Smart, Tom. Palookaville: Seth and the Art of Graphic Autobiography. Porcupine’s Quill, 2016.
Tom Smart’s Palookaville: Seth and the Art of Graphic Autobiography is an engaging afternoon read for those interested in the Canadian comic artist Seth, pseudonym of Gregory Gallant, and his serialized graphic narrative, Palookaville (formerly Palooka-ville). Within the pages of this short but theoretically nuanced study, Smart considers how Seth not only inserted segments of his own life into his characters but also patterned his fictional city, Palookaville, as an imaginative stand-in for his own childhood towns of “Toronto, Bayfield, Tilbury, Strathroy, and London” (24).
Smart’s attempt to cover the multifaceted storytelling and aesthetics of Seth’s serialized graphic narrative in such a compact study is admirable. Within a mere 94 pages, Smart covers the 22 issues and breaks down the various ways in which the author has imbued multiple characters with aspects of his personality and autobiographical experiences. Smart is particularly attentive to Seth’s exposition of his titular city of Palookaville, which Smart describes as “downcast, filled with melancholy, angst and anxiety. [The stories] seem to be shared with the characters’ own feelings of loss, alienation, hopelessness and despair …in short Seth portrays his existential Palookaville [as a] soulless place of unrequited dreams and abandoned hope” (Smart 25-26). As Smart observes, moreover, Palookaville significantly shares the moniker with a term from the 1954 film On the Waterfront wherein Marlon Brando plays a washed-up boxer (23). Many of Seth’s characters share qualities with Brando’s character: a person who made poor choices that led him to poorer living conditions. Brando, in his role as Terry Malloy, once threw a boxing match, and from that decision Malloy’s life went into a subsequent tail-spin, going from boxer to longshoreman to informant (Smart 23). A crucial scene where Terry is confronted by his brother at gun point to not testify against mobsters leads to the explanation of Brando’s character’s current situation leaving him bitter and broken with only a “one way ticket to Palookaville” (Smart 23-24). Smart defines the term of “Palooka” as someone who is a buffoon, oaf, or clod, and with this connotation ‘Palookaville’ becomes a euphemism for those inhabitants relegated to obscurity in this town Seth has created that is “the end of the road” (24). These qualities are found in the inhabitants that reside in Seth’s created world. In issues #2 and #3 the reader is introduced to a Palookaville denizen, Greg, and his fated tale as he works a dead-end summer job at the Lighthouse Inn. Over the course of the story the reader discovers that Greg has been having an affair with the Inn owner’s wife (Smart 31-32). Greg, like Terry Malloy, lives in obscurity as he narrates his poor choices in these two issues of Palookaville.
Smart is particularly attentive to the striking consonance between Seth and his characters, for instance, he notes that some of the residents of Palookaville share the same career path as their creator, his name, or one of his personal characteristics. One of these characters is an unnamed man that Smart categorizes as a Sethian type. Smart describes him as “a man with closely cropped hair wearing a classic, wide-brimmed fedora and Burberry-style trench coat” (43). This character shares obvious similarities in aesthetic choices with Seth and is a graphic simplification of Seth’s portrait that appears in the front of Smart’s book. Smart argues that these details demonstrate the disparity between Seth’s personal account of events and that which is represented in his narratives. Seth remains distant from his characters and settings while still imbuing his work with autobiographical elements. To this end, Smart accounts for how Seth separates himself from the story in the last few issues of Palookaville with characters and a narrative that bear little to no connection to his own life. This narrative is the strictly fictional story of brothers Simon and Abraham Matchcard. At this point in the series, Smart maintains, Seth is exploring his own voice as a storyteller and graphic artist (84). Seth does this through speech balloons, by simplifying backgrounds and character detail, and by developing a narrative that has little relation to previous stories that have a hint of Seth’s personal life in them.
As Smart argues, Seth’s works demonstrate one of the most unmistakable styles in recent comic history. Indeed, Smart goes to great lengths to establish this style within the scope of Seth’s fascination with the 20th century editorial cartoonists of The New Yorker and Franco-Belgian comics artist like Hergé. Using a letter written by a fan on the back of issue #11, Smart makes further connections between Franco-Belgian comics and Seth because of “Seth’s clean line[s]” and their “expressive and gestural clarity of a Tintin graphic novel” (70). Smart also makes a considerable intervention by placing Seth into a critical genealogy of renowned North American comics producers. Seth receives personal letters throughout the twenty-twoissues, that comment about his style, likening it to both American underground comix creators as well as their more traditional European counterparts (Smart 36). This association with other artists places Seth among other Canadians including Chester Brown and Julie Doucet, both creators of graphic autobiographical works, and in the company of well-known underground Americans like Robert Crumb, Gilbert Hernandez, and Daniel Clowes (Smart 36-37).
Seth, like comics creators Clowes and Doucet, follows the practice of representing authenticity. The issue of the representation of truth in Seth’s work is carried across the whole of Palookaville. How often can we trust Seth’s depiction of events from narratives like Nothing Lasts which “is a pseudo-autobiographical story of Greg’s (Seth’s) growing up and coming of age… told from the point of view of the adult Seth looking back on his past” (Smart 20)? Does it matter? Smart calls into question the accuracy of such events despite the knowledge that the subject matter Seth draws on is based on real events as a foundation for the series. Smart contests that the factual substance of such things is of little concern. Seth goes to great visual lengths to ground themes, topics, individuals, and styles in a bygone era of the early and mid-20th century. Smart asserts Seth is greatly invested in [this era] due to his parents, stating “His parents’ time holds an uncanny allure for him, and he takes great pains to evoke it in the panels of his comic books, on the surface of his illustration boards and in the miniature buildings and streets that comprise his fictional southwestern Ontario town called Dominion” (11). Seth uses this work and his characters as palimpsests for his own portrayal of his personal story. Especially “The so-called real person—the author and artist Greg Gallant—is at the centre of the skein of identities” (Smart 29). This character alone mirrors Seth’s life while maintaining his own as well as imposing alterations and discontinuities to his backstory as a character separate from Seth. The transposition of aspects of Seth’s life onto the stories and characters he creates allows him to create multiple narratives within the series while maintaining a single source material: his own experiences.
Smart’s brief but insightful analysis of Palookaville and the relationship of the series to its creator is an enjoyable read for those examining the fine line Seth walks between fictional and autobiographical. The ability for the reader to digest every section in this text in such a condensed manner is a wonderful introduction into the topics of representation and authenticity that many assume an author is required to give the reader. Smart’s book leaves many theoretical discussions of these topics uncovered due to its brevity. Heavier and more in-depth questions around the implications of altering memory (as Seth does), the application of metamemory, or the Deleuzian “virtual memory” can be pursued further by readers left with lingering questions on memory and its representation. Along with these topics, how one reads a comic is left unaddressed—a topic best left to McCloud’s Understanding Comics. If Smart’s readers wish to engage other topics relevant to this discussion such as memory and visual representation of events, they can find material in Bart Beaty’s Autobiography as Authenticity, Hilary Chute’s Disaster Drawn or History and Graphic Representation in Maus, W.J.T. Mitchell’s seminal text Picture Theory, Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others and Daniel Marrone’s Forging the Past: Seth and the Art of Memory. Overall, this is a wonderful, light read to pick up for fans of Seth, as well as those looking for a crash course in many of the theories of self-representation, memory, and authenticity that Smart covers.