The Globe and Mail ventures into Seth’s world

Review: Exploring the world of Seth

The Globe and Mail    |    Sean Rogers    |    December 23, 2016

Twice a year, for the past 13 years, there’s been a new volume of the Complete Peanuts library, and the cartoonist Seth has designed every one. When the undertaking began, the passing of Peanuts creator Charles Schulz was still a fresh memory, his 50-year run drawing Charlie Brown and the gang having then only recently concluded. The time was right to reckon with Schulz’s momentous legacy, and to come to a better understanding of what his art meant. Seth set out to design books that were “respectful and dignified and even a bit sad,” he writes in a brief retrospective essay in the 26th and final volume of the series, recently released. The books’ sober black slipcases and sombre, melancholic jackets were one way of re-evaluating the strip, situating Schulz’s art differently and interpreting it anew.

While Seth is still only in mid-career, he seems to be experiencing a similar moment, a juncture that calls out for his work to be analyzed, his themes to be sussed out and his impact to be weighed with renewed interest. (I should note, here, Seth’s impact in my own life, in my involvement with the Doug Wright Awards for Canadian cartooning, which Seth co-founded, and for which he creates the trophies and regalia.)

From recent months until early next year – at which time the country will be hard-pressed to think of an artist who more totally suits the term “sesquicentennial,” that dowdy-sounding word dusted off and lugged into modern parlance – we will have seen Seth’s completion of Peanuts, the forthcoming conclusion of his long serial Clyde Fans and a sudden profusion of critical commentary about his work, most notably the DVD release of the NFB documentary Seth’s Dominion. Thanks to this flurry of activity, there is a bit of a mania upon us for understanding Seth.

Seth is blunt about the way this final Peanuts volume ushers in the end of an era: “I can’t believe it’s over,” he writes. He must be thinking similar thoughts about his other long-running project, Clyde Fans. Serialized since 1997 in his comic-book series Palookaville – which itself has mutated lately into a kind of yearbook, such as a hardbound annual report issued from the offices of the artist’s private municipality – the story will finally come to an end this spring, after two full decades.

That kind of prolonged stretch of time is fused into the very substance of Clyde Fans, which chronicles the later lives of two mismatched brothers as they mull over the long dissolution of the family business, among other failures of decades past that have conspired to leave them old and alone. Its ambitious scope (this is where Seth’s sprawling fictional metropolis, Dominion, first appeared), psychological depth, obsessive singularity of purpose and technical mastery all mark Clyde Fans as one of the major recent works of cartooning. But it’s also one whose protracted publication, pronounced shifts in style, fragmented narration and purposeful swings in perspective, have all made it a slippery, ungainly thing to grasp in its entirety.

Two recent monographs on the artist attempt to find inroads to this hermetic, but not unwelcoming, world. In Forging the Past: Seth and the Art of Memory, scholar Daniel Marrone finds in the more awkward and isolated brother one of Seth’s great achievements – “in Simon Matchcard,” he writes, “he has rendered an utterly convincing unconscious.” And in the essay Palookaville: Seth and the Art of Graphic Autobiography, curator Tom Smart reads Clyde Fans as the artist’s highly personal meditation on the consequences of resisting change, on coming to terms with “the frightening need to adapt” to the present.

Smart views Clyde Fans within the context of the Palookaville series as a whole, which also produced Seth’s landmark first graphic novel, It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken. Smart isolates, in broad terms, certain key themes of Seth’s story lines, such as the rickety way people construct a self or persona, the desire to “fix things in time,” or the unreliability of memory and autobiography. Each idiosyncratic issue of the comic serves as a discrete, “holistic” object, for Smart, whose slim volume reads every instalment closely – perhaps too closely. There’s the sort of zeroed-in scrutiny here that can be blind to the world outside the text, resulting at times in unintentionally Kinbotean levels of flimflam (the impassioned digressions about the veracity of comic-book letters pages are, shall we say, odd).

To be fair, part of Smart’s argument addresses the overlap in Seth’s work between truth and fiction that can make this kind of puzzling-out maddeningly tempting. This ambivalence about reality and fantasy is also central to Maronne’s book, which goes wider than Smart’s, opting to situate Seth’s body of work more solidly within cartooning history and germane ideas from critical theory (foremost among them nostalgia). Marrone investigates how Seth “forges” the past, in the sense of both crafting a representation of history, as well as just counterfeiting facts from whole cloth.

