Robot 6

“Just to demonstrate that it’s possible”: Ben Katchor on The Cardboard Valise

There’s nothing else in the world quite like Ben Katchor’s comics. Perhaps that’s because there’s nothing in the world quite like the people and places you’ll find in them. Best known for his newspaper strip Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer, Katchor is an inventor of lost culture. His comics chronicle imaginary occupations and cultural attractions, like an island whose economy revolves around tourists visiting the ruins of abandoned public restrooms, “humane hamburgers” consisting of tiny slices of meat snipped from still-living cows so gently that they barely notice, or a seaside cellphone stand whose employees hold their phones aloft at the shore for ten minutes at a time so callers can hear the sounds of the ocean for a price. All of these things are just this side of plausible, feeling like old-fashioned customs that have been rendered obsolete or great ideas that never caught on, drowned out by the bustle of life in the big city.

But in his upcoming book The Cardboard Valise, due out on March 8 from Pantheon, Katchor takes a journey beyond his customary imaginary American-urban setting. This collection of strips culled from a variety of publications tells the loosely intertwined stories of two men dealing with our increasingly small world in two very different fashions: One is a literal travel addict who can’t stop visiting distant lands and cultures; the other proudly and loudly denounces the very notion of differing nations and customs, seeking to wipe out the physical and psychological borders that divide the world. Unsurprisingly, Katchor proves himself just as adept at chronicling the dislocations of travel and internationalism as he is at showing us (to use the subtitle of one of his books) the pleasures of urban decay.

As part of Robot 6’s second anniversary spectacular, Katchor allowed us to pick his brain about his new book, the allure of exoticism, the danger of nationalism, print vs. digital, and making the impossible possible.

Sean T. Collins: I’ve long associated your work with New York City, or a “New York City of the mind” at any rate, so I was surprised to see that The Cardboard Valise is largely set in the conspicuously “foreign” settings of Tensint Island and Outer Canthus. What made you decide to head abroad? Was there something you could do there that you couldn’t in a recognizably American setting like The Cardboard Valise‘s third major location, Fluxion City?

Ben Katchor: My interest in the Julius Knipl series was to invent a fictional American city that might have existed just before my birth. I began to understand that slight extrapolations of the urban texture I knew resulted in equally plausible details.  This interest led me to consider all of the exotic ideas and feelings I had about foreign locales and how much of this exotica was self-generated. I started The Cardboard Valise to examine the tension between these invented cultural artifacts and the supranational impulses of modernism.

Certainly much “exotica” is “self-generated,” as you put it, but in The Cardboard Valise, at least, it seems that the foreign locations we visit are heavily invested in perpetuating their own air of the exotic. I’ve certainly gotten the sense when traveling to popular places that tourists and their destinations almost have an unspoken agreement: The tourists come expecting a certain thing, and the destinations deliver. It sounds like you’d place the blame for this chicken-and-egg cycle on the tourists?

You’re right, it’s a vicious circle that ends up with historic places being turned into touristic gift-shop towns, but the root of this behavior lies in the 19th century movements for national identity and purity –  all based on pure fantasies. Rather than attributing a perfume to a particular perfume maker, it became French perfume and that sort of nationalistic generalization leads to trouble.

The Cardboard Valise stars two main characters: Emile Delilah, an avid traveler addicted to experiencing other lands and cultures; and Elijah Salamis, an eccentric city-dweller devoted to obliterating the very notion of separate nations and customs. How’d you come up with these two opposite numbers? Do you ultimately feel that either of their credos is a superior prescription for modern life?

As I mentioned, this conflict was at the root of The Cardboard Valise.  As the world is now a very small place, I am an internationalist. I don’t feel particularly attached to the culture in which I grew up. In fact, I attribute all of the most dangerous delusional behavior to these ancient cultural ideas being played out in pathetic displays of nationalism and religious belief. The few valuable things developed over history are the exceptions and can be attributed to a small number of people — everyone else is just riding on the coattails of rare musicians, chefs, inventors, etc.

That’s interesting, because there seems to be a fine line between delusional displays and genuine, worthwhile individual expression in your work. To me, the two stand-out “performers” in The Cardboard Valise were the ice-cream-licking artist and the bogus evangelist; the former seemed to be a statement about art being a rarefied and underappreciated commodity, and the latter is obviously one of those pathetic displays of religiosity you cite. Do you feel like you give voice to the “rare musicians, chefs, inventors, etc.” who help develop things of lasting value in your work, or do your interests lie elsewhere?

There’s an element of delusional behavior behind both types. My interest in the picture-story is to imbue all of these occupations with an entertaining poetic logic — just to demonstrate that’s it’s possible.

