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Review of Seth: Conversations

By Catherine Kasper

Hoffman, Eric and Dominick Grace, eds. Seth: Conversations. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2015.

Seth: Conversations, edited by Eric Hoffman and Dominick Grace, is part of the “Conversations with Comic Artists” series edited by M. Thomas Inge, one that includes interview collections with notable comic artists such as Charles M. Schultz, Will Eisner, and Chester Brown. University Press of Mississippi has an impressive history of publishing editions of interviews with significant literary authors, as well as establishing a backlist that promotes the importance of preserving biographical information. Whereas some theoretical criticism questions the validity of these kinds of authorial approaches, the expansiveness of this series is clearly aimed at an audience who continues to be attracted to autobiographical materials, even when author reliability can easily be called into question. Interviews do provide glimpses into authorial self-interpretations, into persona-building in process, and into working methodologies; the latter being of endless curiosity to some readers. It is presented in an accessible manner here, as both interviewers and Seth communicate without theoretical jargon or pretense. Perhaps the most uniform message in interviews with artists of any kind is that self-discipline and hard work, rather than any particular artistic technique, are essential. Nonetheless, audiences continue to be fascinated by the minor idiosyncrasies of autobiography and the tradition of the public conversation. For those new to artistic careers, these interviews may provide a sense of the field of the interviewee and a lesson in self-mythologizing crucial to marketing for artists and writers. This text helps expand comic studies’ central focus on American mainstream and superhero comic artists to alternative comics created outside the United States.

Hoffman and Grace’s volume on the Canadian cartoonist Seth, (born Gregory Gallant), is framed as an indispensible volume not only for the fans of Seth, but also for the growing critics of alternative comics. Its very presence in this series is a canon-making gesture for Seth’s oeuvre just as the comic artists series, begun alongside the literary series, suggests the rising cultural importance of comic arts. The editors introduce Seth as “one of the most significant artists to emerge in the alternative comics boom of the 1980’s,” author of over nine books, exhibitor, comics’ historian and artist (Hoffman and Grace vii). One of the strengths of this book is its ability to provide, through nine interviews, a condensed, although somewhat limited, history of the rise of alternative comics during the late twentieth century in North America and a material culture theoretical case tracing the rise of underground comics and publishers interested in a more “diverse and eclectic approach to styles and narrative” for the circumstances that contributed to expanded readership and production (Ibid viii). The editors’ introduction, along with their selected chronology of Seth’s publishing history, is foundational in this regard. The chronology foregrounds these conversations that span twenty-eight years, from 1985 to 2013, during which time Seth went from an unknown art school drop-out to an accomplished cartoonist (his preferred moniker) best known for It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t WeakenClyde Fans; and Palookaville. This volume allows readers a quintessential bildungsroman or “portrait of the artist as a young man” experience, beginning with the voice of the twenty-three-year old artist-in-the-making who emerges at the end the successful fifty-one-year-old man. It also provides readers a window into the rise in popularity of comics during this time and the historical coining of terms like “graphic novel” and “alternative comics.”

A valid additional function of this book is to enlighten new artists about one possible trajectory for becoming an established cartoonist. The first interview, conducted by Michael Strafford in 1985, and the second interview by Dylan Williams in 1995, a full ten years later, do much to reveal the general preoccupations of the young Seth, that include everything from the film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to the “Little Nipper” comic strip by Canadian cartoonist Doug Wright. What is remarkable about Seth’s story is not how he was bullied as a young man, which led him to his solitary artistic pursuits, but his conscious “persona-building”; not his stereotypical “angry-young-man” tone, but his professed serious work ethic, his devotion to history and comics’ history, and his ability to be inspired by not only other cartoonists, but by writers like Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, and Woody Allen. In keeping with most interviews of literary figures, these recorded conversations reveal the cartoonist’s vast and wide-ranging interests in literature, film, and visual art. The exact sources of Seth’s inspiration may matter to some and, for those, this book does not disappoint, as the artist references popular cartoonist idols like Robert Crumb and Edward Gorey, contemporaries like Chester Brown and Chris Ware, in addition to the more unexpected Canadian pianist Glenn Gould and Canadian artist Shary Boyle.

