The cartoonist known as Seth is widely recognized as one of the major cartoonists to emerge in the nineteen-nineties because of his long running series “Palookaville” and graphic novels, most famously “It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken.” Earlier this year on ROBOT 6 blog, Seth was the subject of “Comics College,” a month detailing his work and career. He was one of a handful of cartoonists who contributed to the short-lived “Funny Pages” section of the “New York Times Magazine” and the book that emerged from that project, “George Sprott, 1894-1975,” is arguably his finest work.
Seth also has a career as a designer and illustrator. In comics, he designed Fantagraphics’ “Peanuts” collections and the Drawn and Quarterly published “John Stanley Library.” Outside of our beloved artform, Set is responsible for the look of various CDs like Aimee Mann’s “Lost in Space” and DVDs like the Criterion Collection edition of Leo McCarey’s “Make Way For Tomorrow.”
Last year, Seth resurrected “Palookaville” as an occasional series of hardcover volumes. #20 included a new chapter of “Clyde Fans,” an autobiographical story about his recent installation project, and a sketchbook section. #21 will be released next year.
In 2005, Seth showed a more playful side with “Wimbledon Green,” his graphic novel telling the story of the world’s greatest comic collector. His new book is one that he describes as a companion to “Wimbledon Green,” and one that also began in his sketchbook. “The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists” (or “GNBCC”) is essentially an extended essay that tells the story of a club composed of both real and fictional cartoonists and their work. Seth took time to talk with CBR News about his new book, how working in his sketchbook has changed his work, and what fans can expect from future volumes of “Palookaville.”
CBR News: In the introduction to “The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists,” you write about how you started this book years ago in your sketchbook. How does this differ from how you work on other projects?
Seth: With more realized works, like “Clyde Fans” or “George Sprott,” I generally have a very good idea of the whole scope of the story before I begin drawing it. Sketchbook stories tend to start on the first page with just a vague notion of what it is all about. I don’t usually know where the piece is going until about the halfway point.
I probably wouldn’t have the confidence to dive in like this on a more “serious” story. The sketchbook has a kind of freedom to it that allows you to take bigger chances. If the story fails you don’t have to publish it. That’s the case with more finished works — it’s such a laborious process to make that artwork I want to be sure it’s publishable!
I’m curious about the casualness that comes from sketchbook work. How does help as far as making “Wimbledon Green” and “GNBCC” and has it changed your work since then?
It has changed my work. Working in the sketchbook has certainly loosened up my artwork a lot. I think my drawing is freer and more cartoony than it used to be. Narratively, I think “Wimbledon Green” was a turning point for me. It taught me that a story can be told more interestingly in a non-linear fashion.
Maybe the most important thing I’ve learned from working in the sketchbook is that there is a place for humor in my work. I like to laugh in real life but that hasn’t always been terribly obvious from my work.
“GNBCC” is, in some ways, an extended monologue about Canadian cartoonists and cartooning. You touched on this a little in your introduction, but what is the challenge in trying to give that a narrative structure and to make it visually engaging?
It’s a book about description. Really, more a kind of imaginary essay rather than a story. Description is always challenging to a cartoonist. You don’t want to just draw pictures of what you are describing. The trick, if you can pull it off, is to give a life to the drawings that is separate from the narration. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. More and more I’m growing interested in this kind of storytelling. To make it work, you have to think more in terms of graphic design and sequence than in simple character motion. Often, the page is just a series of buildings, faces, etcetera. It’s tricky to maintain the cartoon language and not end up with just a page of unrelated pictures. I find extending drawings through a series of panels is a good trick to keep a sequence of descriptions alive.
You mention that you redrew a section of the book, I’m curious — how much of that was just a question of you being unhappy with how it looked, did you have to completely rewrite it, or what was it?
The work was redrawn primarily because I had originally crammed too much information into each panel. It was hard to read. There is a kind of perfect ratio between words and pictures in comics and for some odd reason I seem to have forgotten this fact when I drew those pages. Redrawing them meant I basically spread the information over a larger number of panels. In effect, one page would become two pages. The writing stayed pretty much the same but the storytelling (what I was doing in the panels) changed quite a bit. Those pages read much better now!
You talk a lot about different cartoonists in the book. Doug Wright is one who’s well known, but as an American, I feel the need to ask, are any of the other cartoonists in the book real?
Oh, a handful of names in there are real. Feyer, Dingle, Simpkins, etcetera. Wright is the only one to get the extended treatment, though. Certainly, I could have written a lot more about several of these fellows, but I chose Wright because I had a lot to say about him back them. Brad Mackay and I hadn’t published the Wright book then. If we had, I might have devoted that space to one of the other somewhat forgotten Canadian cartoonists of the past.
In “Palookaville” #20, which was released at the end of last year, you published a new chapter of “Clyde Fans.” Why has it taken you so long to return to it?
God knows. “Clyde” has been a long project. Probably I should have finished it long ago rather than letting things like the “New York Times” strip or a million other such projects get in the way. It will be finished. In fact, that’s what I am working on right now. But it’s still a year or two from completion.
I have no excuses. I feel bad about it, though. I want to finish it. I’m sure when it is finally done, it will be a disappointment to people. I can hear the complaints already, that it was a waste of a decade or more!
What can we look forward to in “Palookaville” #21 next year and in future volumes? And what kind of material is “Palookaville” material, because of course you’re still putting out books like “GNBCC?”
It’s still too early in the game to see what will become of the “Palookaville” hardbacks. I love the idea and hope I can turn out one every year or so, but we will see how it goes. “Clyde” will finish up in the next two volumes. The end of part 4 in #21 and the entirely of part 5 in #22. I have a long sketchbook story I am working on that might appear in a future issue. I have a few articles I might like to write on old cartoonists. Who knows? I expect the books to evolve naturally.
I may not serialize my next long story after “Clyde.” It’s hard to say. I suspect that I will need to think of the form a bit more like Chris Ware is — meaning, a satisfying book experience that is somewhat self contained. I think “Palookaville” #20 didn’t have a long enough “Clyde Fans” sequence in it. #21 should be a bit better (probably twice the length of comic). #22 should be just what I want — a complete chapter within the book (and probably other material as well). I do know I want the books to have as much of my personality to them as I can. I would have put “GNBCC” into “Palookaville” if it hadn’t so perfectly belonged as companion volume to “Wimbledon Green.” It almost demanded to be in a matching volume. Other sketchbook material will likely not have that same quality and can easily be folded into the annual hardback.
On a related note, I’m curious, will we ever see a compilation of the uncollected short stories from “Palookaville?”
Probably not. I hate that work! Too early. However, I do have some vague plans on what I might do with those comics. A way of recycling them as part of a new work. Whether this will ever happen is debatable, though — it all depends of what projects get done in life. I always have about 20 projects in mind, but only about 5 will probably make it to fruition before I kick the bucket!