Conducted by Derek Royal
Would it be an overstatement to call Seth comics’ standard-bearer? Perhaps that’s too heavy a weight to place on the 53-year-old Canadian cartoonist, and perhaps he’d bristle over such a designation. But if Scott McCloud is the medium’s cheerleader, then Seth is one who holds it accountable for what it could seriously become, and doing so by example. It would be hard to find another creator who is as dogged in both expression and critique. And while some readers may see his work as too harsh or nostalgic, there is a core to Seth’s aesthetic that is undeniably alluring. His appreciation of comics history is complemented by his tendency to call “dreck” when he sees it. This is what first drew me to Seth’s writing, his hard look at what might have been as well as what could still possibly be. The search for “Kalo” in It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken, the examination of purpose in Clyde Fans, the exposure of melancholy in George Sprott, the quest for the perfect collection in Wimbledon Green, and the efforts of memorializing in The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists are all examples of unrelenting narratives…or narratives about unrelenting determination. As such, I have always found it my responsibility, and my satisfaction, as a reader to approach solemnly everything Seth has to offer, including the time he recently gave me in conversation about his comics.
The following interview was conducted via email between May and November 2015, with Seth and I corresponding with one question or answer at a time. We began the dialogue soon after the 2015 Toronto Comic Arts Festival, and our initial topics sprung from that event. It didn’t take long before our discussion of TCAF led to more personal questions surrounding Seth’s well-documented friendships with Chester Brown and Joe Matt, and then the divergence of their creative trajectories, ultimately leading to a broader topic of Seth’s current pursuits.
Derek Royal: You were just at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, which seems to be a tradition for you. How was it?
Seth: TCAF is, without doubt, one of the greatest comics festivals I have ever attended. Peter and Chris have performed miracles in creating it. Just looking at the landslide of volunteers working there shows me they know how to organize! I’m one of the founders of the Doug Wright Awards (presented each year at TCAF) and we do not know how to organize. I think we have had but one or two volunteers over the years (an exaggeration). How do they do it?
Anyhow, I could go on and on about TCAF. It is a surprisingly perfect convergence of wildly varied forces. Primarily I am pleased to see that it is a free event, in a giant library, that draws in a very, very diverse crowd. It is almost the culmination of what I wanted for comics back when I started out in the 1980s. To see them read by a mainstream, literate crowd — regular people. I’m kind of amazed at the journey comic books have made since those early days. If I could have looked forward, I would not have believed it. Back then, every artist working in “underground” comics was simply an oddball who was drawn irresistibly to the medium, even though there was no hope of finding a real audience and no hope of being taken seriously as an artist or writer by the world at large. Today I meet young cartoonists who are clearly not oddballs. Just regular artists who want to draw comics. (Maybe that’s not such a great development after all? I liked the oddballs.)
All that said, I am about to step back a bit and say that a big comics festival isn’t really for me anymore. I’m over fifty years old, now, and I don’t get a great enjoyment out of these sort of hectic events any longer. I missed my chance to really enjoy them, back when I was very young. When I was a teenager, or perhaps in my early 20s, would have been the time for me to enjoy something like TCAF…if anything like TCAF had existed back then. I look around at the young folks there and see (with almost some envy) the excitement and pleasure they have at meeting up at these alt-comics events, and it reminds me of the excitement I felt back in the 1980s new wave dance clubs (where I used to hang out nightly). The thrill to be with people your own age who share your interests. That’s quite an important and exciting thing at that age. A time when you are starting to define just who you are.
When I was that age there was certainly no large group of comics fans who shared my tastes and ambitions. It wasn’t until I met Chester Brown in my mid-20s that I found a kindred spirit. When Joe Matt came along a few years later, that little group of three was the closest thing to a peer group or an “art movement” I have ever had in my life. A real sense of belonging and shared purpose. I certainly didn’t find that in art school. I see, at TCAF, many such little groups, and it must be exciting at that age to pour all that energy and persona into something related to comics and art. But, for me, I attend TCAF simply out of friendship and obligation. Friendship: I have gone to every TCAF, because I wish to support Peter Birkemoe (a true friend) and his festival. He doesn’t really need me there any longer. The festival is so massive and successful, now, that I could disappear, and no one would even notice. However, in the earlier days of TCAF, I felt it was an important show of support to just show up. Obligation: because I’m there to promote my books for Drawn and Quarterly. I’ve come to realize that people don’t come and stand in line for an hour just to get your signature; they actually come to spend a few minutes talking to you. They want a personal connection to the artist they support. The little drawing in the book is just a side effect. It’s the personal contact that matters. That’s why Margaret Atwood’s crazy long-distance-robot-arm that signs books for her (while she stays home) is so silly. They don’t really need her signature. They wish to speak to Margaret Atwood. Anyhow, it’s important to show up and meet your readers. Even though I would almost always rather stay home in my studio and draw, I do understand that it’s essential to attend these events and meet people. It’s a duty. A kind of artistic obligation to the readers.
DR: What do you consider some of the highlights of this year’s TCAF?
S: God only knows. I haven’t a clue really. I hardly do or see anything at the festival. I come in, sign books, look at the huge crowd, and get the hell out. When it’s time to sign or do an interview, I come back in. I’d like to walk around and look at all the mini-comics, because I know there is a ton of interesting stuff out there, but I am so sadly recognizable in my old-timey get up that I feel awkward buying one guy’s mini and then passing up the next. I can’t buy them all, and I don’t wish to hurt anyone’s feelings by high-hatting them…so I just don’t look at anything. Not that I’m implying my opinion is so important to these young cartoonists. Most of them probably can’t stand my “old man comics.” But there is something odd in just the fact that they recognize me when I am standing there, and I feel an obligation to support them and encourage them. Passing up their work is a clear discouragement, even if they don’t like my work. You know what I mean.
