Guelph Mercury | Greg Mercer | October 28, 2009
SETH among CanLit’s Who’s Who says Guelph Mercury
GUELPH – Off all the literary heavyweights who will crowd Toronto for the International Festival of Authors this week, there’s probably only one who keeps a wall of fake trophies and Ookpik dolls in his living room.
He’s easy to spot on the list of CanLit’s Who’s Who—j
ust look for the guy without a last name.
There’s no doubting Seth, creator of Clyde Fans; It’s a Good Life, if You Don’t Weaken and the Wimbledon Green graphic novels sees himself as set apart from Canada’s contemporary storytellers.
Five minutes with the illustrator inside his time-trapped Guelph home will tell you that. He’s dressed, as always, in a tailored 1930s-era suit. You’re surrounded by ancient furniture, vintage appliances and pawnshop trophies from imaginary groups like the Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists. When his rotary phone rings, he answers it with a declarative “Seth!”
But with growing book sales, critical praise and high-profile jobs like editing a 25-book retrospective of the comic strip Peanuts, the 47-year-old is having a hard time remaining an obscure, eccentric outsider. His appearance at the authors’ festival, which runs until Saturday, says a lot about how far the genre of graphic novels has come as serious literature.
“I think we’ve finally raised ourselves away from the superhero comics and into the edge of the literary world,” Seth said, in a recent interview at his home. “It’s a better place to be.”
Not so long ago, the man born Gregory Gallant, but who insists on using his pen name, was drawing for an obscure Canadian comic book publisher called Vortex Comics, eking out a living doing commercial illustrations on the side. Today, he’s an author, billed by festival organizers among bestsellers like Margaret Atwood, Garrison Keillor and Alice Munro.
Seth’s work may still be called alternative cartoons, but he’s very much a part of the mainstream. He doesn’t need to sell his work through comic book stores anymore, where most buyers tended to be after something more Superman-esque than the broken, nostalgic characters he created.
Now Seth’s work appears in national bookstore chains and in the pages of New Yorker and the New York Times, on the covers of Stuart McLean books and in dozens of commercial designs. Sales, of course, are much better.
His latest book, the story of fictional Canadian TV personality George Sprott first serialized in the New York Times Magazine, further cemented Seth’s place as one of the genre’s masters. Earlier this summer, the book cracked the Top 10 on amazon.ca’s bestseller list.
In that sense, life is good for Seth, though he remains decidedly melancholy. He can afford to be picky about which projects he wants to do—but can stick to his oddball instincts, like building a parade float for the Niagara Wine and Grape Festival inspired by the cardboard model of the fictional town in his basement. That’s a luxury he didn’t have for so many years, when Seth would snap up any illustrating job he could just to pay the bills.
But at some point along the way, those who toil in front of blank sketch pads in basements began to be held in the same regard as novelists and non-fiction writers. For Seth, all the attention was good for income but awkward for the artist, who feels most at home working out of sight.
“It’s kind of embarrassing. I don’t really like the personal attention,” he said.
At first, Seth felt the attention graphic artists were getting as serious storytellers was a passing fad.
“Five years ago, I was feeling like it might just be a passing bubble,” he said. “But I feel secure now, as if the world of cartooning has entered the mainstream.”
He should feel secure. Graphic novels remain one of the fastest-growing segments of the book world, with more authors and publishers flooding in all the time. It’s now a $425-million market in Canada and the United States, according to Publishers Weekly. In March, the New York Times introduced a bestseller list exclusively for graphic novels, a sign the genre has finally arrived.
For Seth, all this new-found attention has got the cartoonist thinking about something that plagues many serious writers—the question of legacy. In that sense, you wonder if he worries about himself becoming a bit like the characters he creates for his stories: aging white guys bothered by nostalgic memories of the good old days.
“I think a lot about the passage of time, how everything is always moving out of reach,” he said. “Of course you want your work to survive . . . but at least I had my moment in the sun.”
Seth will appear at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto on Saturday at 1 p.m. He and American illustrator and graphic novelist R.O. Blechman will be interviewed on stage by Sean Rogers of The Walrus.