While the interviewers do touch on aspects of Seth’s work that have been well-discussed in both popular magazines and journal articles (his color palette, his “nostalgic” view of history, his interest in collecting comics, and his 1940’s wardrobe), they thankfully let Seth focus on his own concerns. As he says to Tom Spurgeon in the 2009 Interview:

I’m a guy who has a fake name. I used to have long silver peroxide hair. I used to walk around in a judge’s robe and welder’s goggles. I now walk around in a gabardine overcoat and a fedora. I named my house. . . .Clearly I am interested in persona and self-mythologizing. . . .who are we and what makes us that person?. . . .That is a central element of most of my work. You can see it as a main theme in Clyde Fans and in Good Life and in Wimbledon, even. These choices we make determine who we end up becoming—but there are also roles (both chosen and unchosen) that add layers of meaning onto us. Person and personality. Always interesting. I don’t claim to have any great answers about it, but I am ‘exploring’ it in just about everything I write. (Ibid 133-4)

Throughout these interviews, Seth reveals his refreshing, self-critical attitude and his enthusiasm about dedication to a kind of “capital A” art that includes comics from their status as “middlebrow” to their rise to a widely respected, academically researched art form.

As a working artist, each day remains a struggle—to try and make good work. To try and get better—to learn. To try and balance the commercial work with the personal work. Frustrating. Life gets sadder as you get older. . .but it is a fulfilling struggle. Art is like a religion. You have to have faith in its transformative power. (Ibid 144)

These interviews demonstrate Seth’s consistent belief in these ideas and his lifelong dedication to art.

“Retro Man,” the interview conducted by Gerald Hannon in 2006, is worth reading for Hannon’s writing alone, as he presents Seth’s persona as though in a fictional story, one in keeping with the style of Seth’s graphic novels. In “On Cartooning,” also from 2006, Rebecca Bengal encourages Seth to focus on his methods, his use of line, characters, and politics in a succinct interview that captures the essentials of Seth’s artistic practice. “Talking to Seth,” conducted by Thom Ernst in 2009, is an extensive interview that allows Seth to revisit many of the original foci of previous conversations and to elaborate on his new perspectives and methods of storytelling. Sample illustrations from Seth’s work are given in black and white throughout the volume, which give readers examples of his work, but fail to capture its intrinsic quality due to lack of color. This is a disappointing publishing choice (no doubt due to budget), since the distinctive color palette of his cartoons is crucial to the evocation of character, mood, and the atmosphere of his fictional world, but the only real disappointment in the conception of this book.

Seth’s discussions of the necessity of self-discipline and daily drawing, of sketchbook journals and techniques of serial forms, should be essential information for the beginning cartoonist. His explanations of narrative methods, breaking the fourth wall, text and image juxtaposition, and establishing a career are informative for an even wider audience. Seth expresses a keen interest in serial forms and book production, voicing the importance of artistic control over all aspects of book design. He reveals how he has learned to work with publishers, reluctantly with editors, and how he financially survives and supports his career; all these are fundamental for those considering a similar career. Seth’s responses demonstrate once again that hard work, often begun in grueling and unfulfilling jobs, does lead to unforeseen opportunities, and reinforces the timeless adage, “The harder you work, the luckier you get.” Seth talks about how he builds readership through serialization, how graphic design jobs help support his preferred projects while they create contacts for future work, as with The New York Times, and his long and essential relationship with the publishers of Drawn and Quarterly.

In an unprecedented literary manner, Seth expounds on his use of narrative development using methods of fragmentation, balancing abstraction with representation, and employing the rhythms of both language and reading. He describes the importance of poetics to his work as applicable to his distillation of subject matter, use of metaphor and rhythm, and the necessary condensing of time and space. While visual rhetoric is most often applied to comics, Seth’s emphasis on the rhetorical potential precedes what will become the “graphic novel” or, as he mockingly calls it, the “picture novella.” He proves to be equally involved in exploring the potential of both text and image in comic art, versus the field’s history of subjugating text to image.

The final “Interview with Seth” in 2013 was conducted by this book’s editors and undoubtedly is the most comprehensive. It affords the successful “Seth” of fifty-one a chance to critique his earlier beliefs and disagree with earlier statements. He emphatically acknowledges that he could not have predicted the rise of readership for cartoons that has occurred in his own lifetime. Thus, he is able to reassess his own body of work, including his iconic three-dimensional exhibition, Dominion, and its evolving gallery manifestations, and the making of the documentary on his idiosyncratic puppet performance entitled “The Apology of Albert Batch.” He considers the importance of city-building to his work and his growing move from two-dimensional comics and graphic novels to three dimensional exhibition spaces. Seth mentions his own mortality, discussing his age in terms of future projects he has time left to complete. In this way, these conversations give readers a chance to consider a life-long career in a kind of abbreviated autobiography. It adds a wealth of biographical information on the cartoonist, leaving the assessment of his work to future critical scholarship.

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