Ben Katchor, The Cardboard Valise, Pantheon, $25.95 (cloth)

I am feeling a little overfed, a bit unsettled, woozy even, as after a large meal of many dishes, all different but equally rich, none of which I could refuse. I have read through the new collection of what must be named comic strips, no other term available, by Ben Katchor, called The Cardboard Valise. I toss down the napkin, push away from the table cross-eyed, and swallow effortfully, trying to formulate a useful thought.

Of course it’s wrong to have read it all in a gulp, or even five or ten. Katchor has himself warned against this. The pages of the book are intended, or at least made, to be read one a week, with time between one and the next for digestion, reflection, eructation. They appeared thus in different papers from Miami to Baltimore to Philadelphia and on to the West, but living as I do in a hinterland, I saw none of them. Amuse-gueules could be found on Katchor’s Web site, alongside glimpses of four other of his continuing narratives, each as chock-full as the one here between covers. The man could have not one but two MacArthur grants, given all the value he produces.

The Cardboard Valise has handles inside the covers, which if folded out turn the book into a metaphorical valise, opening to allow its contents to be metaphorically unpacked, as so many different kinds of things are unpacked within it. It commences as young Emile Delilah, inveterate tourist and one of the book’s three protagonists, takes a brief airplane flight out of Fluxion City to see if his newly acquired valise is up to the rigors of airport luggage handling. For this test, he tells the cab driver, he has filled it with “a hundred pounds of old medical textbooks, back from when they were printed on that heavy, coated paper. I found them in a dumpster on Pitgam Avenue.” And indeed in a full-page frontispiece we have seen lucky Emile coming upon that dumpster outside the Cough Conservatory and leafing through a volume on “The Amatory Cough and its Cure” (“removing the patient to an open-air terrace where the object of his excitation is removed and his mind can turn to other less stimulating thoughts”).

On the next page we learn how Emile earlier purchased the valise, a $29.99 Fitzall “Ahasuerus” model; then we learn how the valise was made, “assembled amidst the glue fumes and staple-gun salvos of a loft in Cachexia, New Jersey.” Emile and his enormous suitcase head for Tentsint Island, with its pervasive dry cleaning industry and far-famed public-restroom ruins (“a lost world of glass soap-dispensers and electric hand-driers”). An enraged bellhop at the Two-Ply International Hotel, where Emile is checked in, rants against island visitors and their pointless impedimenta—“winter coats, pocket dictionaries, bottles of dried typewriter correction fluid, cut-rate multiple vitamins, monogrammed belts, zippered bibles and loose change”—and urges his fellow bellhops to revolt:

A young tourist has transported the entire contents of his home to our fair island. . . . our children are already addicted to ketchup and chewing gum . . . . Do you want your wives and daughters, in their capacity as cleaning women, to be exposed to the sight of this fellow’s accumulated bedtime reading matter going back to 1970?

While Emile tours, the bellhops relieve him of all his belongings except the valise and a change of underwear. And within a few pages, the soil of the island, “permeated by the accumulated runoff of twenty years of dry cleaning fluids,” suddenly turns to vapor, and the island “like a stubborn stain upon the face of the earth, is removed without leaving a trace.”

Only when you reread it do you see how this beginning establishes an opposition, a wrestle, between a delight in stuff—more possibilities, more complications, more things, more names—and a revulsion against the idea of more in itself, or indeed any: at bottom, against the idea of anything at all existing. This tension will at length create something more than a series of funny ideas vaguely connected in sequences long or short.

• • •

The origins of Katchor’s art, as he has said himself, lie in the city—not only the city of his upbringing, Brooklyn and the rest of New York, but in the past of that city. Most of the faraway places in The Cardboard Valise—from Tensint Island to Outer Canthus to Fluxion City—seem also located in a recent past, recent anyway to someone my age. To Katchor, ten years younger than I, such places were at least lying all around in his youth, the years when the visual and imaginative worlds of many writers and artists are built and where the lives that they imagine take place. And while the Katchor world is a visual world, it is as much a verbal world. Katchor’s city streets and shops would be flat without the thousand signs, appeals, ads, warnings, and dreams overwritten on them: Discards International, Mal-Grand Drugs, Mortal Coil Mattress, Puncto League, Play-Tink Toys.

