Review by Woodrow Phoenix
In this third collection of weekly one-page strips by Ben Katchor, a subtle shift has taken place in the presentation of these tales, whereby Julius Knipl is no longer the central character.
A process begun in the second collection where Katchor began addressing the reader personally (if obliquely) through the captions above the panels continues and we now longer need Knipl to gain us entry to overlooked, or rarely visited places around the city which has no name, but is very much New York. Now the narration in the captions takes us into this world directly, and Knipl floats alongside as an extra, sometimes participating, often absent for pages at a time. Meanwhile, vendors close their stores mid-day with no warning in order to attend semi-professional competitive grave-digging tournaments. Perfume salesmen hawk scents featuring the essence of a brown paper bag, the smell of a library book or the scent of an empty phone booth. An antiques dealer looks for a purchaser for a bottle of vintage drinking water from 1962. The profusion of almost-credible ideas and observations continues to pour out with a slight change in emphasis as the action moves more into the present – or at least not quite as far back in the past as in previous volumes. This more contemporary setting for the dreamlike metropolis also features more a lot more women than previously seen in Katchor’s work, but as they’re all wives or girlfriends there’s still no chance of any Bechdellian exchanges.
As with Cheap Novelties and Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer, The Beauty Supply District collects a couple of years of newspaper strips, accompanied at the end of the book by a longer, sustained piece. This time it’s a 23-page story from which the title of this book is drawn. The Beauty Supply District is an area of town where those lacking inspiration can have their partially composed symphonies or draft designs for food packaging appraised by master aestheticians who always know exactly how to finish things. One store in particular is the focus of this longer story, a fixture of the beauty supply district for thirty years but how much longer can artists rely on Sensum’s Symmetry Shop?
The rumpled elegance of Katchor’s drawing is beautifully presented in this landscape volume with carefully judged typography and cream papers, originally published in hardback, but subsequently reprinted as a softcover.