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“A Sort of Enchanted Place”: Town and Country Mysticism and the Architectural Façade in Seth’s Clyde Fans

By Benjamin Fraser


Produced over some twenty years and published as a single edition in 2019, the complete Clyde Fans saga is a rich text that deserves further scholarly attention. Existing research on Seth’s comics art (e.g. Ferraro 2015; Marrone 2016a; Rifkind 2015; Smart 2016) has noted the importance of interconnected themes such as nostalgia, decay, preservation, memory, wandering, failure, loss, and the passage of time for understanding his work. Intended to complement studies of space, architecture, and urbanism in comics (Ahrens and Meteling 2010; Davies 2019; Dittmer 2014; Fraser 2019; Labio 2015), this article provides a contextualized close reading of the final 1957 installment of Clyde Fans. Guided by the creator’s own insistence on the “mystic” element of the Clyde Fans saga, this article explores the ways in which the urban, architectural, and rural images contemplated by Simon’s floating consciousness acquire a significance both within and beyond the plot itself. From the cover through the comic’s last pages, the architectural façade becomes a key vehicle for contemplating reality as what the author has described as a “layered experience.”


Seth, Clyde Fans, architecture, cities, mysticism


In the author’s note that closes the collected edition of Clyde Fans, Seth reflects, “I began the work thinking I was writing a mundane, everyday story but finished up recognizing it was more about the mystic side of things. Making art is always a surprise” (Seth 2021[2019]).1 This article explores what this comment—and specifically the phrase “the mystic side of things”—reveals about the Clyde Fans saga by focusing on Simon’s journey in “Part Two” and “Part Five,” both of which take place in the year 1957. In line with statements by the creator himself, this reading argues that Simon’s wanderings through rural and urban areas of mid-century Dominion constitute a mystical journey undertaken by his consciousness.2 Both Clyde Fans as a whole and this journey of Simon’s contemplative consciousness, in particular, are wrapped up in the notion of architecture as a mediating force between competing realities: inner and outer, private and public, body and mind (or soul), and time and space. The distinctions between these realities are brought to life in segments alternating between rural, semi-urban, and urban modernity, through a poetic emphasis on an estranging object-world and the primacy of the architectural façade.

This reading is inspired by comics scholars such as Jörn Ahrens and Arno Meteling (2010), Dominic Davies (2019), Jason Dittmer (2014, 2015), Benjamin Fraser (2019), Jean-Marc Thévenet and Francis Rambert (2010), and Mélanie Van Der Hoorne (2012), who have all explored the representation of architecture and/or urbanism in comics.3 Specifically, this close reading takes up one of the general points made in Catherine Labio’s article “The Architecture of Comics,” which is that the role of architectural references in comics has shifted from merely situating the plot to driving it (2015: 312). The architectural façade in Seth’s Clyde Fans demonstrates the value of this assertion, not only through its connection to setting and sentiment, but by serving as a vehicle for the plot’s contemplative and mystical vision. Here, architecture serves as a paradigmatic boundary-marker, emphasizing the comic’s trope of inner- and outer-worlds, and serving as a threshold for some sort of transcendental passage or transformation on the part of its main character, and possibly on the parts of the comic’s readers as well. Architecture is crucial to the artist’s reliance on the forms of monstrative ambiguity and notions of “layered” realities that have become a hallmark of Seth’s style, which is inseparable from the graphic depiction of a mid-twentieth century, urbanizing North America. This introduction provides a general overview of Seth’s career and delves into the significance of the cover art and window-cut out of the 2021 paperback version of the Clyde Fans graphic novel as well as its subsequent frontmatter.

A prominent Canadian cartoonist, Seth (1962- ) was born in Clinton, Ontario as Gregory Gallant. He began drawing at an early age, later attended the Ontario College of Art in Toronto, and now lives in Guelph. Along with Joe Matt and Chester Brown, he enjoys a celebrated status as part of the group of comics artists and friends known as the “Toronto Three.” His early work included contributions to the Vortex series Mister X, created by Dean Motter, after which Seth signed on to become one of Drawn & Quarterly’s “flagship authors” (Smart 2016: 19; Marrone 2013: 12; Fraser 2019: 160-61). His signature graphic style is influenced by creator of Peanuts Charles Schulz, and also by New Yorker cartoonists such as Ludwig Bemelmans and Peter Arno (Smart 2016: 41, 70-71; see also Grennan 2017: chapter section 4.2). Since 1991, Seth’s publication of the serial Palookaville has brought him accolades for his approach to design as well as for the quality of the comics appearing therein. While some of his graphic novels were originally published as installments in the pages of Palookaville—for instance, It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken (1993-1996; collected in 1996), and Clyde Fans (1997-2017; collected in 2019)—others have been serialized elsewhere, or published in book form. Among the latter categories are George Sprott (1894-1975) (2009), which first appeared in the New York Times Magazine, and the comics Wimbledon Green (2005) and The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists (2011). Among the prestigious recognitions Seth has received are the Eisner (2005) and Harvey (2005) awards for his edition of The Complete Peanuts, and the Ignatz Awards for Outstanding Artist (1997) and Outstanding Graphic Novel or Collection (1997, for It’s a Good Life).

After decades of achievement in the comics world, Seth continues to refine his stylization of selfhood, off the comics page as well as on it. That is, there is a notable—and often noted—correspondence between the aesthetic of his mid-century comics style (e.g. his “nostalgia for pre-World War II products and buildings” (García 2015: 158)) and the aesthetics of his self-presentation. As stated in no uncertain terms by Simon Grennan (2017): “Seth wants to self-consciously ignore his own experience of any situation that has occurred outside of a definitive group of [North] American situations pre-1955. He aims to represent a subject removed from the effects of any experience of living after 1955.”4 Contemporary photographs of the artist, many of which can be found in issues of Palookaville—where their qualities as stylized representations are heightened—depict him in a suit, a tie, a hat, a pair of glasses, and a coat that together evoke a pre-WWII manner of dress (for example, Palookaville #22, no pag., taken with his wife Tania in her barbershop). When considering his self-presentation in light of his artistic work, one gets the impression that the border between the diegetic spaces he has created in his comics and the stylized world in which he lives and works is a porous one.