The made world has for a long time been a world of words, of messages; Hazel Hahn in her book Scenes of Parisian Modernity notes that as advertising in the press and in public spaces became universal at the turn of the twentieth century, parodies of advertising began appearing, too, in comic papers, often indistinguishable in their absurdity from the absurdities of the real thing. Katchor’s eye and ear are attracted to the basement levels of this universal messaging, where the appeals are hopeless, the warnings outmoded, the ads for things no one could want, the names at once fatuous and poignant. I do not desire to eat in the Exegete Bar-Grill or in the Inamorata Coffee Shop, I am not glad to find the Lucky Stiff pancake house, I hope I never need a gray room at the Gravamen Hotel.

Katchor’s list-making and thing-producing is unceasing, rational in syntax but only tangentially connected to reality.

I used to believe that Katchor’s visual style, or, to be frank, his level of artistic skill, lagged behind his proficient and elegantly explosive language-spinning. He had limited success drawing bodies in action; his line seemed hesitant, scratchy, infirm; interesting and necessary details were constantly suggested rather than actually rendered. But I have come, over time, to see a closer fit between the words and images. His drawing has gotten better—the faces more varied, even verging on the expressive, and the panels more composed. Like many comic artists, Katchor draws on the vocabulary of German expressionist films as filtered through Hollywood noir, a mode particularly appropriate for his dark city blocks and industrial sites and gloomy hotel rooms, the spaces seen from low or high angles, reaching inward toward far corners and streets as though in deep-focus cinematography.

Substantively, though, his pictorial work is unchanged; the islands and towns of purported tourist destinations in The Cardboard Valise are like those false getaway places in crime films, black-and-white palms and verandas full of un-escaped threat. They continuously creep or migrate away from the beach to the same old shabby streets we have known since Katchor’s first collection, Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer: streets lined with the dim low-rise buildings and failing but persistent enterprises that Julius Knipl spies on and eavesdrops in. But unlike the American night city of the crime film or crime comic, the streets of The Cardboard Valise are safe, the populations harmless as moths. Though hilariously boring, depressed often, frantic occasionally, or full of mad but ineffectual excitement, Katchor’s visual world is somehow never sinister: maybe because every panel is so crowded with thinking and speaking, with so much this and that.

The inventiveness is in itself exhilarating. Katchor’s list-making and thing-producing is unceasing, rational in syntax and prim in grammar but only tangentially or abstractly connected to what we know as reality. Your gullet strangles in irrepressible laughter before you are halfway through one of his riffs, and you can barely make it to the end, only to find there is another on the next page, or the next panel. Emile, seized with intestinal trouble, occupies a stall in one of Tentsint Island’s restrooms and there “considers the dinner he just ate: A salad wreath, cemetery soup, grilled sardines in-the-net, and for dessert, a Health Dept. pudding, with horse-whipped cream.” In Fluxion City an observer stands baffled at the hopeless stuff on offer at Discounts International: “Sweat-suits in small sizes, ‘God Bless This Home’ acrylic doormats piled waist-high, . . . Cadillac-style video rewinders, doorknob cozies, tuxedos for infants, cans of ‘Danish’ butter cookies . . . . The list is endless.”

There are comic strips that are replete, whereas others are plain. Peanuts and Dilbert are among the plain, and so, long ago, were Nancy and Henry. Katchor’s are among the replete: those strips whose panels are crammed with amusements, odd people coming and going, wacky knickknacks on shelves and tables, pets or vermin underfoot, whimsical signage. In Walt Kelly’s Pogo, if a character is holding a book we are sure to be allowed to read the title (“Girl of the Limberwurst”); the walls in Smokey Stover were hung with pictures that changed from panel to panel, as well as punning or nonsensical remarks (“Notary Sojac”) from the artist.

