Book reviews: Ben Katchor's 'The Cardboard Valise' and Joyce Farmer's 'Special Exits: A Gr aphic Memoir'

By Dan Kois
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, March 4, 2011; 4:23 PM

At a dingy shop in downtown Fluxion City, you can buy, for only $29.95, the suitcase of a desperate man. It's no Samsonite: 56 inches but made of cardboard, staples and glue, guaranteed for a mere six weeks, it's a valise for people who need to get out of town in a hurry and need a case big enough, yet light enough, to carry all their belongings. Full, the enormous bag is so difficult to steer that it pulls the walker slightly sideways as it swings forward with each step.

"The Cardboard Valise," the new book by the wonderful cartoonist Ben Katchor, takes its name from this suitcase and is similarly overstuffed. Less a sturdy, self-contained graphic novel than a pleasantly flimsy repository for an inexhaustible imagination, "The Cardboard Valise" follows in the tradition of Katchor's long-running comic strip, "Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer," introducing us to a whimsical city and its logorrheic inhabitants, each with an unexpected story to tell. Like the traveler lugging the cardboard valise, the reader finds herself pulled in a new direction with every page, deep into a city far more interesting than our own, full of urban decay, old-world philosophizing in invented languages, and besuited men striding with purpose in and out of absurd workplaces.

In fact, perhaps the easiest way to acclimate readers to the pleasures of the Katchorian style is to provide a brief and incomplete list of the made-up companies and organizations appearing in "The Cardboard Valise." Sinkside Steel Wool. The Kanale Clinic for Prenatal Restitution. The famous public-restroom ruins of Tensint Island. The Sans Serif League, who picket offending businesses with signs reading, "Cut 'em off!" 1-900-CONCH, where sunburnt college kids hold the phone up to the roaring surf ($10 for the first 10 minutes, 75 cents for each additional minute). The Tre Colore fresh-salad truck, stuck in traffic, its siren wailing, as restaurant-goers impatiently await the crisp salads they ordered.

They're all rendered by Katchor in his simple pen-and-watercolor style, the angular faces of Fluxion City's inhabitants blending into each other, the backgrounds teeming with detail. Open to any page and you'll be surprised anew.

The free-for-all inside "The Cardboard Valise" stands in sharp contrast to the inevitable downward spiral depicted in "Special Exits," underground-comix pioneer Joyce Farmer's memoir of her years spent managing the decline and deaths of her elderly father and stepmother. At one point, her father, Lars - explaining how his wife became so immobile and dependent on him that she hasn't left the couch for a year - says, "Things get worse in such small increments that you can get used to anything." It's a potent description of the aging process itself, one that takes away tiny pieces of our independence and dignity until we no longer recognize ourselves.

Does this make "Special Exits" seem like a downer? Good. It is a downer. It's also funny and touching, and gratifyingly cleareyed about the messy emotions involved in caring for aging parents.

Lars and Rachel live in a ramshackle, cluttered house in south-central Los Angeles, and in busy, black-and-white panels, the book observes as their daughter, Laura - a stand-in for Farmer - cares for them through the late 1980s and early '90s. At first, the couple muddles along, making it through bad falls, a car accident and even a 44-hour power outage during the L.A. riots. But as first Rachel's and then Lars's health deteriorates, Laura arranges Meals on Wheels, cleans up "Hoarders"-worthy piles of junk and helps her parents reminisce about their pasts - and make tough choices about the future.

It's no spoiler to reveal that "Special Exits" doesn't have a happy ending. After all, no one gets a happy ending. But thanks to the hard work and loving care of Laura - and some heaven-sent hospice workers - her parents die more gracefully than many. And thanks to the thoughtful writing and art of Joyce Farmer, their lives and deaths will be a comfort to readers beginning to consider the end of their parents' lives - or their own.

Kois is the author of "Facing Future," about the Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole.


By Ben Katchor

Pantheon. Unpaginated. $25.95


By Joyce Farmer

Fantagraphics. 200 pp. $26.99

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