There is substantial overlap between the world represented on his comics page and the world inhabited by Seth and his readers. Outside of his comics publications, the artist has created 3D buildings of the fictional town of Dominion that have received attention as art objects in their own right. Josephine Mills (2015) writes: “A fictional city set around the 1950s, Dominion stands in for mid-size Canadian centres of the mid-century era.” As Seth recently reflected, “Dominion has developed into a place where I now know all my stories take place” (qtd. in Chute 2014: 162). Inside of his comics works, the porous boundary between his diegetic spaces and his own stylized selfhood is replicated through various forms of metacommentary on artistic production that draw attention to the roles of fictional creators. In Clyde Fans specifically, this occurs through Simon’s collecting trompe l’oeil postcards from a bygone era; Seth not only includes these, but gives them narrative privilege. But the intention to link diegetic and extradiegetic space, and to invite readers explicitly into the resulting contemplative space, first becomes evident on the cover of the graphic novel and continues through its extensive front matter. 

Monstration—i.e. the visual aspects of narration in comics—can be thought of as a level betwixt and between our world and Seth’s fictional realm.5 In Clyde Fans, monstration begins with the cover art. As Thierry Groensteen has written, monstration can be said to constitute narration in comics (“a substantial part of the narration is carried by the images, both within them, and through their articulation at different levels” 2013: 83, see also 2007; Miller 2007; Postema 2013; Mikkonen 2017). It is significant that the cover of Clyde Fans displays the architectural face of the building where the two main characters live and ruminate excessively on their ruin. Abe and Simon are the two adult children of Clyde Matchcard, deceased, who founded the fan company for which they are now responsible. Seth’s monstration fixates on the office-residence as a vehicle for conveying feelings of absence and emptiness. Diegetically, this office-residence serves the characters as a retreat and inner refuge from the outer world. The cover’s depiction of shadow in the left second-floor window, the blacked-out right window, and the choice of black for the bricks convey a dark emotional tone. The ground-level window has been cut out to allow viewers to read an interior title page reading “Clyde Fans,” which is both the title of the graphic novel and the name on the diegetic storefront. The contrast between the inviting window cut-out and the dark-paned glass on the business/residence’s front door is significant as it draws attention to the fact that viewing, looking, and staring are the ways of access to the work. By contrast, the front door looks as if it is quite unfunctional, appearing as though it is merely a cheap visual prop. The front covers of paperback versions of the comic tend to remain propped up, half-open, causing a real-life shadow to fall on the title page at precisely the same angle as does the window drawn at the upper left. This correspondence itself is a suggestive overlap between the diegetic world of Clyde Fans and the world in which readers access the comic (see fig. 1). 

Cover of Clyde Fans
Figure 1. Clyde Fans (2021) collected paperback cover. Drawn and actual shadows correspond. Used with permission from Drawn & Quarterly. Copyright Gregory Gallant.

The artist then eases readers into this fictional world gradually, through an extensive amount of frontmatter; he extends the overlap between the start of the reading experience and what would conventionally be its first diegetic page. After opening the cover and turning the initial title page, we find twelve full pages of art before reaching yet another title page bearing the title, author, and publisher information. These pages are taken up with depictions of diegetic materials that suggest an ambiguous ontology; they pertain to the story-world of the comic, but some seem to be part of the world in which the reader resides. We see not only a small, yellowed Clyde Fans Ltd. newspaper ad; a more colorful, larger ad each with the slogan “Keeps the Heat Away”; and a vintage trompe l’oeil postcard featuring a truckload of dramatically oversized apples, but also actual photographs of a tangible Clyde Fans-branded ashtray and a similarly branded pocket calendar that Seth himself has created. There are also drawn images of Abe as both a younger and an elderly man, sketches of bare trees on lined yellow paper drawn by Simon, a street scene situating the Clyde Fans building in the context of the town’s urban fabric, and a reimagined version of the cover image, now drawn with more pronounced depth-lines. After this follow ten pages of further monstration that portray successive scenes inside the building, first inside the Clyde Fans business window depicted on the cover, then inside various empty rooms of the living space. It is night. All is quiet, the only illumination being what happens to filter in from the streetlamps outside. There is a temporal unity to this second sequence of interiors, such that it takes on the quality of a consciousness quietly drifting from one room to the next, a motif that will return quite powerfully in Simon’s drifting consciousness in “Part Five” of the comic.

Clyde Fans opens a window into the oft-narrated world of mid-century sales in the hopes of telling a more transcendental tale. From its emotional core, centered on the bitter and prolonged sibling rivalry between Abe and Simon, it works through anxieties surrounding aging and death. The various themes employed in this endeavor—nostalgia, preservation and decay, failure, loss, the passage of time, and memory—are clearly in Seth’s wheelhouse (Dunley 2011-2012; Ferraro 2015; Fraser 2019; Marrone 2016a; Rifkind 2015; Smart 2016; Zygmunt 2018). Bart Beaty places the artist in a group of creators—including Chris Ware, Robert Crumb, Dan Clowes, Ivan Brunetti, and Charles Burns—that concerns itself with “the aesthetics of the past” (2012: 215). Yet the notion that there might be something “mystic” in Seth’s comic suggests that these themes are subordinated to its primary insight: that life is a painful and reductive journey that leads inexorably toward death.

As the character Simon puts it in “Part Three” of the comic, “You can’t hold back that time wall. We are inevitably worn down. Smaller and smaller” (2021: 249). That there might be a form of transcendence to be experienced on this journey—either along the way, or at its end—is a possibility raised in Seth’s work that is neither totally embraced nor fully discarded. This possibility is further reflected in the layered way in which Seth conceives of both reality itself and also artistic creation: through tropes of the connectedness of outer and inner worlds, as well as the nesting of one creation inside another. Prior to understanding how these ideas are implied in the portrayal of Simon’s mystic journey in “Part Five” of Clyde Fans, it is necessary to reflect on the siblings’ relationship to each other, and to their historical moment.