Strips stuffed with stuff are often also stuffed with words (but not always; see early Little Nemo episodes). Katchor’s words—like those in Gene Ahern’s Our Boarding House, which Katchor has named an early influenceoften use up more of the panel than the drawn things. In Katchor’s work, even when the speech balloons are sparse, the narrative bands at the top of the panels proffer elaborate descriptions and explanations in his refined and queerly learned language. Fans of the word, over on this side, roll around in it like delighted puppies, while the purist picture fans on that side shake their heads. It might be better if Katchor practiced his lettering a bit more assiduously, but the subtle match between picture and word, which is the highest goal of a comic strip, is perhaps aided by the slightly slovenly look of it above or within the seemingly slovenly drawings. No one, after all, is going to letter and draw the way Walt Kelly did in his prime, word and picture melded in exquisite complementary effects; that world, and those draftsman’s skills, are not so much lost as long-surrendered.

The Cardboard Valise also places Katchor’s work on one side of another distinction in comic-strip artists, the one between the jokesters and the storytellers: in the first, each day’s strip is a self-contained, punch-lined entity, a variation on a standing circumstance (Blondie, Beetle Bailey); in the other, a part of an ongoing adventure with at least a tentative conclusion, followed by another (Li’l Abner, Pogo). An intermediate form sets afoot a problem or dilemma that lasts a few days before evaporating, as in Peanuts or Krazy Kat. Katchor’s breakout strip Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer was organized, if that’s the word, only by the wanderings and curiosity of Mr. Knipl, and even he and his investigations vanished for pages at a time. Each weekly unit unfolded a little moment, told an anecdote, and though bits and scenes recurred, nothing really developed. The Cardboard Valise at first seems to be the same sort of thing, and indeed it is prone to idling and wandering, but as the pages turn it evolves, or coagulates, into true storytelling.

• • •

Maybe it was the experience of creating The Jew of New York—which was a graphic novel rather than a continuing strip, and a novel indeed, as chock-full of characters interwoven and bound together by shifting destinies as a Dickens doorstopper—that trained Katchor in the arts of integration, reflection, opposition, and entwinement that deepen The Cardboard Valise as it goes on. As in a Dickens novel, three or four characters generate around them, often by their occult connections to one another, a quasi-endless but actually endpoint-driven story.

‘All of his trips were planned in this very armchair—the macaroni and cheese encrustations attest to his monastic life-style.’

First to be put in place is Emile, who, despite his desire to run off to far places and escape the circumstances of his life, is always dragging those circumstances with him where he goes or imagines going, accumulating experiences like new possessions. Weekly readers may well have forgotten that Emile was believed to have been lost in the Tensint Island disappearance when, much further on, his grieving parents turn his apartment (actually a more fitting and slightly better-furnished substitute) into a museum of their son’s life and wanderings (“All of his trips were planned in this very armchair—the macaroni and cheese encrustations attest to his monastic life-style.”) Emile’s not been dead, of course, but rather has been drawing on the lifetime paid account at Hoopus Travel his parents gave him as a boy. Emile-believed-dead is going to pay off in the accounting that makes a well-made tale.

Practical philosopher Elijah Salamis, on the other hand, never leaves home and is progressively shedding every permanence in life. His single room is painted “U.V. Blue No. 75—a color devoid of all historical connotations.” He has recently changed his name to Pylon Zoon: “Why associate oneself with hundreds of generations of Salamises—it’s time for a fresh start.” Rather than obey the meteorological dictates of Fluxion City, where he resides, Salamis dresses year-round in thin T-shirt and shorts—“Who looks anymore at an open fly? The missing buttons of the world belong in archaeological museums”—and believes in the dissolution of all qualities, distinctions, names, nations.

