There was no way Ben Katchor’s latest comics collection could have been a misfire. Gathered from the regular strips he did for the tabloid-size, urban-studies magazine Metropolis, the volume shows Katchor doing what he does best: illustrating the surreal and often hilarious potential of city life, as he observes it.
Katchor’s humor relies on cities for its strength: their grime, their dishonest denizens, and their beautiful decay seem to feed his imagination. This book hits its target in just about every panel; the worst one might say about it is that at times it becomes too philosophical — and what kind of a crime is that?
One might also argue that Katchor has been plowing the same furrow for many years now, and that perhaps he should branch out in a different direction. This argument depends on the reader for its validity: If you take issue with the furrow he plows, it’s a problem, but if not, not. But, in the end, who could take issue with these comics?
At their best, the 159 independent strips gathered here catch on some little detail of urban life that exposes a telling human weakness and expand on it in a surreal and often eloquent way.
Take, for instance, the strip about the Soliloqueeter, a service that allows the user to call a number and offer a rambling monologue without the expectation of the pressure of a response on the other end.
Or there’s the body-heat snatcher, a man who manages to contain the heat left behind by people’s rumps after they’ve sat in one spot for an extended period and turn it into electrical energy.
Couldn’t we all use a crumb collector, a person who goes into people’s apartments and collects the crumbs from their toasters for constructive re-use elsewhere?
Or, if not that, then Fayoum’s Finger, a handy mechanical device that adjusts pesky labels in clothing?
The strips are, as always, moved forward with the help of Katchor’s artfully dry text, which has asserted itself more aggressively over the years, making a more noticeable competition with Katchor’s artfully bedraggled figures and crumbling porticos. There are some strips here in which the text threatens to completely crowd out the art, surging, practically bursting out of the frame.
And the text is, as always, composed of the murmuring, exquisitely structured sentences that sound as if they came from the AM dial of a radio spontaneously imbued with prescience. “The air of gaiety has been pumped from this windowless chamber . . . and into the vacuum rushes an assortment of birthday boys, recent graduates and long-suffering couples,” utters “The Party Room” in its final two frames.
“The High-Visibility Vest” begins: “The standard high-visibility vest worn by highway and construction workers . . . has been adopted for everyday use by certain unhappy individuals.” These lines seem tonally blank, but in another sense they are bottomlessly complex; any number of implications or intonations might be taken from them, with the right kind of examination.
Sadness, whimsy, nostalgia, reflection, concern: These feelings all float through the frames which, despite the wizened appearance of their characters, could also be said to be bristling with energy, nearly in motion.
Does the book ever falter? Sure. Near its end, the strictly regimented panels give way to more free-form strips, a style in which Katchor seems less confident, his wit less acute.
Additionally, a somewhat dreamy tone reminiscent of the free-form dystopian imaginings of his book, “The Cardboard Valise,’’ creeps in here at times, meshing uncomfortably with the grit of the rest of the book. But these are small complaints. The idea that the universal can be conveyed through close attention to particulars is a cliché, perhaps, but seeing it executed well is a rare pleasure. This book is that execution.