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Seeking Solace at the Symmetry Shop (An Appreciation of Ben Katchor)

Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer: The Beauty Supply District
Pantheon Books, 2000

The Jew of New York
Pantheon Books, 1998

The central joke in "The Beauty Supply District" is neatly summed up by this gem from Carol Lay‘s old Frequently Asked Questions page:

Q: Where do you get your ideas?
A: I buy them in enormous rolls from Hammacher Schlemmer.

The Beauty Supply District—another picturesque corner of Ben Katchor's New York-like city—is a little warren of shops where art and design ideas are sold over the counter. Towering geniuses of the art world make furtive visits to punch up their paintings, atonal compositions, and what have you. Commercial manufacturers stride in with less trepidation, aiming to put a new gloss on their line of olive products.

Actually it’s not so much ideas that are being purchased; it’s authority. The folks behind the counters don't really have any advantage over their customers other than impenetrable jargon. But they’ll give them something to take home: a half-inch reduction in diameter, a different shade of green, a suggestion to paint the train facing the opposite direction. The customers are all too ready to grasp at the proffered straw. There are plenty of funny signs on the storefronts (TRANSCENDENTAL IDEALISM, WELTSCHMERTZ, UNDERSTATEMENTS MADE TO ORDER) but the one all the merchants stand behind is NO REFUNDS.

"The Beauty Supply District" is a short story at the end of Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer: The Beauty Supply District (hereafter referred to TBSD.) The rest of the book collects individual Julius Knipl strips, usually one-offs, but sometimes forming short story arcs when the extra space is needed to dig into an idea. Knipl is our stand-in and guide; he tramps around the city and encounters various weird businesses, organizations, and people who bend his ear about weird businesses and organizations.

The District is a good example of Katchor's skill in creating a sort of mundane surrealism. It's just far enough off the axis of reality to be funny (before cracking the book, I figured it would be about cosmetics), but not so far off that you can't practically smell the ozone from one shop's "two-dimensional aluminum contour extruder." The world of Julius Knipl mixes fedoras and cell phones, bubblegum removal services and Mud Magnates. A touch weirder and the whole thing would bend into parallel world science fiction.

Katchor’s characters deal in digression. Their default mode of communication is a monologue, spoken either directly to the reader or to a companion who seems to be barely listening. Sometimes the speaker is dispensed with entirely, and we get a series of narrative captions that serve the same function. One spiel leads to another. In one sequence we go from a shopkeeper talking about his son failing a class in aesthetics, to the son falling asleep during the lecture, to the lecture subject's adventures, and then back out of the nested anecdotes to the shopkeeper again. It's seamless, too; Katchor's sonorous narration in this TED video is perfectly captured on the page, carrying us from scene to scene with few bumps.

The characters spend most of their time musing about ephemeral things becoming concrete, and vice-versa. A man happily contemplates the arrival of his new shoes, ordered out of a catalog solely on the basis of a brand name and description; until they're actually delivered, they're his ideal shoes. (Of course, they pinch.) A series of strips focuses on a new, wildly successful service: Misspent Youth Centers, which allow patrons to exchange their contemporary money for the same amount in vintage bills—from whatever year they felt they threw their money away on something stupid. (So the shoe guy will likely be a customer in a decade or so.)

Droll wordplay—and sign lettering, see the panel above—is a primary weapon in Katchor’s arsenal. A failed park project for lovers is named "Hymen Plaza"; a store in the District sells “hot Frankfurt School auras”, which scans just enough with me to register as funny. His dialogue lettering—see panel at left—is no great shakes technically, but it fits perfectly with the workaday city Knipl inhabits.

In fact I'd say it's the strength of Katchor's authorial voice that I find the most appealing about his strips. The writing goes with the art goes with the lettering; it's all of a piece. If the pages featured dialogue lettering that was anything other than functional, they would look off. The scratchy ink lines and grey wash evoke all the things found in an urban environment, without getting bogged down in detail. The city people are pleasantly homely, and seem right at home in the grey city. I don't have any problem believing that they work as security guards at the Heating Pad Institute, or as salespeople for perfume that smells of burnt toast.

Occasionally Katchor throws a curveball, where the absurdity takes an abrupt turn into violence and theft. In The Jew of New York, the pressures of making a living eventually drive several characters violently bonkers; in TBSD the bad guys are just another element of the cityscape, popping up where you least expect them. (But they're still Katchor characters: “Some of us have more to get off our chest than just phlegm,” deadpans a pipe-wielding thug.)

The Jew of New York deserves an essay of its own, but the short version is this: if TBSD gently satirizes our cultural obsession with consumer goods, TJNY takes it into the street and beats it loopy with a hickory switch. While it's still funny, it's a darker book than TBSD. TJNY is set in 19th century New York City and takes inspiration from historical events and trends, but as with Knipl's world, it quickly goes off in absurd directions. For example, the impresario that wants to carbonate Lake Erie and pipe it into every home.

The book follows the episodic format of the Knipl strips, but hangs together as a complete story. Buttressing and commenting on the narrative are fake pamphlets and posters (on the dollar values of 'night soil', or advertising DR. EMIL VINYACK'S COMPULSORY HOTEL & LUNATIC ASYLUM). The inside covers feature a brochure and map for the proposed carbonated water system, worth a closer look for the listing of strange organizations that Knipl will probably run across, top hats and all, a century later.


Archives of various Katchor strips (including Julius Knipl and samples from The Jew of New York) are available on his website at http://www.katchor.com/weeklystrips.html. His strips for Metropolis magazine appear on their website.