Contextualizing Abe and Simon Matchcard

The two siblings at the center of Clyde Fans are evocative of dramatically divergent sensibilities. As Tom Smart puts it, “Abe is a man of action, Simon is a man who enjoys the passive, contemplative life of the mind and arts. Simon is ruminative, doubting, always self-questioning, and so too is Abe, but in a different way[;] . . . they are, in fact, Gemini twins representing eternally dueling aspects of the same soul, cartoon yin-yang complements rattling around in a busted-up building, itself a metaphor of the human heart” (2016: 63, 64). Theirs is a familial story of an absent father (now deceased), an aging mother with unmet care-needs, and a sibling rivalry that has devolved into an irreparable enmity, all tied together by a house that serves more as a prison, and a business in decline. To the degree that the building’s interior is a “key character in the brothers’ stories” (Smart 2016: 60), the empty rooms of the comic’s frontmatter metonymically express Abe and Simon’s own emptiness, lack of fulfillment, and anxieties surrounding their fading legacy. Hillary Chute has written of “Seth’s whimsical, aesthetically rich comics stories” (2017: 176), but however aesthetically rich Clyde Fans is, it is far less whimsical than Seth’s other works, and more of “a tragedy—a forlorn tale of two unimpressive people on whom fate appears to have played a malicious trick, leaving them ruined and alone” (Smart 2016: 63-64).

While this family tragedy is presented with its own rich aesthetic dimensions in Seth’s narrative, it also dramatizes the larger-scale context of the technological and economic shifts that characterized post-war North America. The story’s central focus on the electric fan brings these shifts into sharp relief. On one hand, the market for household consumer electronics was booming as capitalism shifted from a pre-war production-side emphasis to a post-war demand-side economics. On the other, the introduction of the air conditioner brought about the relative obsolescence of the electric fan. As Seth put it in an interview with Debbie Millman (2019), “here were two guys who were in the world of electric fans, and they had not been paying attention to the changes of the world and now they were, like, on the downturn and heading towards oblivion.”6 In “Part One” of Clyde Fans, Abe ruminates on his ruin and regrets not making different decisions: “Unfortunately, the ‘50s also saw the rise of air conditioning. If father had still been in charge, he would have undoubtedly entered into the field himself” (2021: 65). Though he was witness to the fact that air conditioning units were getting smaller and cheaper every year, Abe was unable to foresee smaller businesses being able to afford it (2021: 66).

One of Seth’s strengths lies in using the object-world and its metonymical connections to symbolize the human being’s experience of being left behind and forgotten by time’s relentless march forward. Barbara Postema (2013: 113) has noted how the braiding of clock and calendar images in the first part of Clyde Fans draws attention to this march of time, and a similar approach to braiding images of forgotten toys and objects obtains in “Part Three” of the work (e.g. a doll on the shelf (212-19), a light fixture (220, 240, 243-44), numerous objects (282-86)).7 The implication throughout is that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny—i.e. the small-scale family tragedy recapitulates the large-scale story of technological advance; the former is tied to, is an expression or a consequence of, the latter. Those who are not paying attention to time’s march forward are necessarily rendered obsolete, an insight that is not lost on the central characters of Clyde Fans themselves.

The large-scale technological and economic shifts inherent in post-war capitalism have their complement in a corresponding set of urban shifts. In the years following WWII, those processes of urbanization, first identifiable in the nineteenth century, resulted in a defined (sub)urban way of life.8 The basic social changes accompanying urbanization precipitated the erosion of certain felt connections that had been the bedrock of small-town life. Marxist urban criticism has adapted extensively the concept of alienation to account for these social changes, by which modern people became alienated from the product of their labor, from each other, and from themselves. Citing from Henri Lefebvre, Fraser has summed up the urban theorist’s key insights concerning the wider post-war context as a situation in which

daily life has been colonized. Thus “capitalist leaders treat daily life as they once treated the colonized territories: massive trading posts (supermarkets and shopping centers); absolute predominance of exchange over use; dual exploitation of the dominated in their capacity as producers and consumers.” Alienation for the French spatial theorist was at once economic, social, political, ideological and philosophical. Furthermore, this take privileged the urban field, as Lefebvre makes clear in The Urban Revolution where he writes that “Urban alienation contains and perpetuates all other forms of alienation.” (Fraser 2019: 53-54, citing from Lefebvre 2005: 26; 2003: 92).

While the Canadian towns depicted in Seth’s oeuvre are not consistent with the density or the verticality of a large metropolis, they are nonetheless subject to the way in which progressive urbanization has changed life for all, even those in rural and small-town areas. It must be kept in mind, as Louis Wirth of the Chicago School of Urban Sociology wrote in the 1930s, that the modern city pulls even “the most remote parts of the world into its orbit” (1938: 2). As we will see, the concluding, mystical segment of “Part Five” of Clyde Fans monstrates the spatial and temporal relationship of the rural area and the small town to specific images of the towering verticality and urban blight we would associate with the modern metropolis. More pervasively, the tentacular hold that urbanized centers have on a geographically extended mode of production and distribution is also implicit in Seth’s characterization of a regional sales network in which Abe and Simon must compete with other larger, better positioned vendors. It is at the individual scale, that of the siblings’ waning success in sales, that readers observe these urbanized forms of productive, distributive, and consumptive power somewhat less directly. As supported by the depiction in “Part Four” of the labor dispute at Borealis, for which Abe apparently has no sympathy, this is the world that Charles Hatfield has described as “an eager, scurrying, small-time capitalism” (in “A Clyde Fans Roundtable” 2019).

The depiction of sales activity, the invocation of sales discourse, and the personal reflections of Abe and Simon Matchcard regarding their entrepreneurial acumen (or lack thereof) provide an indirect reference to how urbanized productive forces are changing consumer practices, material culture, and urban sociality even in small-town North America. As it has been in other textual examples, from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949) to Glengarry Glen Ross (1984),9 Seth’s mid-century-focused graphic novel is necessarily concerned with what Daniel Marrone calls “the desperation of sales” (2016a: 83). Here in Clyde Fans such desperation is the indirect outcome of a changing social and economic paradigm, or put differently, an emotional register that explores the human consequences of this larger shift. 

Readers encounter the large-scale shifts of post-war North America through their personal consequences.

The two siblings respond to the desperation of their small-time capitalist lives in different ways. Abe’s desperation manifests itself through obsessive ruminations on his past successes—and more often, failures—in the business, and it is expressed through a superficial confidence that is undercut by the graphic monstration. For example, in “Part One,” Abe rehearses aloud, and alone, the values he holds that have presumedly helped him in his career. At this point in the comic, his failings as a son, a sibling, and a husband have not yet received their full enunciation.

Image of page illustrating Abe’s confident monologue undercut by page monstration.
Figure 2. Clyde Fans (2021: 33). Abe’s confident monologue undercut by page monstration. Used with permission from Drawn & Quarterly. Copyright Gregory Gallant.

