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Comic appeal: how Seth has become an in-demand book designer and illustrator

A line drawn by Seth is instantly recognizable as a line drawn by Seth. Over the past two decades, the 51-year-old cartoonist’s name has become synonymous with the bold, dark strokes that dominate his nostalgic graphic narratives.

This year, those sturdy lines have made appearances in several other authors’ books. In addition to releasing the 21st volume of his long-running Palookaville comics series and various commercial illustration gigs for The New Yorker, Canadian Notes & Queries, and The Walrus, Seth collaborated with children’s novelist Lemony Snicket on the second title of the All the Wrong Questions series. Working from his home studio in Guelph, Ontario, Seth also designed the cover for David Rakoff’s posthumous novel in verse Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish (Doubleday Canada) and illustrated a new edition of Stephen Leacock’s classic 1912 story collection, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (McClelland & Stewart).

Drawn & Quarterly publisher and editor-in-chief Chris Oliveros, who has worked with Seth on the Palookaville series since 1991, suggests demand for his commercial work may be connected to the mainstream popularity of graphic novels and comics. “Seth’s cartooning sensibility is front and centre in virtually every book design he produces,” Oliveros says. “It would be difficult to imagine some of these projects getting out there without an audience that is already familiar with the language of comics, and Seth’s work in particular.”

One of Seth’s illustrations for the new edition of Sunshine Sketches

Oliveros praises Seth as one of the few artists and designers working today who makes a book completely his own. “With hand-drawn typography ““ no computer fonts are ever used, just like in 1945 ““ and his iconic imagery, Seth makes each project a distinct work of art,” he says.

“He thinks about the book as an object, and as an art object,” concurs McClelland & Stewart senior editor Anita Chong, who worked with Seth on Sunshine Sketches.

Beyond his distinct visual language, Chong says Seth’s attention to narrative nuances sets him apart from other artists. She cites his decision to push forward the time period of the book’s illustrations to the more stylistically recognizable 1920s as an example.

“He brings an artistic style and sensibility that is internationally renowned, a craftsman’s attentiveness to the small details, as well as a deep understanding of story, character, and place,” she says.

Chong’s observations echo the artist’s characterization of his own disciplined process, which he describes as “workmanlike.” He is candid about the challenge of balancing his own work with projects that aren’t his own but still interest him and “the stuff I do straight for money.”

Portrait from David Rakoff’s Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish

Seth is wary of strictly commercial assignments where the emphasis is on style ““ “that’s clearly the most surface element of what you’re doing,” he says ““ and worries about being pigeonholed as a purveyor of retro, urbane whimsy. He values creative control with a stubbornness he attributes to his early days in the underground comics world, when nobody had enough money to boss anyone else around.

“The redesign of Sunshine Sketches was the perfect kind of project, because they just let me do what I do,” he says.

With more titles scheduled for the Snicket series and Fantagraphics Books’ The Complete Peanuts, Seth’s freelance design workload won’t lighten any time soon. But he is well-suited to this industrious life, at ease with the solitude of working on multiple projects alone in his studio. “Sometimes you plan out your life, by accident, in the right way,” he says.

This article appeared in the December 2013 issue of Q&Q.