Seth’s stories lie like the truth, in other words. They introduce cartoonists and photographs and entire cities into his work, all of which bear the dull veneer of the real, but only some of which ever actually existed. The artist has filled book after book with notes about the “history” of Dominion, his make-believe city, for instance; Kalo, the cartoonist whose work Seth collects and even “reprints” in the seemingly autobiographical Good Life, was eventually revealed to be fictional. Marrone seizes on this ingrained ambiguity as one of the artist’s defining traits: Hovering indeterminately between truth and fiction, present and past, memory and history, Seth’s work demands that readers adopt a critical stance to nostalgia and longing, acknowledging that history is always a story we tell ourselves, more or less truly.

One of Marrone’s offhanded but valuable insights about that ambiguity is his description of Dominion as an “interior landscape.” In its suggestion of a geography that’s half-remembered and half-imagined, its muddling together of subjective experience and physical space, I can think of no better term for any of Seth’s landscapes, from the lonely vistas that decorate the insides of the Peanuts books, to the sedate and silent covers of Canadian Notes and Queries magazine, to the city of Dominion itself, whether drawn on the comics page or in its incarnation that toured art galleries internationally, as three-dimensional cardboard models. These landscapes represent ideas – about the past, about Canada, about life in cities – even more than they do actual places.

Given that the Dominion exhibit involved a walk-in cinema that screened mid-century NFB docs – the likes of Paul Tomkowicz: Street-railway Switchman could double for a Seth comic strip – it’s of course fitting that Seth should be the focus of a Film Board profile of his own, Seth’s Dominon. (An avid connoisseur of humdrum Canadian brotherhoods, orders, commissions and other agencies of national officialdom, Seth must have beamed with modest satisfaction as he stencilled out the institution’s name on the covers of this package.)

Dominion, for filmmaker Luc Chamberland, conforms closely to that notion of an “interior landscape.” In his hands, the artist’s “private little world” is not a place to visit so much as it’s a mental space to inhabit, the artist’s way of perceiving and encountering his surroundings. Much of the film is recorded in the actual spaces of Seth’s life – in the chair at wife Tania Van Spyk’s barbershop (which he designed), in the corridors of their home (dubbed “Inkwell’s End,” an art project all its own), in the artist’s warren-like studio – but Chamberland’s primary method of ushering viewers into Seth’s interior landscape is animation.

In brief and minimally animated segments, the slightest of movement stirs through Seth’s quiet, static comic strip panels. Much of the imagery derives from the memoirs published in the most recent Palookavilles under the apt title “Nothing Lasts.” The things that don’t last, in these animated sequences, constitute a whole catalogue of evocative objects and places – mistreated childhood toys, the bracken and humming insect life around an old swimming hole, an electronic birthday card jangling in a trash bag. Animation brings these commonplace objects to life, in a way that complements Seth’s own attempts to reanimate these bygone, obsolete mementoes with renewed significance.

In these asides, Seth’s Dominion tends to emphasize the artist’s more autobiographical work and “little hobbies” – a diary conducted with rubber-stamped images, Dominion’s cardboard buildings, a puppet show – at the expense of his less easily excerpted fictions. So while the film may be a sympathetic portrait of the man, it’s not always the most well-rounded view of the artist’s career – a dilemma the DVD’s deluxe packaging works to redress.

Crafted by the artist himself, the booklet helps supplement the image of Seth that the film constructs (the self-portrait on the cover is, helpfully, blank). Open the book from the front, and there’s a kind of family photo album, with snapshots culled from the whole of Seth’s life, telling his story in fragments like so many comic panels. Open from the back, and Seth cartoons an introduction to the film, praising its sensitivity, but wondering where his fatalism’s gone. Turn the page, and it’s all still there, in a sampling of the kinds of work not always featured in the film: a single page strip about the crackling night sky, a sketchbook page of colourful old Eaton’s fashions, haunting landscapes and deserted street scenes, plus curios from the increasingly expanded universe of Sethiana – photos of the Dominion exhibit, the Crown Barber Shop, a Seth-designed parade float or roller derby jerseys.

It seems somehow logical that the world of Seth is increasingly spilling off the page and into films, parades and roller rinks. As the artist muses about Peanuts, in that final volume, “I often entertained the fantasy of entering Charlie Brown’s world and interacting there as ‘one of the gang.’” Seth’s world, too, is one I find myself slipping into more and more, profoundly colouring the city I live in, the Ontario towns I come from, and the past that I can summon up in my head – all of them feel, from time to time, like Seth’s Dominion.

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