Here, in a three-panel row, he delivers a monologue full of false confidence that serves also as self-characterization. His verbal emphases on the value of persistence, in the left and right panels of the row, are undercut by the insertion, in the middle spot, of an image of his dentures immersed in a glass of cleaning solution (2021: 33, see fig. 2). This reminder of his age, his frailty or infirmity, causes readers to question his self-presentation as a strong, independent, and decisive businessman and to entertain the idea that his is a misguided overconfidence. The words Abe speaks on the page exaggerate this self-image—along with “persistence,” which appears three times, the words “fortitude” and “success” also appear—while his admission of having told a “feeble” joke hovers above the panel with the dentures, resonating with it through proximity. This dissonance between recitation and monstration reveals the exaggerated and self-deceptive way in which Abe has convinced himself of his worth. Of course, he is also prone to half-lucid moments when he will admit that his sales have been disappointing and that he hates salesman who brag (e.g. 2021: 35, 42). The character’s posture, his facing the margins of the page at both left and right, orients him in a way that suggests he still cannot bear to face this frailty in himself.

Readers know from “Part One” that Simon is dead by 1997, leaving Abe the sole surviving member of the family. As Abe wanders around the home in which Simon and their mother lived for so long, he is surrounded by Simon’s most coveted objects: his paintings of lighthouses and bare trees, his collection of trompe l’oeil postcards, and the books his brother has left behind, such as The Popular Book of Stars, which contains information about planetary movements (2021: 44). As it is with many subtle details in Clyde Fans, the significance of this book is easily overlooked during one’s first read-through. Nevertheless, the book connects with the themes of loss, absence, memory, and the desire to escape from the stresses of a life spent in a crumbling business. It illustrates directly for readers the fleeting nature of the attachments we form with and in the material world. It also points metonymically to Simon’s death. Like the book, Abe, too, has been “left behind” (his own words: 2021: 45). The topic of the book also works to contrast the personalities of the two siblings. The book points to Simon’s curiosity regarding what Abe would regard as subjects of only indirect relevance to a successful life: detachment, daydreaming, and above all else, longing for escape. The way in which The Popular Book of Stars is included in but subordinated to Abe’s self-important monologue, and the fleetingness of the book’s appearance, conveys Abe’s disdain for Simon’s interests.10

While his brother, Abe, also maintains an unhealthy distance in his relationships—a shared family legacy one might lay at the feet of their father—Simon’s desperation differs from Abe’s by featuring a more pronounced desire to escape from reality itself, to retreat into the family office-residence, or even to transcend the limits of his body and float above the surface of the earth. It is this longing for escape that is expressed and fulfilled—if only for a moment—in “Part Five” (1957). Part Two (1957) sets the stage for this mystic occurrence.

Longing for “A Sort of Enchanted Place”

When “Part Two” opens, Simon Matchcard is traveling on a Canadian National train for a sales trip in the town of Dominion. Seth’s pages emphasize this location again and again. After passing Flaxton station (2021: 100), Simon disembarks at another station clearly labelled “Dominion” (2012: 102). The station master recommends an open restaurant, the Bluebird, and as Simon walks there, he passes a clearly labelled Dominion Drugs storefront (2021: 104) and the Dominion Town News Depot (2021: 105). His stay has been booked at the hotel Dominion Arms (2021: 110), one of his failed sales pitches takes place at the Dominion General Store (2021: 117), and he briefly walks through the park in Dominion (2021: 132-33). This choice of setting for the comic’s climactic trip is itself suggestive.

This fictional toponym of Dominion, which is set somewhere in southern Ontario, has been represented across comics, paintings, and architectural-style 3D models (see Fraser 2019: 160-67) and as such it has an existence at once within and outside of the diegesis of any particular work by Seth. As scholars have explored (e.g. Smart 2016), its buildings themselves seem to be charged with a particular melancholy, perhaps sharing in the desperation felt by the mid-century salesman.11 Extra-diegetically, Dominion is the result of an artistic passion that Seth has pursued as a form of creative escape. Within the story-world of Clyde Fans, Dominion takes on multiple roles. Not only is it a proving ground for Simon—a challenge presented to the young salesman, who of course fails to rise to the occasion—but it is also a mystical site of self-reflection. Simon’s actions, efforts, and ambitions are coming to nothing, and just as he is confronting his own frailty and failure, Dominion emerges as a contemplative space from which to explore whether life has deeper significance. It is here, in Dominion, where Seth begins his non-narrative thread of meditations on what lies beyond the sensory-motor world of action, ambition, and suffering that characterizes the embodied human experience.

One of the most significant events in Clyde Fans is also one of the most understated. In “Part Two,” Simon eavesdrops on a conversation between two women while eating in a booth at the Bluebird. One of them recounts a trip taken some twenty years prior, when she found “Almost a perfect circle of grass surrounded by trees [. . .] the kind of spot where time seems to stand still. A sort of enchanted place” (2021: 108). The phrase calls up the metaphor of respite from worldly troubles, and ultimately a pleasant memory. The woman’s discourse serves less to characterize her in any way—we do not encounter her again—than to emphasize a contemplative truth. The woman’s dining companion at the Bluebird states that she has a place she would like to visit again, and of course, one can think of the fictional town of Dominion itself as a place in which Seth, the creator, would like to live. The implication is that readers may be able to recall or imagine such a place or a time, or perhaps even that the afterlife takes on the form of this place (consider an older Simon’s dream-like encounter with a younger version of his mother in the Dominion-that-is-not-Dominion in “Part Four” 2021: 258-59). In the Bluebird, Simon’s silence underplays the importance of this notion of an “enchanted place,” but this overheard conversation nonetheless reverberates throughout “Part Two” and “Part Five.” Finding himself alone in a mini-golf landscape, Simon once again hears the woman’s voice repeating the phrase “where time seems to stand still” (2021: 175). Seth uses a wavy-line panel-frame and a shift to black-and-white monstration in showing readers the woman’s face to convey the sudden irruption and subjective nature of Simon’s memory. Following this, and prompted by it, there is a two-page spread with dark skies and bare trees, over which there float the words “A sort of enchanted place” (2021: 176-77). Simon’s own obsession with this phrase and this moment is fixed in the comic through inclusion of his sketches and paintings of bare trees (e.g. 2021: frontmatter, 59, 68, 78), the significance of which may not be fully realized in a first read-through of the comic.

