The Cardboard Valise
By Ben Katchor Pantheon. 128 pp. $25.95
A Love Story
By Daniel Clowes Pantheon. 77 pp. $19.95
Reviewed by Dan DeLuca
The case for comics as a not-just-for-kids-anymore art form has long since been closed, with incontrovertible arguments along the way by many luminaries, from Maus mastermind Art Spiegelman to Watchmen creator Alan Moore to Persepolis author Marjane Satrapi.
And any short list of sequential artists most responsible for maintaining the vitality of the awkwardly designated "graphic novel" medium would have to include Daniel Clowes and Ben Katchor.
Clowes is the creator of the long-running alt-comic book Eightball, which gave birth to the teenage-ennui classic Ghost World, which earned Clowes an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay when director Terry Zwigoff made it into a movie in 2001.
Katchor is the auteur behind such singularly surreal titles as Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay and The Jew of New York. He teamed with rock songwriter Mark Mulcahy on the 2004 musical The Rosenbach Company, about Philadelphia book-dealer brothers Abe and Philip Rosenbach. He's also the first cartoonist to receive a MacArthur "genius" fellowship.
Clowes and Katchor both have new books out. For Katchor, 59, The Cardboard Valise is his first in 10 years; for the more prolific Clowes, the graphic novella Mister Wonderful is the follow-up to Wilson, published in 2010.
The two artists will appear together Tuesday night at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Novelist, editor, and book designer Chip Kidd will moderate the discussion. Kidd is responsible for the ingenious cover of The Cardboard Valise hardback, which comes with fold-out handles so it can be carried, appropriately enough, like a valise.
The two graphic storytellers take vastly different approaches. Katchor's magically whimsical vision is sui generis. In The Cardboard Valise, he expresses that vision in black-and-white drawings of a fictional tourist attraction, the Tensint Islands, home of fabled restroom ruins where the inhabitants speak "a bastard jargon of Double Dutch, pidgin English and salesman's argot."
By contrast, Clowes takes a far more realistic — though painfully wry and sardonic — tack in Mister Wonderful, a surprisingly touching page-turner. His lonely-guy protagonist Marshall at first appears to be a familiar romantically handicapped alt-comic type. He hasn't had a date in six years and is pretty certain that the dream-girl blind date he's waiting for in a restaurant as the action begins will never show up.
What the two books have in common, however, is that each was first brought to life the old-fashioned way: as comic strips. Much of the material in The Cardboard Valise was published 10 or more years ago and syndicated in alt-weeklies such as the Village Voice, the Forward, and Philadelphia's City Paper.
For the book, Katchor rounded up old strips, wrote new ones, and fleshed out the story, which concerns three main characters. There's Emile Delilah, a "xenophiliac" compulsive traveler interested in any culture other than his own; Boreal Rince, the exiled king of Outer Canthus, who radiates heat and light whenever he gets angry (and whose divine origin is proven by "the remarkably low electricity bill he's sent every month"); and Elijah Salamis, the fast-talking supranationalist who aims to eradicate the boundaries that separate nations and cultures, in contrast to Delilah, who celebrates them.
Mister Wonderful, which occurs almost entirely in one night as Marshall's incipient relationship with Natalie takes a number of unexpected turns, a la Martin Scorsese's 1985 movie After Hours, was also conceived as a (far more linear) comic strip.
Most of the story originated in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, in serialized form. For the full-color rectangular hardcover, Clowes, like Katchor, added fresh material and tinkered slightly with the old.
The comic-strip genesis pays off for both books - in different ways. For me, anyway, Mister Wonderful didn't really work serialized in the Times in 2008 over an 18-week period. Clowes' dark wit was apparent in his cleanly drawn, uncluttered panels filled with uncomfortable silences and not-always-suppressed self-loathing.
Mister Wonderful includes many tour de force touches. Clowes shifts drawing styles in fantasy or memory sequences, and uses different color thought balloons to partially obscure speech balloons that capture how private thoughts butt into our conversations.
"Jesus, why am I self-deprecating even in my own interior monologue?" Marshall asks himself at one point.
But for all that, keeping up with Mister Wonderful over four months of Sundays was too trying. I wasn't gripped enough by it to keep track week to week. Like a complete season of The Wire or Mad Men on DVD, the bound Mister Wonderful gives you the benefit of having the entire heartwarming story in one place.
It's nice to hold the entirety of The Cardboard Valise between two covers, too.
But not for narrative momentum.
There is a story at work, coursing through Katchor's wonderful, fragile drawings, populated by affably talkative oddballs intent on cataloging every microscopic detail of their not-idiosyncratic-to-them existences.
However, The Cardboard Valise - named after the 56-inch Fitzall "Ahasuerus" suitcase, big enough to accommodate the traveler who doesn't want to leave anything behind - is the opposite of a page-turner. Instead, it's a collection of richly imagined, lovingly detailed individual strips. Each is best lingered over one at a time, an invitingly exotic world unto itself.