So, like I said earlier, I’ve grown old and become a stick in the mud about these events. I don’t want to rush about a crowded comics event any longer. I wish to go somewhere outside to a dim bar and have a glass or two of red wine. Either alone or with one of my old comics cronies. The highlight of TCAF for me is seeing old friends. In this case it was a chance to hang out with Adrian Tomine for a couple of days. One of my fondest friends. I regret I barely saw Chester Brown this time and that I missed my opportunities to spend time with Charles Burns and Joe Ollmann. I did have a couple of wonderful moments with Lynda Barry. That’s what I get most out of these things. So, maybe it isn’t all that different for me than the young folks at TCAF? Maybe I am there for the same reason, to hang out with my “peer group.”
You know what I used to like at a comic book convention? The old fashioned kind. Looking in the old back issue tables. That was a great pleasure. Buying old comics. Spending a few hours alone flipping through those boxes. Getting excited to find an old Dell you didn’t know about. I’m never at those kind of shows any longer. It’s funny that TCAF is what I hoped for comics, but now that that sort of comics world has arrived, I kind of miss that horrible old world of comic collectors I was so repulsed by in my youth. I’m a contrarian, I guess.
DR: You’ve mentioned a couple of times your close friendships with Chester Brown, and also with Joe Matt. My introduction to your work was actually an introduction to Chester and Joe’s comics, as well. I found it exciting that each of you referenced your friendship in your individual projects, that you would mention Chester, that you and Chester would turn up in Peepshow, etc. It’s like you guys were the Three Amigos of comics — at least Canadian comics. Am I romanticizing this camaraderie I remember reading in the earlier works? Did that friendship, and others like it, provide a supportive, productive, and challenging environment where you could grow as a young artist?
S: You are certainly not romanticizing the importance of that group friendship. Certainly not for me, and I think I can safely speak for the others and say it was very important to all of us. We are all three very different people — a fact, I think, which has grown more and more pronounced as we’ve grown older. We really were three amigos though. Always together. We’d often joke and try and compare ourselves to iconic trios of characters just to see who was who.
For example: the Universal monsters. Frankenstein was Chester. Dracula, me. Wolfman, Joe. Three stooges: Chet/Larry, Moe/me, Curly/Joe. Star Trek: Spock/Chet, Kirk/Me, Bones/Joe. You might see a trend here. Joe was always the low man on our totem pole. He always got the least desirable role. I’ll leave you to guess the criteria that put us into each role. However, it was always obvious who was who in any little trio we picked.
All goofiness aside though, the thread that held that odd friendship together was cartooning. Without that we probably would never have met or made the effort to get to know one another. We all deeply loved cartooning and we all had pretty similar aesthetics and ambitions (though these have diverged with time). Over the years we hashed out a great deal of our “rules” for what we thought constituted good cartooning, and we critiqued each other’s work and that of our peers (sometimes brutally!). We spent a lot of time together and often got on each other’s nerves — well, not Chester, he has no human emotions — but Joe and I developed quite an unhealthy relationship at one point. I would pick on him so unrelentingly that it was downright cruel. He seemed to encourage it, and eventually we had to try hard to put an end to that bad vaudeville routine. It was destructive to both of us. Hurting the friendship and making genuine hard feelings…on both sides. Somehow Joe brought out the very worst in me. Plus, I was unhappy in those years, and I took a lot of my frustrations out on him. I regret that.
We’ve all somewhat gone our separate ways now, but I value those formative years together tremendously. That trio gave me a genuine sense of identity and belonging, and it acted as a kind of school where we could play with comics together, talk shop, and figure out how to make the medium work best for an adult narrative. Looking back, I have to try hard to recall how unsure I was of what I was doing when I started out. Today, it’s all utterly clear what my work is about, and my sense of assurance about it is a given. Back then, the opposite. That friendship was a real anchor.
DR: You’re right. In your works there are really no longer references to your threesome in your comics. In fact, the last time I remember seeing any kind of comic with you and either Chester or Joe together was in the last pages of Dustin Harbin’s recent book, Diary Comics. But one very notable comingling was Chester’s Paying for It from four years ago. You played a very big role in that book’s appendix, providing counterargument and functioning almost as a resisting reader. But in a very healthy, productive way. Is that an example of what you mentioned about growing apart and taking different paths?
S: It’s true, none of us see that much of the others any longer. We live in three different cities now, and none of us are phone or email types. I feel guilty that I so rarely go into Toronto to see Chet. He is still my best friend, though I am not much of a friend. I barely see him more than a few times a year now.
It’s a shame. Much of what you are seeing in that appendix to his book is a reflection of the kind of friendship he and I share. Adversarial but good-natured. Chet enjoys being teased, and I enjoy a good attack. We respect each other’s opinion — well, I respect his — but we disagree on most things. Especially politics. Not so much on comics. We share similar tastes in comics. Chet really enjoys a good battle, though. He likes to hash it out. I’m the louder sort, by far, and I usually crush his position quite easily. But he’s a very smug type, and I have no doubt he always thinks he is the winner.
