Cartoonist and MacArthur Fellow Ben Katchor is back with a new book, The Cardboard Valise, his first book in ten years. Pantheon will release the book in February along with an e-book version.
In Ben Katchor’s strips, melancholy heroes wander through surreal cities, some recognizable as New York, the artist’s home, and others, like the setting of The Cardboard Valise, entirely fantastic. Since 1988, Katchor has been publishing his obscure ruminations and sharp social commentaries in weekly and monthly syndicated strips like Julius Knipl Real Estate Photographer and The Cardboard Valise. His themes move between recognizable critiques of consumer culture and mainstream entertainment, and moody riffs whose meanings are harder to grasp. It’s in those spaces where understanding eludes the reader and where meaning nonetheless makes itself felt, that Katchor’s signature poetry lies. And it was for this combination of meaning and the willingness to explore nonsense that had one New York Times reviewer call him “the most poetic, deeply layered artist ever to draw a comic strip.”
Anyone who feels this way about Katchor’s work will be happy to know that his first collection in over ten years is about to be released by Pantheon. To put the book together, Katchor went back to the strips he’d done for The Cardboard Valise, which he finished in 2000. “The originals are left as they were,” he explains, “and then I went in and added new material to amplify the through-story as I saw it.” The drawing style is not identical and careful readers can easily pick out the new strips. “I wanted the new pages to look like an annotation, a new kind of drawing,” says Katchor.
The setting is Outer Canthus, an exotic land whose destinations include “the beautiful tiled restrooms of Tensint Island” among others. The main character is Emile Delilah, a mad traveler, diagnosed by his family doctor as a “xenophiliac” or one who has “a morbid love for every country but his own.” Sadly for Emile, his attraction to the exotic and the novel is always short-lived. He grows tired of new places almost as quickly as he reaches them, and so his search for “authenticity,” of experience and of place, goes on and on.
Katchor says that, though he’d finished the strip a decade ago, the moment was right to return to it. “Recently we’ve all been thinking of the disappearance of paper and the culture carried by paper. I looked at The Cardboard Valise again from that angle, not just the angle of the tourist.”
The book’s central item, the cheaply made cardboard valise that travels the world, linking places and characters to one another, is, for Katchor, like the paper that used to bear the mark of its origins. “I remember as a child going to an exhibit about the Soviet Union and every paper had this alien smell. The paper and the ink were all exported. It was like a piece of cheese from that country, you could touch it, feel it, smell it, and it was different.”
Far from decrying the new digital formats, Katchor takes a plus ça change view of the move toward ebooks. Indeed in an unusual move, Pantheon will issue an e-book (available for all formats) of the Cardboard Valise at the same time as the print edition. Random House senior v-p of publicity Paul Bogaards said The Cardboard Valise is the only Pantheon graphic novel to be released as an e-book. He also said that going forward graphic novels would be issued as e-books on a “case by case basis” and the determination would be made in consultation with the author.
“The publishing industry has always wanted to make books as cheaply and as ephemerally as they could, it’s nothing new,” he says. “When paperbacks came along they were called a disposable book and it’s true that they were almost immaterial, falling apart, held together by glue. The only difference is that now the technology exists to make a completely immaterial book.” Asked if he’s bothered by the disappearance of paper books, Katchor says simply that they won’t disappear. “Books will remain books and these new things will be something different. They will be different ways of telling stories.”
In fact, he sees reason to be enthusiastic about those new forms, and the ways they might revive and continue the serial comic. “There’s something exciting about weekly strips in that you're following the way the story reveals itself to the writer week by week. All the possible directions it could have taken are there; it’s a kind of participatory reading that I think books discourage.” He watches with interest for the ways electronic publishing will open the path to more artists. “I think that's one of the possibilities now with electronic publishing, it’s all serial, a lot of people write their books online, day by day.”