Book World: ‘Hand-Drying in America’ by Ben Katchor

April 15, 2013

Starbucks. Caribou. Cosi. Starbucks. Caribou. Potbelly. Starbucks. Corner Bakery. Potbelly. Starbucks.

Inviting Ben Katchor out for coffee is a fraught proposition. As one of our greatest architecturally minded cartoonists, Katchor is a master at assessing not only the massive skyline but also the smallest detail, right down to the line on a mass-produced coffee cup logo. Little misses his critical civic gaze. Which is why I’m on this corner of K Street, counting up the Starbucks.

Katchor, the first cartoonist to receive the MacArthur “genius” grant, will be in town Tuesday as he brings his big and beautiful new graphic book, “Hand-Drying in America” (Pantheon, $29.95), to Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. If he holds true to form, his talk could be titled “Katchor in the Wry.”

Katchor was born in Brooklyn the same year that J.D. Salinger published “Catcher in the Rye” (1951), but the comics author traffics in his special brand of architectural alienation. We might think we fill our cities with high-rises and shops and gleaming surfaces to service and enhance our lives, but read just a few Katchor strips and you’ll recognize elements of his modern-day dystopia. Sharp satire lives between the jagged lines of his walls. One theme resonates: In pouring the forms for a better-constructed lifestyle, we invariably sink our own stuck feet in cement. And in this illustrated land of steel, Katchor is perhaps our foremost irony-worker.

Hand-Drying,” which collects his monthly Metropolis magazine comic strips , skewers our penchant for carbon-copy buildings, our dreams of “calmer” and de-stressed (read: “duller”) atmospheres and our longing for “faux-distress” decor.


“Hand-Drying in America: And Other Stories” by Ben Katchor (Pantheon)

So now the steamed-milk pressure is really on: Where near The Washington Post to invite this urban critic for a cuppa?

For clues, I turn to his “Hand-Drying” strip titled “Hotwaters,” which begins: “At one branch of an omnipresent chain of coffee bars. . . .” Inside Hotwaters Coffee, a bulk-gulping patron orders “a mastodon with milk”and relishes his fresh cardboard cup over any ole “re-used” porcelain.

“At one of these college towns, somebody wanted to take me to a Starbucks,” Katchor tells us by phone from San Francisco, midway through his book tour. “To go to a Starbucks, I would have to be dying of thirst. I will go very far out of my way to find some privately owned and individually [run] place to avoid a chain store.”

In his life as in his comics, Katchor’s stance goes deeper than mere statement. Many global corporate leaders want to build a homogenous world with one kind of coffee shop, yet they want each of their stores to feel like a “centralized, socialistic place,” the artist says— in which case, he adds, they shouldn’t own it: “It should be a public utility and it wouldn’t be set up as a [uniform] Starbucks. Every locality should have their own way of running it.”

Katchor loathes “cookie-cutter designed” chain stores and the resulting “homogenization of the city.” But, he says, “That’s something people can have a real effect on. They can boycott these places.”

“These people are sociopaths and monomaniacs, and they think they have to dominate the market,” Katchor continues about global chain-store owners. “That’s their way of functioning, and it’s terrible. That’s something [in] my book: How these choices are being denied.”

Goethe said “architecture is frozen music,”but in Katchor’s corporate chainscape, urban architecture becomes like piped-in and peddled smooth jazz — designed to be agreeable, but repellent to the lover of rough edges and raw, original roots.

Katchor has been building his brilliant refracted-satire worlds for decades, with “Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer” through to “The Cardboard Valise” (and earning praise from “Building Stories” graphic novelist Chris Ware and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon). The colorful universe of urban decay and dissipation in “Hand-Drying” feels entirely of a piece with those earlier works. It blends his scratched lines with deviously precise language that careers from mimicry and mockery to moments of reverent poetry. For all his cutting remarks, Katchor clearly loves the resilient soul of a city.

And yet, amid the towering cranes and chain stores, the New York-based Katchor does not cling to a civic nostalgia or earlier iterations of his city. “I understand the kind of time-range of nostalgia, so I could get nostalgic for Ancient Greece — it’s history,” he says. “But I don’t want . . . to live in a museum city, where everything just stays the same — that’s not too exciting.

“I think it’s fine that things develop and change — hopefully for the better.”

HAND-DRYING IN AMERICA

And Other Stories

By Ben Katchor

Pantheon. $29.95

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