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Modern life is rubbish

Acclaimed cartoonist Seth turns alienation into art

Seth is building his own private city.

SethIt’s made from cardboard and housepaint, and it’s in a small room in the basement of the cartoonist’s house in Guelph, Ontario. He’s planned it to resemble Hamilton, Ontario, though in his mind this make-believe city is located somewhere in the Canadian north – a place, Seth says, that even Canadians still find mysterious. Each of the miniature buildings sitting on the room’s shelves has been constructed with meticulous attention to detail. Seth has filled a ledger book with the city’s fake history, slowly sketching out its inhabitants and the stories of their lives. It’s a beautiful, odd, extraordinary project, one with little to no commercial prospects. Seth can’t even explain why he’s doing it – he just feels compelled to.

The same obsessive attention to detail and craftsmanship found in this cramped basement room can be found in all of Seth’s work. Over the past 10 years, the 41-year-old has drawn spot illustrations for countless magazines in North America, from the heights of literature (The New Yorker) to the heights of chartered accountancy (Chartered Accountant). In his illustration work he keeps the drawings light and optimistic, with peppy colours and dashing lines. But his real work is his own comic narratives – ongoing storylines that usually appear in his comic magazine Palookaville and are later collected into book form. In his own comics, Seth keeps his palette down to a few muted tones, and one overarching theme has gradually emerged. He is searching again and again for ways to portray a deeply intangible sensation: the inherent melancholy of life.

Among Seth’s current projects is Clyde Fans (reviewed May 2004), about two fictional brothers working for a faltering electric fan company (inspired by a real Toronto storefront) – the first of two bound volumes has just been released. He’s also just published Bannock, Beans and Black Tea, which matches Seth’s illustrations to his father’s stories of growing up in Depression-era Prince Edward Island. His most completely realized work to date is It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken, the story of a cartoonist named Seth who dresses in vintage clothes and tries to track down an obscure Canadian cartoonist who published a gag panel in The New Yorker in the 1950s. Like much of Seth’s work, the plot of It’s a Good Life is nothing more than a framework for his explorations of identity and how a life adds up. It’s also a chance for him to draw his beloved buildings of southern Ontario, each one infused with the shadows and sadness of the story.

Seth’s oeuvre has earned him a reputation as one of the best narrative cartoonists in the world. For evidence of his stature, look no further than the guest list for his wedding, held two years ago: many of today’s great cartoonists attended, including Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, Chester Brown, and Joe Matt. “I’m hoping that with Seth’s growing success he’ll soon be able to turn down most illustration work,” says Chris Oliveros, Seth’s publisher and the owner of the Montreal firm Drawn & Quarterly, “and concentrate on the work he’ll be known for long after he dies: his comics.”

Cartoonists tend to be obsessive types. At his house in Guelph, Ontario, Seth is surrounded by what he loves and collects. He rarely leaves. The front room has a comfortable couch, a phone with a loud, rattling bell ringer, and comics everywhere. Bookshelves are stacked with graphic novels and humour collections from the 1930s and ’40s. There is a special case for his collections of the work of obscure caricaturists. He’s even bound some of his own childhood work. The only sound is the whir of an ancient clock with an engraved plaque on it that reads, cryptically, “Presented to Seth as a dreadful reminder of time’s creeping shadow – 1999.”

There’s almost nothing modern in the room, nothing from IKEA; Seth’s entire aesthetic is “old man.” Modern life is rubbish, Seth believes – at least in terms of art, design, and culture. He’ll concede that not everything was better in 1935, “but I think aesthetically we might have been at a high point for the North American culture. Workmanship and craftsmanship in our pop culture was at a much higher level than it is now,” he says. “So when I see a modern design it really doesn’t appeal to me. Things have gotten cheap. Even the high-end aesthetics. That CD player over there [the lone modern object in the room] is just a box with flashing lights on it to me. It’s just functional. It could be a pacemaker.”

Seth’s antiquarianism extends to his personal style: he wears glasses with circular frames, and dresses in suits. “I think in the last 10 years I’ve been less concerned with image,” he says. “When I started dressing like the mid-20th century I was very careful about picking the right suits and putting a lot of effort into creating a certain image, but that has all become second nature and uninteresting to me on a certain level. Now I’m just a guy who wears a suit because that’s what I’m used to. I wear suits I find at the Goodwill. They’re not from 1940, they’re from 1980.”

