Ben Katchor is the best world-builder in comics today. This is true even though he does none of the things we tend to associate with world-building, be it visual or narrative in nature. He's no epic sci-fi-fantasist, with a wiki-worthy cultural-historical framework underpinning (or overwhelming) every person, place, and thing that ends on the printed page. He hasn't developed a personal visual vocabulary of forms and symbols from which a wholly alien world that nonetheless makes optical sense on its own terms can be constructed. He doesn't use tricks with layout or beat-by-beat pacing to drag us through a contiguous, continuous spatial environment alongside his characters. And those characters don't belong to a sprawling, interconnected cast whose lives and relationships grow and change and metastasize over the years, parallel to our own.
So if he doesn't do any of those things -- if he's not a fantasist like J.R.R. Tolkien or George R.R. Martin, a demiurge like Jim Woodring or Jack Kirby, an architect like Mat Brinkman or Brian Chippendale, or a mass biographer like Gilbert Hernandez or Jaime Hernandez -- how is it that The Cardboard Valise, his latest collection of loosely intertwined comic strips, feels like something you can open up, fall into, and stroll around in?
More than any other reason, perhaps, it's because of the angle of entry he offers us. Katchor is the master of the diagonal. The entrepreneurs and officials, hucksters and glad-hands who inhabit The Cardboard Valise virtually never traverse the panels comprising Katchor's strict eight-panel grids from back to front or side to side. They stride purposefully and gesticulate wildly from the left foreground to the rear background. They gaze up with wonder from the lower left to upper right. They follow sight lines that lead us not infinitely back into the panel but out of it, in whatever direction, even toward us. Katchor once told me that he draws his comics using the theatrical stage as a touchstone, rather than the flattened and cropped space of film or photography: "My approach is to construct a palpable space. Whatever happens in that space becomes believable." Indeed, simply by staging his comics in such a way that the tile floors, shelf tops, ceiling fans, and side alleys of his cities are made visible to character and reader alike, he's constructed a world that feels more livable than accrued detail could ever hope to convey.
Katchor's micro-stories similarly expose forgotten, or more accurately imaginary, nooks and crannies of the urban experience. In the same fashion as his Julius Knipl collections, The Cardboard Valise is a catalog of made-up occupations, obsessions, and cultural artifacts just too picayune to be plausible, but only just: a seaside cellphone stand that offers paying callers the chance to hear the sounds of the shore for ten minutes at a time, courtesy of employees who walk to the water and hold the phones aloft; an heir to a reference-work empire who sells off the famous family name since its value outstrips that of the imprint's accumulated, outmoded publications — The Marrowbone Backseat Bible of Contraceptive Techniques, The Marrowbone Directory of Commonly Dialed Wrong Numbers, The Marrowbone Desk Reference to Nauseating Food Combinations. In one bravura strip alone, a traveler discovers a panoply of unique customs observed by the residents of his island destination: black-market traders of partially eaten toast, discarded exercise equipment worshiped in fertility rituals, hotel employees who can deduce the personal traits of their guests from the dents they leave in wire hangers and who brag about the colds they catch from their charges, "an unwritten encyclopedia of postural gestures used to solicit tips." Together these quotidian flights of fancy suggest a world of possibilities that are at once inspiringly limitless (cumulatively) and depressingly limited (individually) — a world, in other words, much like our own.
In the past, Katchor has used this technique to evoke the lost histories and specialties of the American city. In The Cardboard Valise, however, he's tackling the theme of travel (echoed in the hardcover edition's fold-out, suitcase-like handles), as it impacts his two protagonists—compulsive vacationer Emile Delilah, who's so smitten with experiencing other cultures that he can hardly stand to be at home, and charismatic Elijah Salamis, a "supranationalist" who demonstrates his rejection of national and cultural boundaries by walking around in his underwear regardless of weather or disapprobation ("Today's world market has us all in jeans and sneakers, so why not go all the way? Why not give up, once and for all, the crumbling façade of cultural diversity?"). This strips away the nostalgic veneer often found in Katchor's comics, and reveals a sneakily satirical sheen underneath. The tourist-trap kitsch and played-up local color Delilah encounters, The Cardboard Valise argues, are merely the most obviously icky manifestation, and logical endpoint, of all nationalism -- an inflation of trivial distinctions and accidents of history and geography into matters of all-encompassing aesthetic and political importance. This gives the book's climax, in which an encounter between Salamis and Delilah leads to the public debunking of a religious charlatan who argues that it's not our ethics or imaginations or faiths that live on after our deaths, but our acquisitiveness, real pathos and real bite. In the end, the world Katchor builds is a hall of fun-house mirrors. It's fascinating and funny and endlessly enveloping to look at, but its delights and distortions alike are ultimately a reflection of ourselves.