Monday, June 03, 2013

Book Review: Hand-Drying in America

Hand-Drying in America: And Other Stories by Ben Katchor
Pantheon, 2013
Hardcover, 160 pages

Since 1998 Ben Katchor has been contributing comic strips that grace the back page of Metropolis Magazine. They have been one of my favorite parts of the magazine, something I looked forward to back in the day when I had a subscription. The strips always have something to do with design, even though how is not immediately apparent upon reading them. A view of design as shaping our interaction with the larger environment—from small objects we hold in our hands to whole cities—permeates Katchor's Metropolis pieces, and I think that exists as a parallel to the magazine itself.

There is a tangible sense of nostalgia in almost every one of the strips collected in this book covering the first fifteen years of the Katchor-Metropolis relationship. But the nostalgia is not simply a pining for things the way they were; instead, it's a way to register change and show how design evolves over time. Even as things change, traces of the old stay with us in lesser or greater quantities, as if the new can only layer itself over the old, never replacing it outright. It's no surprise that a lot of the strips feel like they are set in mid-20th-century New York City, when a lot of physical change happened, even though an exact time is never really pinned down and the names of streets and other things don't recall any city in existence, much less NYC.

Yet it would be a disservice to say that Katchor's strips collected here only ooze a sense of nostalgia. More than that, they are memorable for his unique point of view on increasingly more of the physical, designed things we interact with every day. Quirky may be one way to describe it, but there isn't one word sufficient to summarize the characters, situations, and commentary that occurs. One strip worth pointing out—that may go toward illustrating some of Katchor's appeal—is the only two-page strip in the whole book, the aptly named "The Tragic History of the Oversized Magazines." This is apt, because in Katchor's 15-year stint with Metropolis, the magazine has shrunk at least two or three times, both in number of pages and paper size. Before I had a subscription, it was tabloid, standing out from the crowd, but now it is basically the same size as other architecture and design publications from the U.S., if slimmer even. This shrinking won't come as a surprise to anyone paying attention to magazines, advertising, and online media. Katchor's tracing of this "tragic history" from 18th century London sheets in coffeehouses to Metropolis itself, makes it clear that his nostalgia isn't a simple response to the myriad factors shaping our lives. That he is able to convey some of these factors in humorous and often odd ways (inadvertently his strips reflect this shrinking by changing scale from beginning to end) is the main reason I am so glad this collection came along, filling in the gaps in the years since subscribing to the magazine in the process.

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