To be honest, our growing apart is probably just a result of geography. All three of us are very different types (and always have been), and if we lived closer we would probably still be very dear friends. But distance promotes distance. Joe is totally out of the picture, just too far away in Los Angeles. Chet and I haven’t seen him in years now. To be fair, though, as we have grown older our tastes have really diverged. Chet has become more and more political, and he has a definite axe to grind…mostly a libertarian ax. He’s clearly heading into crank territory. I’m pretty uninterested in politics (or even the outside world, for that matter). I’m mostly absorbed in aesthetics and beauty and am passionately retreating into my navel more and more each year. As for Joe…I’m betting his interests/tastes haven’t changed in the least. He is, without doubt, the most unchangeable person in the world. I’ve never met another like him. An immoveable object.
DR: You mention aesthetics and retreating into your own navel. One of the things that distinguishes your work is a keen awareness of the past, either a time constructed by memory — as we see in the recent “Nothing Lasts” installments from your sketchbooks — or a period that predated your experiences. How do you see the past informing your work? And do you feel it’s a kind of retreat?
S: The past informs my work, directs my work, infuses my work. It is a subject matter, a structure, a goal. It is a refuge, a retreat, an ivory tower. The past is an inevitability for me. I don’t so much think about it as swim in it. A place where things are safely placed in shining order.
I’m not sure when my interests solidified in this manner –when I began looking backward as my main direction — but whenever that occurred it became a second nature for me. I cannot imagine thinking in any other way. I am constantly amazed to meet people whose senses are not always on the alert for shades of yesterday. I can’t help myself. I like everything better if it smacks of memory…or if it is a ghost image of things past.
Obviously a big part of this “obsession” came from an interest in the aesthetics of the earlier twentieth century, but a bigger part of it is a legacy of a very secluded childhood with two much-older parents. They both infused me with the world they grew up in. That lingering old pop culture of the mid- twentieth century was still so much in evidence while I was growing up. I just absorbed some germ of that period and it has slowly invaded my whole consciousness.
I’m not complaining. I’m very happy looking backward. The only thing that saddens me is that each year, less and less of that old culture still exists, and I find it harder to find places to go and retreat into for pleasure. I love an old restaurant or bar or nightspot, and progressively all these charming old places are dropping like flies. How I hate to find myself sitting in a bright, loud place, full of cellphones and fake veneer tables. The modern aesthetic is off putting to my precious little fantasy lifestyle.
To be less flippant. I am only able to write a story about memory and the past and regret because that is what life seems to be made of. There is an unmistakable sadness to life because everything is passing constantly into the past — where it is unreachable.
DR: Have you ever felt that there’s any temptation, or any danger, of slipping into a kind of nostalgic fog, of getting lost in the past at the expense of timeliness? I just recently reread that parody that Johnny Ryan did of you in Angry Youth Comix #8 — I was going through that new hardbound collection of his — and he had a lot of (tasteless, of course) fun at your expense. Do you laugh along with the naysayers, at times?
S: No on both counts:
1) I’m not so sure an artist chooses his subject matter. It might choose you. There is little you can do but follow it down its path to where it leads you. Yes, that does mean risking repeating yourself over and over. But, as Crumb says, (paraphrasing): “There is nothing wrong with repeating yourself as long as you continue to dig deeper.” Also, what could I do differently? Start writing a story about young technology workers or something? Video game developers?
Office politics? I don’t know a damn thing about any of this stuff. I have to go where my sensibilities lead me. Besides, I genuinely feel I am digging in a rich vein, anyway. I believe my best work is still to come. Hopefully the next ten years I’ll accomplish a series of stories I’ve been thinking about for some time.
2) No, I am not laughing along with Johnny Ryan. I think his work is dull and easy. Just cheap shots. If the work was smarter, I might be laughing along. I’m an easy target, but I think even I could come up with a funnier parody of myself. Despite the tone of my work I actually DO have a sense of humor about myself. I am well aware of the image I am projecting.
DR: I’ll take a guy in a fedora over scatological humor any day! (In fact, I wish I were more diligent in wearing my fedoras.) I’ll also gravitate to an artist who appreciates the beauty of an old fashioned, traditional barbershop. In your latest Palookaville you include a photo essay on your wife’s business, Crown Barber Shop, along with a short comic on barbering. How did this part of your book come about? And how much fiction do you create around the actual Crown?
S: The trick to wearing a hat is to always wear a hat! I don’t believe I have left the house without a fedora in more than twenty-five years. I would feel naked without it.
As for the Crown. It’s creation was somewhat prosaic, really. My wife is a barber, and she wanted to open her own shop, and I was naturally drafted aboard to design it. That said, could there have been a better project for me than designing an old time barbershop? Besides some practical concerns — where the chairs sat, where the counters would be, etc. — the design was entirely left to me. Which was a great pleasure. I would love to do more of this sort of thing. I obsessed on every detail of the place as we put it together. I barely thought of anything else…and that obsession was deeply thrilling to me.
The fiction that came around the shop was a natural outgrowth of my own sensibilities when working on such a project. I like to elaborate and make up small fake histories. So much of my work is about this sort of thing. I’m awfully attracted to the commonplace elements (and the uncommonplace too) of that old twentieth-century world. I read a lot in that vein, and I have a pretty deep mental reservoir of information about these sort of things, and so I naturally like to come up with little back stories. Inevitably, I wanted to add elements to the shop that blurred fact and fiction. That’s why, on the wall, we have a framed newspaper that details the shop’s twenty-five-year history. Of course, that newspaper went up on the wall when the shop was only one day old. The shop has a whimsical element to it as well. An imaginary King that rules over it and chooses his barbers mysteriously. This has kind of fey, sickly sweet quality, I realize. Perhaps a bit sickening in preciousness. I have nothing to offer in my defense, except I think it’s cute. I like cute.
