I should come clean right up front. Ben Katchor is possibly my favourite cartoonist. He's certainly in the top five. It has been eight years since his last book collection and, barring a dramatic change in his work, I was convinced that I would like this new volume as well. I did. Like all of Katchor's comics, it is a work of great beauty and eccentricity. Eccentricity being the key word.
That is the central dilemma of recommending a Ben Katchor book. It is such an odd and particular thing. Quite unlike anything else. More a surrealist poem than a traditional comic strip.
He performs that often promised yet rarely accomplished feat of transforming the mundane into the sublime. He conjures up otherworldly alternative realities for the banal objects of our everyday world - figuratively tossing them up into the air, then magically recombining them into new and amusing forms.
Take 79 Cent Island, for example. A tropical culture entirely built around low-wattage light bulbs. Or neighbouring Tensint Island, with its vast restroom ruins (the focus of its tourist trade), broken urinals and towel dispensers stretching to the horizon. Or Cheeptalk, the island's bastard language, composed of Double Dutch, Pidgin English and Salesmen's Argot. Consider the titles of this series of imaginary reference books: The Marrowbone Backseat Bible of Contraceptive Techniques, The Marrowbone Directory of Commonly Dialed Wrong Numbers, The Marrowbone Desk Reference To Nauseating Food Combinations.
This is but the tiny tip of a giant iceberg of imaginative play. Every page of the book boils over with invention. Katchor clearly loves the cheap, the mundane and the disposable, yet he doesn't bore us with this fixation. He turns it on its head. His books are like fantastic window displays, stacked up pyramids of banalities: shampoo bottles, desk calendars, gummed labels, rubber seat cushions, orthopedic shoes. Trivial on the surface and yet, as we peer in closely at them, we see that there are worlds within worlds - invented spaces where objects recombine to form whole new absurd philosophies or histories, even entire new imaginary cultures. It's the work of a cartooning illusionist. And it is genuinely funny stuff, as well. Not laugh-out-loud funny, of course. More shake-your-head-in-astonishment funny.
I'd be hard pressed to tell you what this book is actually about. It's a travelogue of sorts, I suppose. He certainly carts you around from place to place. You don't get a moment's rest. As soon as you've explored one thing, you're off to the next. Like a five-day bus tour of the continent.
I won't - I can't - attempt to nail the book down into a simple plot synopsis. Katchor has an dangerously loose regard for narrative. His "stories" are made up of chains of vaguely connected digressions. He'll introduce a character and follow him (and his odd obsessions) for a page or two, then digress to some other subject or character. We might come back to this earlier fellow or we might not. The reader never knows … and it doesn't much matter anyway. They aren't missed; Katchor's characters are somewhat cardboard, just mouthpieces for his ideas. They are all of a type - probably like Katchor himself, I suspect - obsessed figures: part mystic, part used-car salesmen. They seek transcendence in the flotsam and jetsam of the world around them.
Trying to read the meaning, for example, in a urinal filled with ice cubes in the same way a gypsy would read the tea leaves in a cup. They expound on their nutty fixations with great eloquence, rambling on and on from panel to panel. Never shutting up for a moment's pause. In Katchor's world, some oddball raconteur always has you trapped in a corner.
But, of course, that's the pleasure of it: Watching him muddy up waters that are already very murky to begin with. Whatever plot thread you thought you were following is eventually lost. There comes a moment where even the most attentive reader gives up hope of "following along" and simply goes where Katchor points. When you finally close the book, you find your mind has become temporarily altered. You can't walk through the urban landscape without seeing it through his eyes. The supermarket becomes a place rife with exotic possibilities. A vacant lot suggests some fascinating historical urban struggle. A man delivering free newspapers might very well be a link in a secret chain stretching into the trackless wastes of Siberia or perhaps to the peaks of the high Himalayas.
Seth is a Canadian writer and comic-book artist. His most recent graphic novel is George Sprott.