Also significant is that Seth introduces, in “Part Two,” a characteristic form of ambiguous monstration that is lacking in “Part One.” Daniel Marrone has identified what he calls “durational ambiguity,” “transitional ambiguity,” and “diegetic ambiguity” in Clyde Fans; these are “striking sequences that mingle dream, fantasy and memory” (2016a: 47).12 This strategy is not unique to Clyde Fans, as can be confirmed, for example, by a passage in It’s a Good Life (2011: 65-68) where a silent panel containing an urban image transitions abruptly to pastoral kite-flying episode featuring unknown older men, then the image of frog, and next the main character waking up in his bed. As Simon composes his diary entry in Dominion sequence of “Part Two,” he begins to realize that he has failed as salesman. He employs ellipses to break off a sentence (“Only through an utmost force of will have I managed to reread the pathetic optimism of yesterday’s entry. I doubt I…”), stops writing entirely, and stares successively at his immediate surroundings: his sample case, his hat and coat on the hotel-room chair, and the painting of a lighthouse on the wall. The transition to the next page finds him in a dream-like world, wearing his hat and coat, and moving across a rocky hill, venturing into the stairwell of the very same lighthouse from the hotel painting. Halfway up the lighthouse, he looks out from one of the windows in the stairwell and down onto his brother Abe, who is answering the phone in the Clyde Fans office. Climbing more stairs to reach the next window, Simon looks down to see his mother asleep in a chair at home. He opens the door at the top of the lighthouse onto a ground-level street scene, strolls past a few storefronts, stares at an enigmatic sign, and then disappears into a full page with a white spotlight effect (2021: 149-53). The next transition has him starting a new day, one in which he continues to have failures, gives away his sample case, buys a few trompe l’oeil postcards, and in due course, ends up wandering in the mini-golf course. Something inside of the salesman has broken.

Simon’s dream-like wandering through a waffle-iron grid.
Figure 3. Simon’s dream-like wandering through a waffle-iron grid (2021: 150-51). Used with permission from Drawn & Quarterly. Copyright Gregory Gallant.

This sequence is notable for the ambiguous transitions that bookend its appearance, and also for how it incorporates the trope of wandering (see fig. 3). This is an embodied wandering, in which readers see Simon’s body moving through space and making observations. While it appears in a dream-like context, it nonetheless boasts a similarity to more mundane sequences of urban wandering (both in Clyde Fans, and also in It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken, e.g. in the museum (see also Strathroy, 2011: 57-59, 141-42)). Such quotidian sequences exemplify what Smart calls “Seth’s use of the walking conceit as a storytelling device” or “a journey through the landscape as a trip in time” (Smart 2016: 60, 75). The embodied wandering in the first 1957 installment (“Part Two”) contrasts sharply with the disembodied wandering in the second 1957 installment (“Part Five”). It also presents a highly infrequent usage—at least in Seth’s work—of the waffle-iron-grid comics layout; use of the grid in this context itself suggests an estranging and decidedly non-real mode of narration. Here it conveys the expectation that Simon is being “led” somewhere and exaggerates the sensory-motor connections implied in moment-to-moment transitions. Uncharacteristically, the wandering seems purposeful rather than relatively aimless. It is certainly anxious and fraught with mystery. These qualities only heighten the reader’s reception of Simon’s disembodied and drifting consciousness in “Part Five.”

“Part Two” also features the sudden emergence of a new mode of recitation. Seth fills individual panels, and even entire pages, with black background, leaving in the center sparse white text that tends to replicate sound-based memories. These appear as Simon wanders the mini-golf course and hears Abe’s voice on the phone (“Simon? Are you listening to me Simon? Simon is that you?” 2021: 173-75). This manner of representing interior, subjective, or focalized thoughts and memories is continued throughout later segments of Clyde Fans, and is utilized in portraying not only Simon’s, but also Abe’s thoughts. In “Part Three,” its use reflects Simon’s anxious self-directed speech as he continues to interact with, and speak with, his mother (e.g. 2021: 223-24); in “Part Four,” the technique is used in alternating panels as Abe runs around town looking for his father after finding out Clyde has left Abe’s mother, and in both a full page and an individual panel when Abe remembers Alice longingly (e.g. 2021: 290-91, 326, 383, 387). This mode of recitation—and, where combined with images (landscape scenes or the faces of Alice and the siblings’ mother (e.g. 2021: 471)), of monstration—helps readers to visualize the conflicted nature of the characters’ emotions, as well as the weight and continuing influence of their pasts. The shift from outer, voiced monologue (e.g. Abe’s vocalizations in “Part One”) to the voiceless expression of inner thoughts signals a shift in the tone of the graphic novel, showing signs of retreat into the inner recesses of the characters’ minds. The ambiguities of Seth’s style, along with this narrational mode, may prompt some readers to conclude that Simon suffers a “breakdown” or some form of “delusional psychosis” (Smart 2016: 81-82, 85, 87). Yet such an interpretation does not in any way diminish the importance of what might be called the “metaphysical” aspects of the volume (Daniel Marrone, in “A Clyde Fans Roundtable” 2019). That is—to use the words thought by Simon in the black-box recitation in “Part Two”—in positing “that there is a person separate from the personality” (2021: 229), Seth is provoking a conversation on the layered nature of reality, rather than providing a realistic portrait of mental illness.

Seth’s subjective mode of recitation is anticipated by the earlier episodes in “Part Two,” wherein Simon’s diary entries appear in white cursive against black textual zones and in which he silently reads passages from the poems of Stephen Crane (2021: 113-15, 149). He has brought the Penguin book of poetry by Crane with him on his sales trip to Dominion, and rather than “overprepare” (2021: 114) by reading a book titled Modern Sales, he instead contemplates a poem of great significance for him and for readers of the comic. Crane’s untitled poem “XXXV” begins

A man saw a ball of gold in the sky;

He climbed for it,

And eventually he reached it—

It was clay.


Now this is the strange part… (appears in the comic, 2021: 115). 