I featured the shop in the latest volume of PV (with little to no explanation) because I want to use the new hardcover format to showcase anything I’m working on. More and more, as I grow older, I start to see that all my work is “of a piece.” And so, a book design or a cardboard house or a comic book or an interior design — they all come from the same place when I work on them. All part of the same body of work.
DR: That’s great. When I first read the latest Palookaville, I just assumed that the Crown Barber Shop was indeed an older establishment that you and Tania just happen to chance upon…the perfect coincidence for someone like you! On top of that, I grew up in a similar-looking traditional barbershop — my dad was a barber and I worked weekends as the shoeshine boy — so I really wanted to believe that Crown had a longer history. I should have known, given your treatment of Kalo in It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken and your rendering of Dominion City in Palookaville 20, that something was afoot. Given your penchant for boundary blurring between fact and fiction, how can we read, or how should we read, the “Nothing Lasts” installments in your last two books?
S: I envy you that bit of personal history. How I would love to put shoeshine boy on my resume! And I also envy what must have been an experience that gave you a personal connection to a place and a time and a community. The barbershop, like the beauty salon or the haberdashery, was such an essential place to the kind of communities I grew up in. We moved so much as a child that I always felt something of an outsider wherever we were. Your experience sounds much more “grounded.”
As for “Nothing Lasts,” it should be read as 100% fact. There is no blurring of fact and fancy there. In fact, just the opposite is true. I am trying to convey, as clearly as I can, my experience in life. I’m trying to convey it simply and directly with as little artifice and planning as I can do. It’s earnest. As earnest as I can muster.
DR: Let’s talk a bit about “Nothing Lasts” and your other sketchbook comics. Your last few volumes of Palookaville have included these, and then there’s Wimbledon Green and The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists (another great work of “faction”). How do you distinguish your sketchbook work from your “regular” art in Palookaville?
S: I started doing strips in my sketchbooks around the time that Vernacular Drawings was published. For some reason, after that book came out I started to lose interest in simply drawing pictures in my sketchbooks, and I turned to telling spontaneous, made-up-as-I-go-along stories, instead. The art was naturally looser because it was in a sketchbook and because it was meant to be a pleasure and not a chore. I discovered that expediency was a definite plus in working on this stuff. It meant I could follow certain whims that might never be followed otherwise. In clearer words: I would never have done Wimbledon Green if it had meant doing it in my “regular” style. It would have been too much work, and I would have decided that Wimbledon wasn’t worth all that effort. Too silly.
Consequently it freed me up to try other things that weren’t my “serious” work. Even “Nothing Lasts” wouldn’t have been started without the sketchbook approach. I would have considered it too much of a self-indulgent navel-gaze to be my next “graphic novel.” However, it seemed perfectly fine to work this out on paper in my sketchbook.
The sketchbook approach might be a conceit, now, that allows me to pursue things that I don’t consider “official.” You kind of need that “out” as an artist to produce your best work, I think. A trick that lets you forget about the audience and expectations and making a living. Thinking too much about making “a good book” or “something that might sell” is death to the artist. You need to trick yourself into staying true to yourself. It’s a tightrope of doublethink. In some ways the difference between my “finished’ style and the sketchbook approach is becoming harder to see. My “regular” style is becoming simpler and simpler as I grow older and I am inclined to think that future books will continue in that vein. I think the real distinction between the two approaches is how much white-out I use. With the regular style, simple or not, I do a lot of whiting out and fixing up lines. In the sketchbook, not very much.
DR: The distinctions you make are interesting. I remember the first time I read Wimbledon Green, thinking that it was a great story. It certainly had a loose and fun feeling, very different from Clyde Fans, but I wouldn’t have considered it a “non-official” (if that’s the term) narrative had you not contextualized the book as such. Same with Great Northern Brotherhood. But the distinction concerning the art makes sense. Do you feel that this blurring of style that you mention — the diminishing differences between the “regular” and the sketchbook — is opening you up to more forms of storytelling…at least the kind of storytelling that you’re wanting others to see?
S: Yes. Without a doubt the sketchbook stories have opened we up to a different approach to storytelling, although not necessarily a more daring approach. In fact, in some ways the sketchbook stories might even be a bit more conservative in their style for the simple reason that I use a lot of narration in those stories (rather than telling the story primarily through dialogue or by simply showing things). However, it has taught me to go with my gut instincts and tell a story as directly as I care for. And it has taught me that a very little drawing goes a long way. I have a natural inclination to simplify, and “boiling” the artwork down to its most minimal elements is very appealing to me. Working in such tiny panels has been very instructive at just how little information is required in a panel. A single figure, a head, a lone object. One of these might be all that is required in a panel. The design of the page can be more important than what’s actually in the panels. Much of what I have learned is about austerity in presentation. I think that lesson has come out of the sketchbook into my more finished work.
The difference between the two approaches is getting smaller and smaller. And, I guess I’ve learned that a slick finish doesn’t tell the story any better than a loose one. All that aside, though, I have no intention of entirely tossing away a slick finish. It does make the artwork nice when you polish it up fully.
I suspect that a style is forming right now that is somewhat polished but much simpler in approach than my earlier work. The next book after Clyde will probably be in that “style.” Expedient but tight, polished but restrained in the amount of detail present. I definitely am much more comfortable drawing smaller now. If you make the panels too big there is a tendency to want to “fill” that space up! That is a tendency to be avoided. Long story short — there are strengths and weaknesses to both the sketchbook approach and the more finished style. The synthesis of the two is the logical future path.