Guelph has been Seth’s home for only three years, but he has a firm attachment to the house, partly because he moved so much as a child, from one small Ontario town to another – from Clinton, where he was born, to Strathroy to Tillbury. “I hate moving,” he says. “My father was an obsessive mover. We moved almost every year of my childhood. Even in a town of 3,000 people we would just move down the street.”

It’s a well-known equation: add social awkwardness to constant rootlessness, siblings who are a decade older, parents who believe in a hands-off approach to child-rearing, and you get a kid obsessed with the world of comics. “The superhero character was the main thrust of all comic books while I was growing up,” says Seth. “It was total wish-fulfillment for all us unhappy loser children.” As a child, he created almost a hundred characters, most ripped-off from established heroes, and called his output Cosmic Comics. His father was a shop teacher, so the young Seth had access to piles of mimeograph paper. He worked obsessively, producing hundreds of pages. “It was a way into my fantasy world. The good part is that all that drawing paid off in giving me lots of practice.” If video games had been around, Seth would have emerged from his teenage years with nothing more than oversized thumbs. Instead, his drawing skills flourished.

After high school, Seth moved to Toronto to attend the Ontario College of Art. Shortly afterward he adopted the “Seth” name (he was born Gregory Gallant) as more fitting of the vaguely gothic persona he was cultivating at that time. The name stuck, and Seth settled into Toronto for the next 20 years, developing a body of work to show that the comic-style format had potential far beyond mere superhero fantasies. Drawn & Quarterly published the first issue of Palookaville in 1991; the early issues featured autobiographical stories which included guest appearances by Seth’s friends, including fellow cartoonist Chester Brown, the author of the recent hit graphic title Louis Riel. But bruised feelings have rarely been an issue. “Other cartoonists I know, like my friend Joe Matt, deal with stuff that could get him in a lot more trouble. It’s a lot more personal,” says Seth. (Seth and Brown also turn up regularly in Matt’s work.)

Still, Seth has soured on the autobiographical mode. “You get overly concerned with whether you’re making yourself look too good or you’re trying to make yourself look bad in compensation for trying not to look good. That kind of double thinking doesn’t lead to good writing. Even drawing yourself, you get caught up. Am I trying to make myself look nice or am I trying to make myself not look nice for fear of what people will think? When you run into people you know they’re going to say, ‘You’re really making yourself look better than you really are. You’re not that tall.’”

For the Clyde Fans series, Seth has used two fictional characters that represent both sides of him: the extrovert, Abraham, who’s forced out into the world of sales for his working life; and the introvert, Simon, who prefers to stay home and catalogue his exotic postcard collection. The latter approach echoes Seth’s own loose philosophy of Avoidism, as voiced by one of the characters in It’s a Good Life. Ensconced in his Guelph house, he’s still living by it. “I hardly ever leave this place,” he says. “I mean, I’ll go out to dinner with my wife and we’ll go out on the weekends, but generally I’m in the basement most of the time. I think I would be perfectly happy to keep the world at bay as much as possible. Even though I’m interested in the world and I like to go out and photograph old buildings and drive out in the country, I’d ideally like a solitary existence.”

In his work, though, Seth is doing anything but avoiding. In small ways, drawn out against the landscape of southwestern Ontario and PEI, he’s confronting subjects prose writers often strive for and miss. His panels can capture the sadness and inevitability of life, the light on buildings, the loneliness of a city, and, at times, even the texture of memory. “I was talking to [Jimmy Corrigan author] Chris Ware,” says Seth. “He said to me, he thought cartooning was all an attempt to correct the errors of your past. And I gave this some real thought. I came around to the idea that the whole process of cartooning is dealing with memory and introspection. Creating comics is a slow process that sits you at a drawing table for hours on end. One part of your brain is focused on drawing out these pictures, but the other part is just floating around thinking. It’s picking over things slowly. It really encourages a certain kind of mental searching. I think a lot of it has to do with an unrelenting quality of memory you’re always going through.”

Part of becoming a good storyteller is recognizing which of these memories will have impact as a story and which ones are best left off the page. “It has been a particular delight to have watched him develop as a writer and overall cartoonist over the years,” says Oliveros. “His stories have become more ambitious and his narrative approach more subtle and nuanced.” Like his inking style, his use of a minimal colour palette, and even the way he draws buildings, this storytelling nuance is something Seth has had to hone. Over the course of the Palookaville series, he’s gradually left behind the urge to just rehash every funny episode of his life. “Telling anecdotes doesn’t necessarily make a good comic story,” he says. “More interesting is the stuff that’s nebulous, like what you think about, your dreams, your feelings. I think plot is an uninteresting detail generally. It’s what you do with it that makes it interesting.”