The narrative shift signaled in the second stanza of the brief poem is fulfilled when the man returns to earth and insists once more, “Ay, by the heavens, it was a ball of gold.” As Michael Dirda characterized him in The New Criterion, Crane was a poet known for “the presentation of bleak landscapes of the mind” (2011: 41, in reference to Crane’s The Black Riders and Other Lines). The use of Crane’s poetry is doubly important. It further illustrates Simon’s artistic sensibilities and, by implication, the fact that he may be ill-suited for a life in sales. And of course, Clyde Fans is quite full of bleak landscapes. But more crucially, it contributes to the theme of layered realities that inspires the graphic novel. Crane’s poem portrays two incommensurable realities, which it contrasts by juxtaposing “the sky” and “the earth,” as they are held in tension by a single observing consciousness. An interpretation that seems pertinent to this particular intertextual invocation of Crane suggests quite a relevant theme: the inability to cope with disappointment other than by sustaining an illusion, a self-deception. In his reading of “XXXV,” Dirda underscores that “the attainment of any desire leads to an inevitable sense of letdown” (2011: 42). In his reading of the poem, David Halliburton emphasizes the theme of “retroactive discovery” and a form of “disjuncture [that] comes about precisely through the resolution of the contradiction between the two beliefs” (2008: 284-85). As the graphic novel continues, it becomes clear that Simon’s excursion to the mini-golf landscape leads to an insight with restorative powers. He refers to it retrospectively as an “epiphany,” a “beautiful glimpse into a crystal world” that “didn’t last” and “faded out” (2021: 223, 224). Like the man in Crane’s poem, Simon longs to “live forever in a single frozen moment” (2021: 245), under the ball of gold rather than the ball of clay. Calling the experience his “vision,” Simon states that “clearly that is the moment I should wish to live within forever. Or in the time just following when I was so wrapped in its beauty” (2021: 246).

The selection of Crane is thus justified in light of Seth’s focus on characters who cope poorly, insufficiently, with disappointment. The inclusion of Crane’s poetry can be thought of as an exploration of the pragmatic decision its characters make to inhabit a “smaller and smaller” world, to sustain some part of themselves through delusion—whether psychotic, a la Smart (2016), or effected by much more mundane self-deceptions such as those evident in Abe’s monologue (above). The increasingly poetic monstration of Clyde Fans, which culminates in “Part Five,” is based on this explicit contrast between two incommensurable realities. The “sky” as a metaphor for a transcendent or spiritual “layer” of reality that Simon believes he has experienced. It is the mystical insight into the multiple layers of reality that best explains the comic’s ending.

Experiencing Layered Realities

In an interview conducted during the year Clyde Fans was published as a complete volume, Seth was asked the question “Do you believe in God?” His answer to this question, which had been posed by Chris Ware via Debbie Millman in her 2019 podcast interview with the artist, provides some splendid background for plumbing the mystic depths of Clyde Fans. Seth’s answer was

Increasingly I wonder. What I would have said when I was younger [was] that I did not believe in God, and I would have thought of myself as pretty much of a materialist, but I don’t think that’s true any longer [. . .] What’s changed is that this world, as we were just talking about, is strange, and it doesn’t feel real to me. I think that there [are] . . . complicated layers of reality going on, mystic experience, whatever, anything’s possible, so when you start talking about, say, the afterlife, it initially starts out sounding pretty ridiculous, why would there be an afterlife? [. . .] but this experience we’re living in seems rich and complicated, again complicated, very layered, and it doesn’t feel like . . . surely all of this isn’t for nothing, this whole struggle, this complicated relationship you seem to have with reality feels like it’s just a waste if there is nothing else going on beyond this . . . (in Millman 2019)

Seth’s interest in “layers of reality”—and particularly its proximity and connection of this notion the phrase “mystic experience” in the above quotation—is very applicable to Clyde Fans. Not only can it help us to understand his emphasis on Simon’s journey in “Part Five,” it can also explain the overall composition of the graphic novel.

The earlier mention, in this article, of the general resonance between Seth’s self-stylization and the aesthetics of Dominion—as well as the specific monstrative significance of the cover and frontmatter of the paperback edition of Clyde Fans—introduced the notion that the artist is intent on forging an overlap between the diegetic space of comics and the extradiegetic world inhabited by his readers. Subsequently, the article discussed ways in which the creative recitation and the ambiguous monstration introduced in “Part Two” of Clyde Fans suggested a progressive journey into the inner realities of the protagonists. Of perhaps greater importance is the fact that distinctions between inner and outer experience are brought up by Seth’s characters themselves. For instance, as early as “Part One,” Abe says, “It’s obvious to me now that I always thought of this as a place away from the world. The office existed as some sort of intermediary level between reality and this hidden place. In a way, it’s all backwards referring to the outside as ‘reality.’ It’s only in here that anything ever felt real. Out there everything was empty and hollow” (2021: 70; see also Smart 2016: 69). There are a few ways in which one might take this as a characterization of Abe. Readers know from his monologue that the office was opened by his father in 1937, and that Abe closed it for good in 1981 (2021: 53). Perhaps in the sixteen years since, his failures have more frequently haunted his memory. Perhaps his world has simply shrunk, bringing him closer to the pathetic image of Simon he so often entertained. That he might be retreating into the home as Simon had is supported by statements like, “The places you know disappear. The buildings get knocked down, the restaurants change hands or close, the streets are rerouted or renamed . . . the people die” (2021: 56). Or perhaps Abe’s increasing curiosity about and familiarity with Simon’s object-world—the aforementioned Popular Book of Stars, for example—has nurtured a spark of sympathy for his brother’s perspective on life.

Beyond these possibilities, Abe’s articulation of an “intermediary level of reality” can be taken as a metacommentary on the medium of comics (see Smart 2016: 74). The cover image of the Clyde Fans storefront and the aesthetics of the volume’s frontmatter suggest that Abe and Simon are contained inside of the comic, and that the comics reality they inhabit is one level of reality implied in another, greater reality—that of the comics reader. The appearance, in all five parts of Clyde Fans, of a blue-and-white checkerboard patterning provides a visual echo of the comics form itself, in a way that further calls attention to the layered notion of reality. Such blue-and-white checkered patterns appear on the bathroom tile in “Part One,” and on the floor tile in “Part One” and “Part Three”; on the furniture at the hotel Dominion Arms, the floor of Maydwell Distribution and Storage, and the clothing of people Simon sees around Dominion in “Part Two”; on the floors of the Union Grill and the Borealis Business Machines plant, along with Abe’s lawyer’s pants and workers’ hats in “Part Four”; and on the factory windows and train-seat upholstery in “Part Five.”