DR: You’ve really sparked my curiosity with your “next book after Clyde” comment, but we can get there later. Let’s talk a bit about your current “slick finish” narrative, Clyde Fans. You started this story in issue ten of Palookaville, back in 1997. When you began mapping out the initial plot for those first several installments, did you have a sense, then, of the general direction or the narrative trajectory of that project? Or is Clyde Fans something that has evolved and even morphed over the years?
S: I knew exactly everything that would happen in Clyde Fans when I began it. It was all mapped out. That’s still true today, and it will end on the very line of dialogue I planned to end on. Even so, everything evolves. Scenes have lengthened or shortened by the time I got to drawing them. Or the narrative structure of how I told a chapter was different than how I originally planned. Or a new scene popped up unexpectedly.
The scene where Simon describes his mother’s room (at the end of Chapter 3) was not in my original plans. It just showed up. And I have made a few missteps along the way. Awkward pacing or a scene that doesn’t quite work. I will correct those when I do the big book collection sometime in the near future.
And, I should say, it’s not like I wrote a script for the whole story and then started drawing. No, I had a set of notes and an overall story arc to follow. I knew where it was all going, and I knew almost every scene. I knew the gist of the dialogue, etc. But, page by page, the work was fleshed out. Otherwise it would be too dull to do it. The comics inevitably come to life when you are actually drawing them. The storytelling choices on the page is the real language of comics. That always has some surprises in it, some connections you didn’t anticipate. Some meaning that is only revealed when you actually do the work. That’s the interesting thing about comics. Writing out ideas is one thing. Even doing thumbnails is still just planning. It’s the process of creating the final pages where the strange magic of words and pictures come together to create a more complicated series of connections. This seems to happen almost without planning.
Anyhow, Clyde is nearly done. One more volume of Palookaville and it’s finished. Thank God.
DR: I’m curious if the length of time for Clyde Fan‘s development might have encouraged this kind of narrative evolution that you describe. In addition to the change with the mother’s room, were there any other surprises of discovery in this story? Other inspirations that hit you in the process of illustration, or even sudden realizations that something might not work the way you intended?
S: I’m not sure if “encouraged” is the right word. Probably, “inevitable” would be more accurate. I knew that each chapter was going to be set up in a different narrative manner when I began the book. However, what I didn’t anticipate was that my actually storytelling approach might change during the making of the book. I’ve tried to keep it somewhat consistent in tone, but these things do change as time goes on. I generally have a lot more panels on the page, now, than I did when I began. My actions, too, are different in pace from panel to panel. But, all in all, I think the book will still cohere because there is a planned difference in tone and intent in each chapter. The biggest stumbling block to the collection is simply how different the finished artwork will look from page one to the final page. A big change in style (in my opinion).
As for surprises or changes. The biggest one was a scene with Simon talking to the toys in his room. I was anxious for a long time, looking forward to doing this sequence. However, when it arrived, it felt wrong. Somehow or other, the finished sequence didn’t come out right for me. It seems mannered and stilted. And I just don’t care for how that worked. I will be reworking that whole sequence when the final book is revised. Also, I missed an important connection (an accidental one) by not symbolically paring up the “black doll” he talks to with the “pickaninny” toy he purchases at the end of Chapter 2. A mistake I will also correct. Much of what will be fixed up later will fall into the category of “fine tuning,” lessons on storytelling learned over the years that will now be applied to making some sequences flow better or read a touch subtler. In a lot of ways, I am viewing the whole giant pile of pages as a rough thing to be polished up for the final collection. I will, however, resist the urge to start fixing up old artwork simply because it looks bad to me. If I start that, I’ll have to redraw the whole thing. Therein lies madness.
DR: Have you had similar experiences with other stories you’ve worked on over an extended period of time? Did It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken develop in like manner?
S: Easy answer: no. I’ve never worked on anything like Clyde Fans, nothing that has taken this long to gestate. Everything else has rolled along at a timely pace. This is the weird anomaly of a project in my life, a kind of constant presence always there. It will be a strange thing when it is finally completed and put on the shelf.
DR: You’ve mentioned a couple of times the final volume that will become Clyde Fans, including some of the edits or visual changes that you plan on making. I’m also curious about the changes you’ve made in the packaging or the delivery of the story. The original installments have come in Palookaville, of course, but early on you decided to release different parts of the narrative in collected form. Parts One and Two came out in 2000 and 2003, respectively, and then you combined both of those in the nice hardbound Clyde Fans: Book One in 2004. Had you originally planned on collecting all the segments in smaller bound volumes? And after the first hardbound collection, what made you apparently reconsider this manner of publication?
S: All the format changes have been the result of evolving ideas. Not really my own so much as those of Chris Oliveros and market considerations. Simply put: My plan (from way back when) was to serialize the story in the comic and then gather it into a book when finished. I had no idea when I started it that it would take years and years to do — I figured it would take about as long as Good Life — and that by the conclusion of it, the comic-book pamphlet format would be utterly obsolete, and I’d be serializing it in little hardcovers. But early on it became obvious the story was going to take some time to finish. Chris suggested collecting up the chapters one by one into “giant sized” comic issues so readers would have an easier time getting the back-story. I liked the idea, and we put out Chapter 1. I had Chapter 2 all set and ready to go (covers and endpapers all painted, etc.) when the Chief suggested it might be a better sell if we put the first two chapters out as a book. Then collect the rest of the story as Book Two in a little while. I doubt either of us anticipated how long it would take me to finish up the rest of the story!
