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Surrealism for Social Change

A review of Ben Katchor's Hand-Drying in America.

Artist Ben Katchor has been a comic art phenomenon since the serialization of his work in the Village Voice of the 1990s, an afficianado’s fixation from his appearance in the pages of Art Spiegelman and Francois Mouly’s Raw magazine a few years earlier. Spiegelman famously called him the “most Yiddish” of the alternative comic artists, not long before Katchor became an occasional illustrator for the New Yorker — and awardee of the prestigious MacArthur (“Genius”) fellowship. All this seems a long time ago, but for Katchor, time is perhaps the most elusive quality imaginable.

Reviewers of his half-dozen books, including this writer, have repeatedly sought to pin down an internal logic in Katchor’s visual texts. Hand-Drying, with full color strips reprinted from the pages of the high-culture architecture magazine Metropolis, offers us more clues and as many mysteries. The artist’s references are definitely old-urban, in US terms that is, dating to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with a strong sense of little-observed survivals in the details of streets, buildings and casual language. And definitely Jewish as well, but in the sense that Greater New York’s cosmopolitans from the 1890s to the present might as well be Jewish and secular, find themselves or not in a world of deeply vernacular symbols.

The apparent loss of social content in an increasingly bland commercialized world is, happily, not all that it seems. Like regional linguistic accents the world over, improbable survivals abound. When you, the reader, least expect it (or perhaps, as a veteran Katchor reader, expect it eagerly and continuously), the survivals take their revenge, creating in the process new survivals. Inside Katchor’s imaginary city, for example, a “Rumanian” immigrant thus converts the noise of a passing subway into electrical energy for malted milk makers. Hope is not lost because there is so much unexpected — a bit like Occupy Wall Street, which roused the deceptively detached and personally quiet Katchor to heights of political enthusiasm.

The artist recently explained himself a bit more, throwing new light upon his methods and purpose. “No one,” he comments, “has yet seen these strips as a dream critique of the waking world.” Here he returns to the Surrealists in their most influential years of the 1920s and 1930s, when savants like Andre Breton declared their wish to abolish the barriers between the waking and sleeping phases of daily life. Surrealist painters struggled hard with this promise, often lost the impulse to technique but sometimes achieved a transcendent quality apparent also in the young Chagall, among a handful of others.

The hardest thing for artists to hold onto was inevitably the social wish, what Katchor calls the rearrangement of the real world according to the revelations of dreams.  If some of the most interesting surrealists, following Dada, chose collage and “found” or readymade images, Katchor chooses the innate qualities of handwriting, exhibited in his text and sketchwork alike. Douglas Wolk, writing in the Forward, neatly captures this last point by noting that every Katchor panel is distinctly the work of his hand, a sort of meta-commentary on the historic role of handwriting in comic strips — something largely vanished in the era of software art.

Publications that accept this world as the best available one, rather than refusing acceptance and demanding something different, Katchor says, are not likely to get the real significance of his visual points. Those publications surely include most of the places where Katchor is reviewed, if not “green architecture” Metropolis or, I think, Jacobin. And this has great value to Katchor’s most desired readers: if they get lost sometimes in the details — it is hard not to — they grapple page by page and panel by panel, inventing their own runes for discerning his radical purposes.