The postcards that Simon collects, and through which Abe flips in “Part One” and “Part Four” of the graphic novel, have the effect of reinforcing this notion of layers of reality. These postcards are an interest forged in Simon’s transformative sales trip to Dominion, and assume the burden of the anxiety and ambition he had initially, and unsuccessfully, directed toward sales. When, in “Part Three,” Simon reflects more deeply on the postcards, he struggles to discern the meaning of his interest in them. He concludes that they point not to a “frozen time,” but instead to “another place” (2021: 243). Soon after, in an ambiguous, dream-like sequence, he flies with the body of a bird into a place he mistakes for Dominion, only to be told by a younger version of his mother that “This isn’t Dominion—just look around. It’s somewhere else” (2021: 259). He then recognizes that the street he is on comes from “the backgrounds of Silas W. Wilfred’s postcards” (2021: 260). Simon longs to inhabit this other place. It should not be lost on readers that this desire to live in another place is something that the art form of comics makes figuratively actualizable. The diegesis of the postcard-world exists within the diegesis of Clyde Fans, just as comics exist in the world of the reader; each level is nested in the next. In literature, this tragic, nested model of existence has been dramatized many times, perhaps most enduringly in the seventeenth-century tale by Miguel de Cervantes in which a lanky and increasingly weary idealist (Don Quijote) and a round materialist (Sancho Panza) encounter representations of their own exploits in book form.13

In Clyde Fans, panel framing is used to imply a passage or connection between layers of reality. For instance, the lighthouse painting in the hotel (mentioned above) introduces and leads into Simon’s dream-like exploration of it (2021: 149, just before the journey monstrated in fig. 3). There is a slippage between the postcard frame and the panel frame in the sequence where Simon encounters the younger version of his mother (2021: 259-60). This overlap between the diegetic and extra-diegetic levels—between the level of the story’s action and that of the story’s monstration—suggests that comics themselves may furnish an “enchanted place” of the type in which Simon longs to live. One could argue that just as Simon “enters” the worlds of the painting and the postcards, he also enters and inhabits his sketches as a way of keeping his memory of his enchanted place alive.14 Here is the comic’s tragic kernel: existence as a body and consciousness implies an amount of loneliness, suffering, and decline. What Simon experiences in his mystic journey is only a temporary release from this reality.

For a fleeting but transformative moment in “Part Five” (2021: 416-60), Simon is released from his body to soar high above the surface of his comics landscape. He thinks:

And in that moment—that almost imperceptible moment . . . when evening becomes night . . . I went out . . . Out. And up. Up . . . Up . . . into that darkening night sky. Like in a dream . . . but not a dream. Up to a ceiling of clouds . . . through . . . and beyond. Coming to a rest . . . just beneath a dome of swimming stars. Yet here, in this austere crystal cavern the bottle began to empty. Slowly. I faded some. Started to thin out. So . . . calmly . . . without feeling . . . I turned back. Down . . . Down again. Into that solid world . . . of things . . . and places. Down and onward. Now, quick . . . Down a lane . . . and over a ditch . . . across a field. (2021: 416- 19)

From here he goes on to see an old shed someone lived in before they died of a crippling illness, and an old empty farmhouse, rotten to the core, its basement filled with dark water. Then he drifts back out across fields, over an orchard, and over factories. It is hardly incidental that this journey is marked by a shift in monstration that portrays the verticality of the modern metropolis. The rural beginning of Simon’s adventure leads him in due course to cross the city limits and float “into this canyon of great black shapes set against the sky.” He remarks, “This is a blighted place. There is a flavour in the air here. A flavour of spoilage and corruption” (2021: 434-35). The raccord here (see fig. 4), just as during the rural portion of Simon’s journey, conveys a sense of his mystical experience, his intuition regarding the layers of reality, his ascendence and proximity to the level of comics creation.

Simon’s drifting consciousness encounters the metropolis
Figure 4. Simon’s drifting consciousness encounters the metropolis (2021: 440-41). Used with permission from Drawn & Quarterly. Copyright Gregory Gallant.

The realization Simon has at the conclusion of his journey is that his place is “not out here” (2021: 460) but at home. The way in which he expresses this reminds readers of Abe’s own recognition, in “Part One,” regarding layers of reality.15 Simon’s disembodied wandering thus takes on the quality of a journey from the level of a character in the diegesis of a story toward an extradiegetic layer of reality. As it is for the the man in Crane’s poem, Simon’s attempt to escape the bounds of his earthly existence is both invigorating and frustrating.

At first, Simon is rejuvenated by his brush with a “higher” level of reality. As he remembers the line from XXXV (“A man saw a ball of gold . . .”, 2021: 461), he is able to laugh, a finger positioned contemplatively under his chin. As we know from reading Abe’s reaction in “Part Four,” Simon was euphoric when he returned to that “intermediate level of reality” that is the Clyde Fans office.16 The full-page image of Simon smiling that appears in Abe’s subjective recollection of Simon’s return (2021: 359) is similar to the image that closes “Part Five” (2021: 478).17 Simon feels that his mystical journey has occurred  “so that I might understand the beauty and solemnity that comes with solitude, estrangement . . . decay” (2021: 453). But as he resigns himself to living in his own layer of reality, his earth—that is, for him, the comics diegesis of Clyde Fans—he must grapple, like Crane’s fallen hero, with how to sustain a self-deceptive illusion, a task for which he is poorly suited.

We know from “Part Four,” in particular, that Simon declines into patterns of depression, alcoholism, and inaction as the feeling of this mystic experience fades. His high hopes are unrealized. He thinks to himself that “Life need not be challenged, confronted . . . or conquered. It can be backed away from with dignity,” and he opts for “A retreat into a realm of crystalized stasis” (2021: 454-55). He is not living in an “enchanted place,” but in a sense is tortured by his memory of it, his inability to live there. In “Part Three,” Simon’s thoughts on his trip to Dominion—and beyond—are made manifest in white ink on black background: “I still feel a thread vibrating between myself and that place. As if I were still there. Still residing in that hotel. How many have come and gone, from that room, since I left there. The streets, the shops, the Bluebird Café . . . The road out of town . . . And that final place. I can still feel them, sitting there, unchanged . . . unmoved . . . frozen” (2021: 197). At its core, the tragedy of Simon’s mystic experience revisits and approximates the tragedy in Stephen Crane’s poem, underscoring the primary themes of Clyde Fans: the futility of living only in one’s imagination, the central conflict of an embodied consciousness whose mind yearns to be somewhere its body cannot travel, and the impossibility of living in two incommensurable worlds.