And up until about a year or two ago we were still talking about putting out a Book Two. Maybe a slipcase edition of the two volumes, as well. I was still strongly behind that plan because I had always contrived to have matching covers to the first volume. If you recall, on the front and rear covers of the first volume Abe and Simon are young. On the cover of the second volume they would have been old. It was a nice mirrored set of images. I’d like to have done it. However, to be honest, as the Chief and I talked about it more and more, this plan just didn’t make financial sense any longer. It has been years and years since Book One. Most readers would not have that book, and so we’d have to reprint it just to get it back out there for the second volume to make sense. Sales on the first book would be terrible on it’s own. Probably true for Book Two as a standalone book. New readers would just buy the slipcase edition of both books. So, who were we putting out Book Two for? Basically to honor the original buyers of Book One. Let’s face it, as an ethical plan, it makes sense. But it just wouldn’t be a reasonable sales plan. It’s entirely my fault, not Chris Oliveros’s. If I had gotten the second part done in good time, Book Two would have come out as planned.
At this juncture in time, the only thing that makes any sense is a single complete volume. Most of the book’s audience will be new readers or long-time supporters (who have put up with much and have forgiven me!). I apologize to anyone who bought that first collection believing there would be a second one. It’s a broken trust, but I have to be realistic. It just doesn’t make sense at this point to send that second volume out into the world to die. I don’t know if an audience will embrace the completed book, but it is the only hope at the finished story connecting with the bigger book world.
DR: These kinds of business and marketing decisions that you mention: Has this been a part, even a tiny part, of your creative process? Do questions of packaging format, marketability, financial feasibility, and the like have any place in your artistic DNA? Is it something you give much thought to, and if so, has this changed over the course of your creative evolution?
S: The only effect these things have on my creative process is that the format determines some of my storytelling decisions. For example, back in the pamphlet days you had twenty-four pages of story. So, early on, my chapters were twenty-four pages long. Later, when I wanted longer chapters I would divide into twenty-four-page chunks so that each issue ended on a good note, if not necessarily on the very end of a section of story. If I could have had more pages I would have taken them. Conversely, if I had only had twenty pages then they would have been twenty-page chapters. Later with the hardbacks, I had a lot more leeway. I am still figuring out the right length of pages for a comic story in this new format. I think the next issue of Palookaville might be where I nail it down. In hindsight, I see that the Clyde section of Palookaville 20 was still influenced by my experience working in the pamphlet format. I hadn’t really adapted to the new format yet.
I suppose the other consideration is production values. The more choices you have in color and fancy printing, the more ways you might “spruce up” your work to attract the buyers/readers. Again, my early comics used a grey tone. That is what we could afford. When I got one color I learned to work with one color. I did that long enough that it became my “signature” approach. I could have full color, now, but I am not sure I want it. I like monochrome a lot! If in the beginning I had not had access to the grey tone, I probably would have figured out how to design the panels more boldly using more black to “make them work.”
Besides these sort of things, I never think about the “crass” real world of selling books and satisfying readers. I think about communicating with them — and communicating as effectively as I can — but not about their wishes. I am really only concerned with trying to make my work as true to myself as possible and with as little compromise as I can get away with.
DR: Do you miss the days of the pamphlet-sized format, at least for non-mainstream or “alternative” comics? It used to be that we had not only Palookaville, but also Yummy Fur, Peepshow, Love and Rockets, Optic Nerve, Eightball, Neat Stuff, Dirty Plotte, Evil Eye, and Naughty Bits…among a wealth of others. But with the exception of Adrian Tomine soldering on, all of those titles have either transformed into the “graphic novel” or gone the way of the dodo.
S: No, I don’t really miss them that much. It’s funny, I thought I would. I used to get a tremendous thrill when a new issue of Hate or Eightball came out. You’d wait so long for it and then devour it immediately. Then, since there was so little new work in comics of value, Chester, Joe, and I would discuss it in great detail. A new good comic was an event.
However, perhaps that element of the experience was a part of youth. I don’t live in Toronto any longer. I don’t go to the Beguiling more than once every couple of months. The three of us used to meet every week for the new comics when we were all together. We’d hang out all day and play Hearts and talk comics. We were passionate about the medium. I’m not as passionate about comics any longer. I’m getting old. To be more exact: I still love comics, and I still follow the good artists (young and old) very faithfully. I’m pretty plugged in. However, I am more interested in doing my own work, now, than being part of “Team Comics.” Nowadays, I probably pay more attention to movies, literature, and visual art than I do to comics. I think this is just a reflection of getting older. You narrow a bit. You focus more on the close view than the panoramic. You turn a little more inward.
DR: When you got together with the guys to talk about the comics you read, what did you discuss? In addition to Hate and Eightball, what were some of the titles that you would try to keep up with? Were there any mainstream readings in there? Any superheroes, horror, or other popular genres? For that matter, what are your feelings on mainstream comic-book fare?
S: I’m not sure I can remember after all these years, but I know we discussed every alternative comic that came out during those years. Let’s face it, there wasn’t that much stuff being published. If one good comic came out when you visited the comic shop, then you were lucky. So, everything from American Splendor, to Weirdo, to Love and Rockets, to Lynda Barry collections to…whatever. Anything that came from Fantagraphics, Kitchen Sink, Last Gasp, Raw Books,…you name it. We talked a lot about how to tell a story well, looking at how effective certain books did this or that. I recall we were excited by the directness of autobiography in comics at the time. I recall the first few Dennis Eichhorn comics led to a lot of discussion. Same with Peter Bagge’s and Dan Clowes’s works. We got very interested in early comics by Adrian Tomine. And we were always interested in anything Crumb did.