I’ve always been smitten with the way you construct spaces on the page. I feel like you use odd angles and dramatic body language to convey the three-dimensionality of the buildings and streets your characters visit and inhabit — I practically feel like I’m in there with them. It’s very different from the proscenium-stage panel layouts one frequently sees in comic strips. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about your approach to constructing environments — is it something you feel meshes with the stories you’re telling, as well as just being a visual flourish?

The spatial composition of my picture-stories is pre-photographic (and pre-cinemagraphic) and more closely related to the theatrical space of a stage, in that I’m always striving to described a precise spatial drama without the flattening and random cropping of photography. When comics began to emulated films and the analysis of motion, spatial description and a description of the richness of the moment became less important. My approach is to construct a palpable space. Whatever happens in that space becomes believable. I also favor the sketch aesthetic that results in a kind of drawing that’s imbued with my handwriting and is, as a result, as far from the conventional symbols of text (language) as possible. Playing with that full spectrum of meaning, eight panels, or so, is usually enough to evoke a believable fictional world.

I don’t want my readers to be lulled into a long alluring narrative dream. I prefer to throw them back into their own lives after eight, or so, panels. Therefore, the long-form picture-story doesn’t interest me.

I have this very vivid memory of going to Disney World with my family as a child and being suddenly awed when I saw that it someone’s job to clean ONE particular restroom or sell food at ONE particular stand near ONE particular attraction in ONE particular area of ONE particular theme park out of the many that comprised the whole giant complex, and that this was multiplied countless times over until every task in the whole of Disney World got done, day in and day out. That’s when I realized that for every task in every place on Earth, it’s someone’s job to do that task. This is my lengthy way of saying that that’s the feeling I get from all the imaginary, impossibly specific and picayune jobs you invent in your strips — the guy who buys a man’s lint-stained pants for a museum collection of accidental art, the guy who’s made an art form out of licking ice cream cones, the black-market uneaten-toast peddlers. Even though none of these jobs actually exist, I always feel that reading your comics gives me a sense of the boundless (and at times pointless) complexity of the world. I’m curious if that’s how you see it too.

I think that all serious investigations of how the world functions must take place on a near-microscopic level — that goes for fiction as well as science.

This response and your previous one made me realize something. Obviously your preference for the strip format and your depiction of life on the “near-microscopic level” are a natural fit–but at the same time, the strips comprising The Cardboard Valise and the detail they contain eventually accumulate into a satisfying novel-length “story,” for want of a better word, with a unified theme and effect. At least to me they did! Was this your intention from the start when developing Delilah, Salamis, and their world?

Although I wanted the reader to feel as though each weekly installment was self-contained, I knew that some vague structure was taking shape through accretion over the years. The book reader, taking it in at one sitting, probably gets a better sense of the fragility on the narrative and of how it was improvised week by week, or page by page.

Another anecdote: When I first graduated college I worked in New York as a production assistant in film and television, which mostly consisted of traveling around Manhattan running errands for the production companies. I was constantly catching glimpses of lost businesses as I roamed around–I remember one vendor of something or other had set up shop in a third story of an office building that still had antiquated pneumatic message tubes running here and there throughout the space. I found myself feeling nostalgia for something I’d never even actually experienced. With your comics–whether it’s the workers of Fluxion City or the tourist attractions of Tensint Island–I find myself feeling nostalgia and wanderlust for things I not only haven’t experienced, but couldn’t possibly ever have experienced, because they don’t exist! Am I on the right track as to what you’re up to by conjuring up these places?

Those feelings of nostalgia for things you never knew are proof that all human culture is invented and should not be accepted as being inevitable. I hope that my picture-stories make people aware of the arbitrary nature of the social and economic structures they see around them and give them an incentive to change those things that seem wrong.

I think that they did in The Cardboard Valise even more, perhaps, than your other comics, in large part because it so markedly was NOT a city that “existed in a time before my birth,” as you described your comics earlier — digital technology is mentioned, as are specific post-millennial dates, and a laptop figures prominently right at the end of the book. Why did you choose to so clearly differentiate this world from the world of the past?

In the Knipl series, I made use of so many real-world historical details that readers felt as though Knipl was their uncle leading them through a unified urban mythology. The Cardboard Valise was a reaction against this cozy world-view. I wanted to evoke a feeling of cultural senselessness and dislocation. The laptop episode is there to remind readers that print and digital technology are both high tech inventions.

Also — and this is a bit less grand of a question — in that laptop strip, which concerns the difference between printed travel brochures and their online equivalents, I couldn’t help but think of the dichotomy between print and digital comics. Do you have strong feelings in that regard?

I’m now accustomed to seeing my work on a large hi-resolution monitor. The printed image looks like a poor reduction. Regardless of how the strip is presented, all the elements of drawing, writing and composition must be functioning on a certain level to hold my interest. I like the immateriality of digital delivery — it’s like handling snowflakes.

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