Hand-Drying in America by Ben Katchor | Book review
The highly original cartoonist comes out with a new collection.
Cartoonist Ben Katchor maintains a quirky set of inspirations: architectural history, urban decay and mundane or overlooked objects (built-in tissue dispensers, toaster crumb trays, EXIT signs). It might sound like a recipe for painfully boring comics, but his colorful, sketchy ink-and-wash panels are anything but. Hand-Drying in America, a collection of more than 150 one-page stories originally published in Metropolis magazine, showcases some of his finest work to date.
Many of these stories feature people interacting with buildings and technology in bizarre or fantastical ways. “Fayoum’s Finger” introduces a battery-operated, claw-like contraption for women, worn beneath a dress or blouse, that reaches up to tuck down a protruding label. Alas, the device makes husbands, friends and strangers jealous, as it robs them of this “small pleasure.” “The Final Move” reveals the unforeseen costs of constantly upgrading. Each spring, an apartment owner relocates to a more up-to-date residence, employing the same movers every time. In 2018, he moves to a whimsical-looking building offering “walk-thru walls and oxygen on demand” but that bans paper or wood belongings. (“All of your possessions must be uploaded as digital files.”) We see, in one of the final panels, the movers toting his books and prized armoire into a dumpster.
In one of the more poetic stories, “The Last Stand,” city residents hover around near-empty newsstands that, since the demise of print publishing, have taken to selling candy, soda and combs. Employing his deft use of color, Katchor depicts passersby lingering there in the depth of winter and heat of summer: “After day[s] immersed in a reality of pixels and scan fields, they crave the gross physicality of a shack in the street.” Katchor’s vignettes brilliantly satirize human behavior, changing social values and cities in flux. Perhaps most of all, they highlight the timeless need for human connection.