Old comics too. Lots of interest in Kurtzman and John Stanley. I recall an excited period where Joe and I were very into Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse and were desperately searching here and there for reprints. A real competition. Sometimes Joe and I — Chet never entered into these battles — would get very, very competitive trying to find old cartooning books. We had a few fights and eventually had to make some ground rules over who had precedence for certain works so we could avoid stepping on each other’s toes. I think he had first dibs on any Gasoline Alley and I on anything by Canadian cartoonist Jimmie Frise.
It wasn’t all serious talk, by any means. We gossiped about our peers a lot. We tore other cartoonist’s work to shreds. We mercilessly laughed at other cartoonists attempts. We scoffed. I was very snotty about the fact that Chet and Joe loved Cerebus.
We read no contemporary genre comics. In fact, at that point we were pretty solidly “above” all that stuff. Totally contemptuous. We often joked about superhero comics we read as kids, but when it came to that stuff, nothing but Kirby and Ditko made the real cut.
We all collected old genre comics — horror, superheroes, funny-books — but it was rather “scholarly” in tone, studying the old styles and storytelling techniques, etc. Or plain nostalgia. We would make fun of each other for dearly liking something we considered stupid. I recall Chet loved the old Master of Kung Fu comics, and Joe liked Mike Grell (or some such). I had a kind of fetish for all the terrible late ’70s Marvel comics. That’s still true for me. Maybe even more so now as I grow older and am more forgiving of my terrible teenage tastes. I’ve embraced a lot of older comics “junk” as a guilty pleasure. We all loved everything Kirby. We all loved his ’70s drawing the very best.
However, I still remain completely uninterested in modern superhero comics. The dead seriousness of it all reminds me of bondage fiction (or something equally intense and sweaty). Whenever I read what is going on in those comics nowadays, I am utterly perplexed and repulsed. Even when I was reading them thirty or fourty years ago, they were already taking themselves far too seriously. I blame all the fan writers who entered the field in the seventies for that. Those sweet adventure characters are for kids and should have remained so. The fact that these comic creators have invested so much intensity into making them “dead serious” adult stories — tales in which we probably know Spider-Man’s bed wetting history or whether or not Mary Jane likes anal sex or not….well, I stand perplexed. And disappointed. It is as if the Easter Bunny or Winnie the Pooh now had fifty years of stories behind them about how they had been raped or hooked on heroin, etc. etc. Just plain awful and gross and creepy.
I think the very best superhero stories are the Marvel comics of the 1960s. I adore those comics. The “seriousness” that Stan and Jack (and Steve) injected was of a totally appropriate level. A kind of childish profundity and soap opera combined. All charm. Practically the only way to handle such a genre.
DR: In light of what you’ve just said, this may be too easy of a question, but what do you make now of all the attention that comics are getting in the high-profile media? Both Marvel and DC are inundating network television, Netflix, and movie theaters. And while it’s true that there are some non-superhero comics getting in on the game — such as The Walking Dead and iZombie — it’s really all powered by the spandex. I’ve heard some say that this trend is generally good for comics culture, that a rising tide lifts all boats. Do you think this is a positive trend for comics as a whole?
S: No. Not positive in any manner. Bad work never leads to the promotion of good work. I avoid all this stuff at all costs.
I see all this as a dumbing down of the mainstream culture (which, let’s face it, was never that smart to begin with). Maybe dumbing down isn’t the right term. More like, the infantilization of mainstream culture. Nothing is truly very adult any longer. We live in an endless childhood (me too!). It’s hard to tell which novels are YA and which aren’t. There is no difference between children’s clothing and adults clothing. No difference between children’s pursuits and adults’ pursuits. It’s pizza everyday and video games until 2:00 in the morning (for adults, I mean). There is something vulgar about this adult-child culture. It’s not aspirational. It’s not about digging deeper or trying harder. It wallows in itself. It’s ice cream for dinner forever. Peter Pan has won. Its very worse sin though: it’s dull and lazy. I wouldn’t want a full diet of it, that’s for sure.
Don’t people want something deeper?
I probably shouldn’t throw stones, though, considering I’m living in a glass house myself. I draw comic books as an “artistic” career. Just that sentence alone puts me in the vanguard of Peter Pan’s army.
DR: Have you had any interests in adapting your comics for film or television? Has anyone ever approached you about using your stories — or writing new stories — for other media?
S: I used to say that I had no interest in anyone adapting my work into a film. I also used to say that I would be glad to sell the rights to anyone because I just wanted their money so I could keep cartooning. That was absolutely true at the time. I wasn’t the least interested in anyone making a film out of my stuff. I was totally disinterested in anyone animating my work. Then I got involved in this documentary, Seth’s Dominion, and the director of that film (an animator himself), Luc Chamberland, ended up animating quite a bit of my work for it.
He did such a great job that I found the sequences really affecting. Even I was moved by the emotion he evoked with the animation. That changed my whole feeling about the idea of adaptions. I’m much more open to the idea now. In fact, I would love to collaborate with someone and make a short animated film of some kind, someday. Seeing those animated sequences actually got me interested in motion and sound, something I didn’t really consider much in the past. I don’t think I’d want to direct a live action film, though (not that anyone is asking). Too much collaboration for me. I’m a pretty solitary worker.
To answer the other part of your question. Yes, I have had people interested over the years in this and that. Right’s sold once (maybe twice). Meetings held. Phone calls endured. All leading to nothing.
Recently a very talented writer suggested turning Good Life into a musical for the stage. I was very open to this idea and gave him carte blanche. Who knows if anything will come of this, but of all things, this is the one I would most like to see happen. That would be very interesting to see.
