Comics is an excellent medium in which to explore surrealism. The artist’s ability to draw anything on the page, way beyond the limitations of live-action cinema or television, and not even have to make them move or speak beyond the imagination of the reader, is a rich seam that surrealist cartoonists have exploited across decades and genres.
So it’s bizarre, perhaps bordering on the surreal itself, that The Cardboard Valise is a surrealist work that’s almost entirely captured in its text. Flicking through the book and looking at the pictures alone, you’d have no idea it was a work of surrealism at all. It’s only as you start to read the captions and dialogue that you’re slapped with Ben Katchor’s post-modern strangeness.
The Cardboard Valise is presented as a sort of travel guide. Through the eyes of Emile Delilah we see the strange customs of Outer Canthus, a fictitious first-world country of Western influence, but whose strange habits and rituals have veered off in alternate directions. The tourist industry, for example, revolves around the conservation and preservation of unused public toilets, while revered street artists make art by licking ice cream cones.
The art is sketchy and hardly adds anything to the broad sweep of surrealism, feeling almost incidental at times. It puts the focus on character that might otherwise have fallen short with a prose piece, but there’s little excitement or dynamism in the illustration, and certainly barely more than a whiff of the strangeness that drenches the words.
This presentation style makes the book a hard read. Your brain is in a constant spin, trying to take in the odd alternate universe of the text next to the relatively straight illustration. While Emile weaves between the day-to-day goings-on of the other people, there’s an absolute minimum of narrative – most pages are self-contained strips previously published in newspapers and it shows. As a result, we rarely delve deep enough into Outer Canthus society to require a particular concept be carried across to the following page.
It’s this loose jumble of surrealist ‘facts’ that engulf the reader, until you’re forced to let the book’s absurdities wash over you. Unfortunately I found this to be more hard work than enjoyable and it turned into a hard slog to make it to the end, which itself offers nothing by way of redemption or conclusion.
While it’s undoubtedly imaginative, there’s just far too much of it to make it an enjoyable journey. By the end of the book I was pleased to have finished it, but for all the wrong reasons.