Seth, It's A Good Life If You Don't Weaken
(Drawn & Quarterly Press, 2003)
Seth, Clyde Fans: Book One (Drawn & Quarterly Press, 2004)
Seth is the nom de plume of Gregory Gallant. He has gone by Seth
since the early '80s which he says might have been a youthful error, but "little
can be done about it now." I first became aware of Seth when he started
drawing Mister X, a comic book I had followed since its obscure beginnings.
He was following in some major footsteps . . . Los Bros Hernandez and Dean Motter . . . and
he did so beautifully, until the story just fizzled out. Since then his work
has appeared in Mother Jones, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic and the
New Yorker, among others . . . but his passion lies in a self produced series called
Palookaville he began in 1991. The two books under discussion first appeared,
serialized in the pages of Palookaville.
It's A Good Life If You Don't Weaken tells a semi-autobiographical tale. A cartoonist named Seth searches for the work of an obscure gag cartoonist from the '40s and '50s. In carefully drawn (and wittily written) panels Seth digs through used bookstores, has coffee and conversation with his friend Chet (the Toronto cartoonist Chester Brown), carries on a relationship with a university student, and visits a couple of small towns in south-western Ontario. The story is strong and moving, as events propel him towards the inevitable conclusion. There is real emotion in this tale. These are real people, not superheroes.
Seth's drawing harkens back to an older style, not unlike the era he is writing about. The panels are filled with detail. Loving portraits of old buildings, trains, landscapes, and people who look like the people you know. They act like the people you know too. The cartoon Seth's interaction with his brother and his mother are almost too true. Characters appear and make an impact on Seth's life, but then they disappear, their story arc incomplete . . . just like life. The actual cartoons of Kalo (the lost cartoonist) are provided in an appendix, as is a photo of the artist. Seth's fine brushwork complements his sensitive writing, and makes It's A Good Life . . . compelling reading. An almost perfect little tale.
Clyde Fans is subtitled Book One, and the reader should be aware that the story has not yet reached its conclusion in serialized form, so it will be a while before Book Two will appear. This may force me to finally track down Palookaville so I can see where it's going. Clyde Fans is the story of the Clyde Fan Company. That's right, fans! When air conditioning came along . . . fans were passe. A bit like owning a buggy whip company when Henry Ford came along. This is a sad story of two brothers, heirs to the Clyde Fans business. One brother was a star salesman, the other . . . not.
The book is broken into two sections, the first of which is narration by Abraham Matchcard, in 1997. He lives above the vacant store that was the centre of the business. He recounts the growth and demise of the company, and intersperses his history with allusions to his brother, Simon. Again, Seth's writing skills are equal to his draftsmanship and the combination of words and images shows why the graphic novel is such a unique method of storytelling. The second half of the book takes place forty years earlier, when Simon went on a trip to prove his worth as a salesman. Students of 20th century playwriting will see allusions to Death of a Salesman throughout this work, but Seth has created a new and compelling tale here.
I can't say enough about the beauty of the simple line drawings, coloured only in monochrome. Each panel is a balanced composition, and each page holds together too. The more wordy first half filled with Abraham's monologue stands in stark contrast to the image driven second section. Simon writes in a journal, and notices detail, which appears as panels of scenes which in themselves tell the story. The action is pushed along by the images. Beautiful work. The reader is drawn into the tale, and then the book ends, too soon. You go back to admire the drawings. You see more details you missed, and notice specific Canadian icons from the era. It is a wonderful celebration of the past.
Either of these books will make for a pleasant diversion on a hot summer night. Both will stay with you long after you've finished them. You will be haunted by the stories, the characters, the pictures, even the smell of the ink on the paper. Bravo Seth.
Find out more at Drawn and Quarterly Press and Raincoast Books