Laura Finck’s back cover blurb for The Backstage of a Dishwashing Webshow, Keren Katz’s newest graphic novel, complimented the author’s “bright, strange, dancerly pictures,” which, upon reading, I slapped my forehead and exclaimed “of course”. If there’s any other medium that resembles or describes Katz’s work it’s dance. The way her characters bend and contort themselves around their small, seemingly impossibly designed living spaces while barely registering even a hint of emotion all suggests the movement of dancers upon a stage, even if the characters in Katz’s comics remain fixed upon the page.
It can be difficult to accurately describe Katz’s comics and the effect they have on the reader. The text and images often seem divorced from each other or connected by the thinnest of strands. Her characters are unknowable, unsure of their own identity and place in the world. Her stories don’t ever really conclude in any traditionally satisfying fashion -- mysteries are explored but never solved. And yet her work, as challenging as it can be, is utterly captivating.
Dishwasher begins with a prologue that tells us about an enormous, rotating opera stage where all the sets for company’s season are built, and the actors must make their way through the labyrinthian structures without being influenced by their design. This has seemingly little to do with the story Katz proceeds to tell, though it does set up ideas of artifice, illusion and people navigating complex structures (an ongoing theme in her work)
From there the book segues to tell of Rivi, a former military air traffic controller who, on the heels of a breakup, becomes a student at Scopus Academy, a “school specializing in transmutation”. (It’s probably worth noting that Katz’s previous book, Academic Hour, also took place in a school.)
At the school Rivi initially becomes obsessed with her roommate, who broadcasts her dishwashing chores online to a rapt audience (hence the title). Their neighbor, who might be her boyfriend or might be someone with the same name, is also fascinated with the show, at least until he disappears. There’s also a street salesmen who resembles her father. Or perhaps it is her father. These things are difficult to ascertain.
Everything is always askew in Katz’ world. Not just the figures which bend over all manner of tables and chairs, their elongated limbs twisting and criss-crossing each other with aplomb, but the narrative itself bends and warps, seemingly without reason. Like a fever dream, people fade in and out, objects appear and vanish, plots are forgotten then picked up again. You are never sure where you stand in the story -- in a very literal sense as Katz’s rooms and buildings seem to fold in on themselves in odd Escher-like arrangements.
If there is any meaning to be found here it might be in Rivi’s seemingly desperate attempts to latch on to various people and tasks, perhaps in the hopes of finding a purpose. Or at least a sense of belonging. She becomes obsessed with following certain specific movements or routines lest she not be recognized by those whose attention she seeks. As with Katz’s previous comics, architecture -- man-made space -- determines how we manipulate just our bodies but time itself. (“The answer to the question: ‘How long should this moment last?’ was: ‘The size of this room’.”). In Katz’s world, movement is studied and structured and never involuntary. This is emphasized again in the book’s epilogue where a group of nameless dancers perform, while another waits in the wings, studying them. “By the time they enter the stage,” she writes, “their body will respond to a map made of images.”
As far as influences go, Edward Gorey comes immediately to mind, as his stories often feature oddly placid people lost or adrift in barren landscapes where nothing can be trusted and surreal disaster lies around every corner. Perhaps a better comparison, however, is John Hankiewicz, another cartoonist whose work usually features nonplussed characters moving awkwardly through odd landscapes; comics where the text and image seem to be working at opposite ends of the spectrum (and at a remove from the reader) but reveal themselves to be in concert.
What makes all of this weirdness work is Katz’s wonderful compositions and subdued but striking use of color. Her thin, elegant line arranges the characters and rooms in crooked, contorted shapes that are striking in their composition and never feel anything less than precise and proper. Her decisive, repeated use of aqua and navy blues, muddy browns and golden yellows that create detailed patterns and splashes of color upon the mostly white page are like musical beats, pounding out the rhythm of the book.
There are many questions that surround The Backstage of A Dishwashing Webshow. What are we to make of the chickens that run throughout the book -- are they symbols or just decoration? What about the tiny swaddled baby? What really does happen to Yakov? Such attempts to look for direct meaning can be futile though -- Katz seems to be guided as much by instinct as anything else. The reward comes not from attempting to suss out meaning but wading into her world, which is strange and wonderful and unlike anything anyone else is doing in comics today.