by Sean Bieri
Julius Knipl, real estate photographer, lives in a sepia-toned approximation of 20th century urbania, a world stocked with hyperbolic billboards hawking ludicrous products and middle-aged men with vaguely Eastern European names discussing big plans in corner coffee shops. It’s an alternative universe where folks shop downtown and business casual never happened. Ben Katchor’s weekly comic strip follows Knipl as he encounters some of the city’s more unusual people and places. He visits the Misspent Youth Center, which reimburses its clients in vintage money for foolish purchases made in their salad days. He strolls past the Municipal Birthmark Registry, the Church of the Dashboard Apostle and the Tomb of the Homely Man. He attends a semipro grave-digging competition and samples the wares of the Normalcy Parfum Company, whose “more humanistic” fragrances replicate the odors of late-night Laundromats and burnt toast.
This collection’s title story laments the passing of an entire retail block that specialized in selling not just goods and services, but aesthetic judgements and philosophical mind-sets. It used to be that one could stop in at the Surface Meaning Refinishers or the Phallocentric Supply Co., drop off a vague notion, come back Thursday after 4 p.m. and pick up a fully realized concept! Alas, the district has fallen on hard times. “You try charging someone $25 an hour to be talked out of their Eurocentric illusions,” complains the proprietor of Sensum’s Symmetry Shop. “Good luck.”
Katchor’s outlandish ideas and wonderful wordplay would be merely amusing if they weren’t tempered by his deadpan delivery, melancholy ink wash drawings and sympathetic observation of human nature. In the end, Julius Knipl’s urban landscape seems only a shade removed from our own, or maybe from our grandfathers’. If nostalgia is a longing for a past that never was, a visit to Katchor’s endearing and almost plausible substitute reality is a healthy antidote.
E-mail Sean Bieri at firstname.lastname@example.org.