Cartoonist and designer Seth emerges as comics’ premier historian
Books discussed in this essay:
George Sprott: (1894–1975)
Drawn and Quarterly (2009), 96 pp.
The Collected Doug Wright: Canada’s Master Cartoonist (Volume One)
by Doug Wright
Drawn and Quarterly (2009), 240 pp.
The Complete Peanuts: 1950 to 1952
by Charles M. Schulz
Fantagraphics Books (2004), 343 pp.Palookaville was the title of the comic book series, and right away we should have known that its creator, Seth, was up to something. The word was as vague as the names of the other small-press comics springing up in Canada at the time, but where Yummy Fur promised tactile surrealism and Peepshow and Dirty Plotte connoted sex, what did Palookaville tell us? Marlon Brando used the term in On the Waterfront, but it was decades out of date by the time Seth claimed it for his solo debut in 1991. For devotees of cartooning history, the word might also recall Ham Fisher’s pugilist, Joe Palooka, but in any case it conjures up a fanciful middle-of-nowhere populated by marginal has-beens like Fisher’s cartoon hero or Brando’s dockworker. This Palookaville is Seth’s town, full of cast-offs, outmoded relics from the past, and the arcane history of comics, all located somewhere at half a remove from our own Canadian reality. Although his characters may visit or come from Chatham and London and Guelph and Strathroy, Palookaville is the small Ontario town of the mind where they — and Seth — have actually lived for the past couple of decades.
Seth’s output is more broad than prodigious, but remarkably consistent in its melancholic concerns with time, comics, and places, specifically Canadian ones. It encompasses everything from comic books to book design, from museum installations to architectural models, along with the odd foray into critical prose. Lately, however, he has increasingly channelled his creative energy in one direction. So, to start with, recent issues of Palookaville describe an inept salesman’s memories of failure in a large Ontario town, not unlike London or Kitchener, called Dominion. The artist has also crafted dozens of cardboard models of the town’s buildings, which have been displayed in galleries in Waterloo and Dundas. He has privately sketched out, in images and prose, the town’s history, its architectural motifs, and its people. One of them, a washed-up Arctic explorer, provided the basis for his recent contributions to the New York Times Magazine’s Funny Pages.
The Times Magazine strips have been collected and expanded upon in a book called George Sprott: (1894-1975), released this month by Seth’s Montreal publisher, Drawn and Quarterly. It’s an appropriately large showcase for one of the smoothest hands in the business, the brush strokes precise and hefty, the colours muted, the page design bold and rhythmic. Told in the simplified staccato of Seth’s sketchbook cartoons, rather than the more languorous style of his Palookaville comics, the story of George Sprott slowly emerges from dozens of single-page strips and occasional, sepia-toned multi-page flashbacks. An elderly local TV host who still dines out on the northern excursions he made in his thirties and forties, he is now forgotten, stumbling toward death. Seth describes his protagonist’s decline in documentary style, providing omniscient narration along with the contradictory testimony of characters who’ve known Sprott both casually and intimately. The result is puzzling. How do we reconcile the doddering old coot with the bilious young seminarian, or either of these with the dashing ladies’ man who fathers an illegitimate daughter? Sprott comes off as just a sketch, but his very lack of definition makes him Seth’s most believable character since the cartoonist portrayed his own frustrating inconsistencies in It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken.
The art of cartooning seems so intuitive to Seth that we might be forgiven for failing to see the study and thought he puts into it. His preoccupation is with outcasts, with obscure and slightly awry histories. Thus we have the story of explorer and television personality George Sprott, or of salesman-cum-dreamer Simon Matchcard (Clyde Fans), or even of the artist’s own father (Bannock, Beans and Black Tea). But the figure of the cartoonist himself fits this lonesome archetype perfectly. Obsessed by the idea of cartooning, Seth invents characters that also allow him to explore the story of comics, about making them, about reading them, about being frustrated with them — in short, about loving them. And it’s no longer only through his own cartooning that he analyzes the medium. In his increasingly prominent role as designer of such high-profile reprint projects as The Complete Peanuts and this spring’s The Collected Doug Wright, his idiosyncratic methods of contextualizing each cartoonist’s work make him more critic than designer, redefining the terms by which we understand classic and Canadian cartooning.