Yet there is the promise of a connective tissue of sorts between the two incommensurable realities of Crane’s poem. For Seth, the architectural façade is a visual representation that links these two realities, and at once signals the existence of layers of experience and passage amongst them. The existence of Dominion and its resonating nostalgia—as described above through the experiences of Simon and the lady at the Bluebird—is not just something the characters feel. The dreamscapes that accompany the mystical journey of Simon’s drifting consciousness are not merely literary tropes. As Clyde Fans makes clear, these are not just diegetic conflicts, but rather parts of the human experience, and—perhaps most crucially—parts of the experience of reading print comics. In a sense, readers of the print comic share in the relative technological obsolescence symbolized by the Matchcard brothers’ fan company. For these readers, who hold volumes in their hands, feelings of nostalgia and intuitions concerning the layered nature of reality are perhaps very real and tactile experiences. In the end, Seth’s gravitation toward ambiguous monstration and layered realities serves as a metacommentary on the comics medium. 

The longing to live in any “enchanted place”—whether symbolized by Simon’s mystical vision, Crane’s ball of gold in the sky, the artist’s creation of Dominion, or even the broader readerly enchantment promised by comics art—is ultimately a frustrated one. Still, Seth’s use of the façade suggests that the hard lines we draw in space, the boundaries we create in in architecture, the walls we erect interpersonally, and the barriers we adhere to conceptually, are more porous than they may seem to be.


[1] Unnumbered backmatter page from the 2021 paperback. The term “mystic” is also used by Seth in relation to Clyde Fans in a podcast interview recorded on May 2, 2019 by the CBC Radio show “q.” I return to similar comments below in a subsequent section of this article.

[2] Rather than engage the term “mystic” from a specific, or even a general religious context, I take it to be a term of philosophical importance, and a reflection of the elemental contrast that obtains in the work between a corporeal-focused Abe and the imagination-driven Simon. This approach to philosophical mysticism is grounded in the work of Henri Bergson, whose connections to George Simmel’s own philosophic take on the metropolis and Henri Lefebvre’s urban-oriented philosophy have been documented elsewhere.

[3] Due both to the space constraints of this article, and also to the value of attending to the formal and aesthetic properties of Seth’s comic, I reference the tradition of urbanism in comics sparingly, preferring a close-reading to a broad contextualization. Those seeking more in-depth sources on urban modernity and the application of Henri Lefebvre’s ideas to comics should consult Fraser’s Visible Cities, Global Comics (2019), The Art of Pere Joan (2019), and Barcelona, City of Comics (forthcoming).

[4] I have added the ‘North’ in this quotation so as to acknowledge Seth’s experience living in and depicting Canadian spaces. Grennan continues: “Seth never includes anything in Clyde Fans that either derives from the past post-1955 or that is not Canadian. This visibly self-conscious self-positioning is managed so well by Seth that, like Wittgenstein’s duck/rabbit, Seth’s form of representation is made both in the present and also appears to have been made before 1955.”

[5] Note that by fictional realm I mean only the visual comics world created by Seth, and not Dominion specifically, for while Dominion appears in Clyde Fans, the storefront is located in Appleyard.

[6] He adds, “And that’s pretty much like what a cartoonist felt like in 1998, whatever, comics legitimately felt like they were over at that point.” The use of the word oblivion is significant here, as it is also used by Simon in a depressive episode, wherein he meditates on the passage of time, observing that his past and future selves form “an unbreakable chain. All of it leading inevitably to some dull oblivion” (2021: 201).

[7] Also relevant here are comments by Dunley that assert, “By focusing the reader’s attention, especially on particular objects, Seth succeeds in constructing his illustrations in such a way that trains the viewer to meditate on the objects from the past that are intrinsic to his stories” (2011-2012: 82-83).

[8] These general ideas, which are staples of urban studies research, are explored more carefully in Fraser’s Toward an Urban Cultural Studies: Henri Lefebvre and the Humanities (2015).

[9] The connections with Miller and Mamet are also pointed out by Martha Kuhlman and Daniel Marrone in “A Clyde Fans Roundtable” (2019). Abe’s reflection on his travels as a salesman in the year 1949 (Seth 2021: 34) perhaps hints further at this connection with Death of a Salesman (1949).

[10] And given Seth’s predilection for using starry night skies as narrative interruptions or transitions (not only in Clyde Fans but also in It’s a Good Life), it anticipates and offers a focalized explanation of their appearances in “Part Four” and “Part Five.” That is, where these appear, they are imbued with a sense of Simon’s “mystical” yearning.

[11] Smart writes that Seth’s buildings are “shaded with the characters’ own feelings of loss, alienation, hopelessness and despair at having missed out on opportunity because time has passed them by and left them to wonder at the nature and depths of their failures” (2016: 25). See also Fraser (2019: 163, citing Smart 2016): “In his comics, the city itself is just as subject to time’s unrelenting push forward as are its inhabitants. As Smart points out, Seth’s characters endure loss, alienation, hopelessness and despair. In parallel, the city’s buildings are themselves lost to time, demolished or neglected, replaced or forgotten.”

[12] “With Palookaville #12 Seth explores the ways in which he could convey the strangeness of dreaming and the oddness of surreal juxtapositions in his panels, and wrap them in Abe’s and Simon’s stories” (Smart 2016: 72, see also 82).

[13] While outside of the scope of this article, the similarities are themselves worthy of a comparative approach given the dualism that characterizes the personalities of Abe and Simon.

[14] Marrone’s text comes close to suggesting this (2016a: 49; see also his chapter 5).

[15] “My place is not out here. I must go home. Home to that world of half slumber. Back to that ‘enchanted’ shadow life . . . of drawn curtains . . . and quiescence. Home . . . the Clyde Building. Its walls and stairways . . . its corners and hallways . . . its doors . . . its rooms . . . the only place where things are solid . . . tangible . . . real” (2021: 461).

[16] “You came strolling in that door . . . no luggage . . . no sales kit . . . No sales! And yet, you had this big shit-eating grin on your face. You were positively euphoric. That made no fucking sense to me!” (2021: 358).

[17] Regarding this first image, it is quite interesting that while Simon’s eyeballs can be seen behind his glasses in the Palookaville version, they cannot be seen in the corresponding image in the collected Clyde Fans.

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