By Ben Katchor. Pantheon, 128 pp, hardcover
On the surface, the two main characters in The Cardboard Valise could not be more different. Emile Delilah is a “xenophiliac”, who, according to his family doctor, has “a morbid love for every country but his own”. The young man’s wanderlust is spurred by a taste for the exotic that borders on the pathological: as soon as the foreign begins to become familiar, he loses interest and is driven to seek out novelty elsewhere.
Elijah Salamis, on the other hand, is a self-styled “supranationalist”, eager to divest himself of “all antique and nationalistic cultural artifacts”. In Salamis’s ideal world, we would all follow suit, abandoning the trappings of our various cultures until the notion of foreignness becomes obsolete.
Brooklyn-based cartoonist Ben Katchor would seem to sympathize with Salamis, to a point. Katchor recently shared with the comics blog Robot 6 his opinion that “all human culture is invented and should not be accepted as being inevitable. I hope that my picture-stories make people aware of the arbitrary nature of the social and economic structures they see around them and give them an incentive to change those things that seem wrong.”
Does that make The Cardboard Valise sound like a dry treatise on exoticism and transculturation? Thankfully, it isn’t. A collection of eight-panel strips that previously appeared in various publications, it’s just as delightfully surreal as Katchor’s other books, which include The Jew of New York and Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer: The Beauty Supply District. The book is filled with imagined places, such as Tensint Island, where the main tourist draw is the ruins of a public-washroom facility and the locals subsist on a diet composed entirely of imported canned goods; and Outer Canthus, a land shaped by “a national yearning for two-dimensionality” where white-hot hatred is a popular pastime and a highly polished pair of shoes is a powerful aphrodisiac.
Incidentally, Emile Delilah and Elijah Salamis don’t cross paths until near the end, when their seemingly opposing world-views prove to be mutually beneficial in an unexpected way. Without giving too much away, let’s just say death and resurrection come into play—but, again, it’s nowhere near as heavy as that makes it sound.