Ben Katchor’s Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures Of Urban Decay (Drawn & Quarterly) is one of those magical books that changes the way the reader views the world after its been consumed, especially for readers living in urban environments. Reprinting Katchor’s 25-year-old collection of comics strips (with one short story), this new hardcover is a love letter to the antiquated aspects of American cities that feel almost ancient given the massive cultural changes since the late ’80s, when Katchor introduced Julius Knipl, real estate photographer, to the world. Knipl’s job forces him to be acutely aware of the changing landscape of the city, and Katchor uses his character to offer rich observations about urban living while working within a tight two-row comic strip structure.
These observations are probably new to most city-dwellers, especially with the rise of technology that makes it easier for residents to ignore surroundings, but Katchor’s insights burrow into the memory and influence readers to start paying attention to little details like the signatures of elevator inspectors, the reflections in the glistening crust of a cheese Danish, and the subtle changes in sidewalk concrete. He details the feeling of hope in seeing a “For Rent” sign go up in a commercial space—who hasn’t wished that the vacant space in their neighborhood would be filled with a good restaurant?—and the sense of defeat when noticing that the local deli has put chairs on top of tables to close up for the night. Katchor has a talent for describing the ephemeral emotions urbanites experience on a daily basis thanks to the ever-shifting state of the city, but instead of letting these feelings pass, Katchor lingers on them and gives them definition in comic strips.
Katchor isn’t just a skilled cartoonist; he’s an urban prophet, noticing the rising tides of gentrification that will strip cities of their distinct character and the ubiquity of name brands that will wipe out smaller businesses like those in the Cheap Merchandise District, where the book’s 13-page short story takes place. There’s a mournful quality to Katchor’s work as he laments the loss of old city traditions, but there’s also an intense love for the architecture, services, and merchandise that have fallen out of fashion in favor of more modern amenities. That adoration makes Knipl’s nameless city come to life, and the book is a comprehensive tour of a setting caught in the middle of a major transition.
The design of Drawn & Quarterly titles is consistently remarkable, and Cheap Novelties' trade dress is especially evocative. The front and back covers are made to look like a large piece of newspaper has been wrapped around the book, which makes it look like a cheaply wrapped gift being presented to the reader, and the inside covers are full of humorous ads for the objects that give the graphic novel its title. It’s a beautiful package, and Julius Knipl would appreciate the sturdiness and craftsmanship that has gone into the reprinting of his urban experience.