The Cardboard Valise (Pantheon Books)

Abandon all reality-based expectations, ye who enter the unique world of Ben Katchor’s travelogue comic strip.

128 pgs., B&W; $25.95

(W / A: Ben Katchor)
 
Reading The Cardboard Valise, the latest collection of comic strips by noted author and artist Ben Katchor (among other things he was the first cartoonist to win a MacArthur "genius" fellowship), is like visiting a world which at first seems pretty much like the one we all live in but gradually reveals itself to differ in ways you never could have anticipated. Like any traveler, you learn about your new world in little pieces and in a sort of random order, which is the opposite of the textbook-like exposition familiar from many popular movies. I’m tempted to say Katchor’s vision is "quirky" but that would be like saying that 13 Assassins is violent or that Jody and Buffy from Family Affair were cute. No, The Cardboard Valise takes individuality to a new level, one in which you are forced within a few pages to abandon all expectations of how the world of this book works and instead reconstruct your expectations based on what Katchor presents to you.
 
The theme of travel is central to The Cardboard Valise—the hardcover edition of this book even has two fold-out cardboard handles to convert the book to something like a small suitcase (reminiscent of Kramer from Seinfeld‘s coffee table book about coffee tables which also is a coffee table, complete with little fold-out legs). The two central characters are also defined by their relationship to travel. Emile Delilah is something of a compulsive traveler, diagnosed by a psychiatrist as "a xenophiliac—he has a love for every nation but his own." However that love is not for the countries themselves, nor for the inhabitants and their culture, but for the novelty of the experience: Delilah loses interest and has to move on once he starts to actually learning about a country. Elijah Salamis is the opposite, a supra-nationalist who rejects national boundaries and cultures and wears only underwear regardless of the weather to demonstrate his rejection of “the crumbling façade of cultural diversity.” His logic is that national patterns of dress have largely disappeared as everyone wears Levis and Reeboks nowadays, so why not go all the way and just dispense with outer clothing altogether?
 
There are lots of other characters in The Cardboard Valise and loads of details in each strip about different aspects of Katchor’s imagined world. If you want to know where the "Cough Conservatory" dumps its discarded reference books or how an "Ahasuerus" valise is made or who makes up the target market for such an item, you’ll learn it in these pages, along with fascinating facts about Tensilt Island (the chief attraction, to visitors, is visiting the ruins of public restrooms, and the island’s inhabitants impart a ritual significance to the opening of a can of food) and other locales. It’s really quite a philosophical comic as the strangeness of Katchor’s world acts as a stimulus to think about our own assumptions and what we consider to be normal.
 
The Cardboard Valise is an old-style strip comic with 8 frames (2 rows of four) on each page, a consistency which provides a sturdy structure to support Katchor’s flights of fancy (or attacks of loopiness, if you prefer). Working in pen and ink, he takes great care to ground these comics in a familiar physical reality—lots of floors and walls and ceilings are included in the frames, and his characters are recognizably human and drawn in a semi-realistic style, a choice which acts as a counterpoint to the often strange dialogue and narration of the strip. You can see a preview at http://www.katchor.com/valisepage.html and http://www.randomhouse.com/book/90038/the-cardboard-valise-by-ben-katchor. | Sarah Boslaugh

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