of ironic sepia-tone—but that tone remains wistful and elegiac all the same. More pointed, and less heroic, are Katchor’s encounters with the widgets and presumptions and falsifications of today. The artist’s more recent strips, especially after he abandons ink and wash and begins to draw with digital tools, are tales that no longer cast back into the past, but rather prognosticate and forewarn—tea-leaf readings that are more bitter dregs than sweetened fortunes. Set in our proximate future, if not some tweaked semblance of today (one strip tells of a condo housing a sweatshop in the year 2014), the final movements of Hand-Drying in America carry out with the same tone of resigned revulsion on display in a film like Idiocracy (2006), or the aloof indignation of Swift’s infamous proposal.
In these pages, Katchor gets to indulge in science-fiction snippets of how we might live now and in the years to come, where labor seems invisible, capital seems indomitable, and life takes place on-screen. Our prophet foretells of office-buildings modeled after extreme sports or poultry farms, where workers rock-climb to their appointments, or get crammed into ill-lit holes of misery, heavily dosed with drugs so they can hallucinate a happier, more spacious workplace. There are CEOs legislated into visiting each outlet of their business for fifteen minutes each day (Katchor draws with gleeful schadenfreude the bedraggled, urine-soaked billionaire that results from this state of affairs). There are middle-class families who choose to decorate their homes “in the style of ‘emergency preparedness’”, all sirens and eye-wash stations and chemical toilets, or who garb themselves in rubber boots and overalls, distrustful of the impermanence of consumer goods.
Strikingly, in the final strip of the book (aside from the meta-commentary Katchor loads into the endpapers and covers), the cartoonist draws together all the strands he has lately been following—the digital, the global, the historical. The page uses the graphics-overload of the cable news broadcast as a starting point from which to discuss the history of television journalism, the media’s blinkered politics, the public’s short-term memory—even the semiotics of the mid-century necktie. All this information is arrayed in a way that echoes the “frenetic display” of the CNN-style screens it purports to be about: at least five distinct locations and timeframes circle the page, from Moscow to Riyadh, from the ’50s to now, with each fragment poised on top of and beside the other. No one setting takes precedence over another, and there is no unique way to properly navigate the page. A challenge is posed: how will we make sense of what’s before us? How will we find our way through the avalanche of information that’s no longer just on the streets around us, encrusted on the sidewalks like those commemorative plaques in Memorial City, but beamed now too into our living rooms, our laptops, our palms? What meaning can be distilled from all this vacuous, aimless babble?
In this new landscape, Katchor no longer provides readers with a guide—none of his gesticulating street lecturers appear, no hucksters, no familiars, no Knipl. Instead, positioned centrally we find one viewer, bathed in the blue light of the screen, neck craned toward the newscast, listening to an anchor tell us first of a senator’s indictment, then his imprisonment, and his inevitable presidential campaign. “The constant visual activity,” the captions read, “seems to displace the need for a coherent chain of thought.” The viewer’s face registers no reaction, no change. Hand-Drying in America lays out the world before us, in all its varieties and colors and confusions and fragments, just like that television screen: sure, yes, pay attention, be enraptured, be that viewer. But don’t forget to think about what we see, to reflect on it, and spin off into wild supposition, historical speculation. Even if—especially if—we cannot make it cohere.