Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Cardboard Valise: Like its namesake, the book contains multitudes

Elsewhere, from a while back: I wrote a bunch about the recently-ended season of Fringe over at The Factual Opinion.

Links: Hey, look, a huge chunk of Kagan McLeod's Infinite Kung-Fu is available to read for free on Top Shelf 2.0! I'm looking forward to this book, yes I am.

I really liked this webcomic, "Our Blood Stained Roof", by Ryan Andrews. He's a talent to watch, that's for sure.

Interesting Kickstarters: This project by Molly Crabapple looks really neat, and while it's fully funded and then some, you can watch it on a livestream if you donate.

And Box Brown's Retrofit Comics publishing effort is raising money; donating will get you all sorts of neat stuff, with comics by creators known and unknown and related merchandise, along with a sense of accomplishment for supporting indie comics.

This is late (well past its imaginary deadline), due to circumstances beyond my control, and also general laziness:

The Cardboard Valise
By Ben Katchor

What to make of Ben Katchor and his somewhat goofy sensibility that still makes you think, or maybe just think you're not smart enough to keep up with all the activity that goes on in his comics? There's really nobody out there like him, with his scratchy artwork and squat, kneeless characters, his wordiness and just-left-of-reality mundanely-magical realism, his weird concepts and oddly poignant social commentary. His brain seems to work differently from everyone else's, but he's still close enough to "normal" to present his ideas in a recognizable manner which allows readers to recognize themselves and their world from a slightly different angle than what they are used to. It's a unique experience.


This book is an excellent collection of Katchor's work, compiling strips originally published in various alternative weekly newspapers and filling the gaps between them with something of a throughline, although calling it a "plot" would probably be a bit strong. The strips follow some common themes, at first focusing on tourism and the effect that first-world countries have on the rest of the world, with a character visiting a small country called Tensint Island, which is famed for its public restroom ruins, has a native language that is composed of traveling salesmen's slang, and subsists entirely on canned food. But Katchor soon gets bored with or runs out of material related to that locale, so a strip sees it destroyed in ridiculous fashion so he can move on to matters back home, mostly in Fluxion city in a country called Outer Canthus, with occasional mentions of another, two-dimensional country nearby. The book kind of just wanders around in whatever direction Katchor pleases from here on out, which can get a bit tedious (it probably reads best in small doses), but there are bits of genius on each page, with extended series of strips following some eccentric characters, interspersed with one-off bits describing odd customs or industries. We see a tourist who has returned home but keeps acting as if he is on vacation, wearing shorts and t-shirts or sunbathing in wintry weather and expecting his apartment to be maid up by a hotel maid. There's a man who refuses to recognize any nationalistic customs, including answering doorbells, and tries to spread a universal language called Puncto that has come up with words for everything possible (example: "orifulage": a half-empty tube of toothpaste). A religious leader preaches about the hungers and materialistic desires that persist after death. It's all weird, goofy stuff, but it's full of intelligence about society, pointing out the absurdities and oddities of modern life by emphasizing and exaggerating them or having someone react in ways that are just enough outside of the acceptable norm to stand out.

It's hard to describe what it is exactly that makes this material so compelling, especially since it seems like it shouldn't work. Katchor fills pages with text, often having characters speak directly to the reader, sporting freakish, crazed expressions, but still seeming relatable. He manages to make their odd activities and pastimes understood without seeming tedious, and he introduces and abandons outrageous concepts quickly, yet weaves them all together into something resembling a whole, even if we feel that we can never quite grasp it in its entirety. There's something fascinatingly human about that, a reflection of how nobody can never really understand everything, no matter how hard we try. Maybe everything is all surface, but we try to dig below, to relate to people who are impossible to figure out. Are any of us, with our particular obsessions and habits, that different from Katchor's parade of goofballs? Not really, and this book has a strange, but fascinating, way of pointing that out, of illustrating the varied beauty of existence. That's something special.


  1. Your timing on your Katchor review is rather impressive; earlier today, I was going through a stack of books that I'd told myself I was going to review, and decided that I'd waited too long and it was clearl never going to happen.

    It cheers me up to no end to see your review show up today, as a result. Glad you tackled it.

  2. Man, I was almost in the same situation, but I finally banged something out. That seems to be happening to me more and more lately; I often intend to write something, but as it gets longer and longer since I read it, I get less and less likely to write. Life, man, it's tiring. Hopefully I can write about stuff in a more timely manner, but it can be difficult...