Seth writes diary in The National Post

A mix of pen and ink and cynicism

National Post    |    Seth    |    August 5, 2003

For 4 days throughout the first week in August, Seth wrote a daily diary in one of Canada's National newspapers. Here's the first entry:
A mix of pen and ink and cynicism
Not everything he does appears in august periodicals like The New Yorker. But the mundane stuff pays the bills

Through the month of August, the journals of four creative Canadians working in the arts will be excerpted in this section. This week, comic book creator and illustrator Seth, of Guelph, Ont., details his daily life.

- - -

I work a lot. But that's OK with me. Work is the thing in life that I find the most pleasurable. It's not the actual effort involved, but rather the sense of accomplishment I feel when things are completed.

Truthfully, I am spreading myself a little too thin. I am slowly working away, bit by bit, on many projects (sometimes for years each) that no one ever sees. I try to work on one of these every day, in between the more pressing matters of commercial illustration (where I make my money) and my comic books (the work that matters most).

On an average day I get up with my wife, Tania, around 7 a.m. and have breakfast with her before she goes to work. I'm usually back at my drawing table by 9 o'clock. Unless I'm faced with an urgent deadline, I don't start the day with paying work. I prefer to begin with something more personal. Today, it was the book I am working on with my father. It's a memoir of his childhood in Depression-era Prince Edward Island, tentatively titled Bannock, Beans and Black Tea. He's not a writer, but he is a wonderful storyteller. Over the last decade or so, I've managed to get him to write down all the stories he's told me over my life, and I have been editing them into a book. Polishing them, really. They have a wonderful tone -- both innocent and bitter at the same time.

I've been slowly working on this book for years now, and it's finally nearing completion (hopefully to be published in the spring). I've poured a lot of effort into making it a beautifully designed monument to his life. Today, I spent about an hour doing some final editing on the text.

By 10:30, I'm at work on my illustration job for the day. Most of my illustration work doesn't appear in august periodicals like The New Yorker. The majority of it appears in considerably more mundane sources. Right now, I'm drawing a cute, cartoony girl with big tears rolling down her face for Philadelphia Magazine. Rembrandt this isn't. I'm well aware that my clients are purchasing my hands to give some charm to a puffy lifestyle article or to liven up some painfully dull business piece, and that's fine with me. Obviously, I would prefer to be working on something of more depth, but money must be made and this is a fair compromise.

I approach the work cynically, but with a craftsman's determination to do a good job. This particular illustration will eat up most of my morning and afternoon. Still, I have this kind of work down to a science, and will have it ready to hand off to the FedEx man by late afternoon.

Usually I eat lunch at home, but today I go down the street to a diner. I've lugged along a giant brick of a book to read while I eat (Henry Darger, by John M. MacGregor). It takes a moment to sink in, but by the time I've ordered I realize I made a mistake coming here: The noise level is way too high. Hateful oldies-type music, typical '50s and '60s type stuff, is blaring from the radio, and the din from surrounding tables is even worse. Everyone seems to be either braying or guffawing at the top of their lungs.

I try hard to concentrate on my book, but the distractions are overwhelming. One patron is stamping his foot in a constant thump-thump-thump rhythm the entire time, while at another table a man is, unbelievably, clapping his hands to the music. He has a simpering grin on his face, as if he's managing a complicated task. As a child, I remember my father often complaining that he was "surrounded by incompetents." At the time, I thought that was a harsh attitude. Today, I'm likely to be saying the same thing under my breath. No wonder I spend much of my time hidden away in my basement studio.

Let me digress here and comment on that book. This is the third book I have read on Chicago folk artist Henry Darger. It is certainly the most detailed (more than 700 pages) and it has revealed new depths about an artist whose work holds a deep fascination for me. Darger's work is powerful stuff; beautiful but disturbing in many ways. I feel the strongest kinship to artists who are isolated from the main current of society, oddballs like Darger, L.S. Lowry, Stanley Spencer or A.G. Rizzoli.

I wouldn't presume to make any connection between myself and these artists with complicated inner lives. I simply think my own somewhat isolated childhood and teen years have left a lasting effect on my thinking. I certainly spent a large part of those years in my own (much, much more banal) fantasy world. I am always impressed by the great productivity of those lonely men.

In the evening, I return to work till about 11 or midnight, finally on my comic book. I am trying to finish up the next chapter in the graphic novel (Clyde Fans) I am currently serializing in my comic book Palookaville. It's a long story about five decades in the life of two electric fan salesmen. I have repeated this summary many times and I always finish it off with the line: "Hopefully, it's not as boring as it sounds." I say it as a joke -- but honestly, I mean it too. These salesmen are two alienated characters, and I think it's interesting -- but as I noted above, I like stories about painfully isolated types.

People think of comics as a simple art form -- expedient and quick to produce. This may be true for some cartoonists (although I've never met one yet) but not for me. It is a slow and laborious task. In fact, as each year passes I have become more and more picky about every aspect of the story and art. I sweat out every stage of the comic-writing, pencilling, inking. Lately, I find I am spending as much time carefully whiting out little details on the page as I am actually drawing and inking it. This is not a good thing.

Tomorrow, the artist's evolving sketchbook, illustrating Mark Kingwell and working with The Vinyl Café's Stuart McLean.

© Copyright  2003 National Post

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