Just as nuts as Elijah but not so blithe, Calvin Heaves gathers “world-weary” crowds at the Quiver Tabernacle for his weekly “Sermon from the Mouth.” Calvin believes that the mountains of unsold and unsellable goods piled up at Discounts International reflect the unappeased and unappeasable commercial longings of the dead; he preaches man’s continued existence beyond death, but not the usual supernatural kind:

Upon death, the human appetitive urge departs from the body in the form of a twelve-inch-long section of colorless sausage casing. . . . This immaterial gullet, or soul, finds its eternal home in the shadow of the street curb where it continues forever in its peristaltic contractions.

For “demonstration purposes,” Heaves employs a realistic battery-operated toy esophagus, “The Voracious Maw,” manufactured in faraway Buccal Mucosa for the Sowtoy Company of Liebestraum, Ohio, and once shipped by the hundred-gross to Tensint Island for the spring Diarrhea Festival. With Tensint obliterated, they are snapped up by the Heaves cultists as their aegis.

The triangulation of these three, the opposition of their stances toward appetite, need, and the ceaseless proliferation of things, comprises the structural members of the work, though this isn’t apparent at first (how did Dickens’s first readers, getting his monthly installments, keep his plots straight? Did they take notes, or just not concern themselves with it?). But “structural members” is really too spatial a metaphor, because the essence of all fictional creations beyond the one-joke-a-day comic strip is movement through time.

Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer maintains to the end the dreamlike slippage between topics, the cabalistic or fractal branching-by-repetition, that can proceed nowhere. The Cardboard Valise, however, trends ever more visibly toward a solidly novelistic conclusion, in which (1) opposed persons, acting out the compulsions of their characters within the constraints of their social world, reach (2) resolutions of abasement or transcendence in (3) a carnivalesque climax, followed by (4) the promised though not completed instauration of a new-old world—in this case by means of a cardboard valise identical to the one we began with, the Fitzall “Ahasuerus” of New Jersey, Emile’s self-chosen burden and trust. The last image in the book is of it, as was the first.

So, in E.M. Forster’s well-known terms, while the earlier book’s a story, provisional and potentially endless, the other’s got a plot. I even wonder if it would be proper to reveal its ending—to perpetrate the spoiler that readers are now ubiquitously alerted to in reviews and blogs. It includes some rather non-Katchoresque elements, such as sudden death (“six deadly capsules of potassium chloride . . . he washes them down with a Cherry Swallow”) and violent overthrow (of false prophet Calvin Heaves: “The assembled crowd is awakened as though from a delusionary stupor”).

I am moved by the thought of Katchor brooding so long over the matters he has broached that the sense of an ending arose in him, and by his courage in carrying it forward. Simultaneously, I feel a reader’s common dissatisfaction in the closing up of a fictional world. As Forster perceived, the last third of a novel tends to disappoint even as it compels, because it must make its way toward the wrap-up, shedding possibilities as it goes: thus it becomes less lifelike, because actual life always opens up further, never shuts down, never aims toward a final paragraph.

It’s strange to think of Katchor’s work as lifelike, but there it is. Its lifelikeness is partly a function of the felt possibility of ongoing randomness inherent in the comic-strip mode. The Cardboard Valise finally refuses that mode, and that is perhaps why—delightfully full though it is of notions, places, and people—it’s not likely to displace the first Julius Knipl collection in my affections. That collection ends with what I still consider Katchor’s most sublime invention, the Evening Combinator, a city newspaper that chronicles not the daily events of life but the nightly dream-life of the citizens (“Mosquito Gives Birth to Sentient Safety Pin”). A band of Katchor’s obsessive crusaders, led by muscle-bound Ormond Bell at his Stay-Awake-A-Torium (“hot coffee, hard chairs”), opposes the creeping surrender to the pointless inventions of dreaming. But rather than pressing the story even to a provisional conclusion through this conflict, the volume just takes a deadpan turn around one more strange corner and draws to a close, like night.