Oh yes, I did make a film with the director of my documentary. It is called The Apology of Albert Batch. It’s sort of a puppet show staring myself as the puppeteer. It’s about twenty minutes long, and if all goes well, I think I will include it as a disc in a future Palookaville. I was very pleased with how beautifully Luc directed it. Something I could never have done myself.
DR: A disc for a future Palookaville? Am I witnessing Seth going multi-media?
S: Yes. Ha ha! Though I suppose a disc is already a piece of antiquated technology nowadays. So I’m not exactly embracing the cutting edge.
DR: Earlier you had alluded to the next story you’ll turn to after wrapping up Clyde Fans. I don’t know if I’m asking you to spill too many beans here, but what can you tell me about this next narrative? What do you feel comfortable revealing at this point?
S: Uncharitably, I am willing to reveal not a thing about future stories, because anything you say in advance never pans out. You change your mind or the story becomes something else while working on it. Or, you set up weird expectations in the reader that you can’t meet later. Or you just jinx yourself somehow. All I will say is that I have five possible stories I could work on. I don’t know for sure which ones will rise to the top. Likely, I will serialize two of them in Palookaville. The sad part of this arrangement is that the others will probably never be realized –they will die on the vine. It is hard to know which to choose and which to discard. Every idea seems vital when you dream it up, but if it sits around for too long, it grows stale and is inevitably replaced with a new one. The unfortunate part is that one of the discarded ideas might be a good one. George Sprott seemed destined for the discard pile, but circumstances brought it to the surface. That turned out to be my own favorite book of the work I’ve done. Very easily I might not have done it.
DR: I’m glad that you brought up George Sprott. I first read that as part of the New York Time Magazine’s “Funny Pages” series — a shining and all-too-brief endeavor — and then, of course, there was the 2009 book. I’m pleased that you call it your favorite. But why so, and how did that narrative come about?
S: That’s a long and complicated question really. I’ll try to be brief though. I got a call from the Times right when I was diligently working on Clyde Fans — which as you know, I am not always doing! — and hoping to just plug away at it for a few months. I didn’t want to take on a weekly strip at that moment, but I figured the opportunity was just too good to pass up, and so I, once again, set Clyde aside and started work on something else. Once we agreed on what the strip would be about (I offered three choices and they selected the one I had least thought through) and the schedule worked out, I got down to the nitty gritty of writing the strip. That’s when I decided to make each strip self-contained with a beginning and an end. I figured that was an easier read for a newspaper audience that might not catch every installment.
Later, when I decided to make a book of the work, that structure proved a godsend. That single page approach allowed me to easily add new strips and drawings in-between the pages without breaking up the narrative flow of the work. I wasn’t sure, at first, if I could make a satisfying book out of that skimpy strip, but by the time the book was done I though it had transformed into my most satisfying work. There is something in the rhythm of that book that pleases me. The arrangement of strips and images. The size of the book. Just enough subtlety, just enough obviousness, just enough flashiness, just enough coy preciousness, and just enough pretentiousness to somehow pull it together.
It’s pretty hard to really like anything you’ve created yourself, but I still feel real fondness for George Sprott as a work. Some people find it dull, but, as I always say, there is a good kind of dull, and I hope I captured some of that in Sprott.
DR: I’m wondering if what you (or others) are calling “dull” might actually more “meditative” or, perhaps even better, “melancholic.” And I mean a good kind of melancholy, one that allows us a deep dive into our thoughts and feelings. I remember after reading the book for the first time, I felt a sense of emotional heaviness for the rest of the day. Your narratives usually produce this kind of feeling, but I thought that the aftereffects of George Sprott were more profound.
S: I am genuinely pleased the book affected you. It’s what an author most desires. That true connection of life experience (or feeling) between author and reader.
To comment: Yes, “dull” is a the word people often use when they are not drawn in by meditative works or “slow” narrative. Sometime they are right. I often use the word “dull” myself as a positive term because I like many works that are actually dull — or perhaps I should say, works just on the pleasing side of dullness. I do think there is a thin line between interesting and boring. You have to somehow be on that correct side, if you can do it!
But let me just say, I don’t actually worry very much about making my work interesting. I just worry about it feeling “right” to me when I produce it. I figure if the work feels right to me, then some portion of the readers will feel the same. It’s a mistake to calculate the work to a perceived idea of what other people might enjoy. It’s too much guesswork for me.
I like the work to be slow in its pacing. Not everyone responds to that pace. I think that tone is utterly essential to what I’m trying to convey. I am a very melancholy — even wistful — type of person. I really am. But, I am also a happy person (generally). The melancholy I feel, and that I try to infuse into my work, is (as you say) a good melancholy. I think of it in Schulz’s terms: “Good Grief.” It’s a sadness, but a pleasing sadness. It is the pleasure of revisiting a sad experience, but one that I’ve grown fond of over time and with reflection. It is a floating experience I’m aiming for in the work. A reverie.
DR: You say in the opening scene of Chamberland’s documentary — at least the animated you — that you believe comics best suited for portraying the interior life of a person, not the outwardly facing world of action and fantasy. And then you go on to use words such as “stillness,” “understated,” “mundane,” and even “austere” when describing the form. This all aligns with what you were just saying about “dull.” Do you see yourself, even in some small way, as one of the medium’s poet-philosophers, consciously articulating the system of comics or its raison d’être through your art?
S: Trying not to sound too pretentious or self-important here…but, yes. I do think that is a real part of my goal as an artist. I want to show that comics is a perfect medium for quiet, slow, meditative works. I genuinely think comics are an exquisite medium for emulating that interior human experience that we all feel so deeply. In fact, I think comics is possible the most appropriate medium to recreate that experience. Of all possible narrative art forms, I think comics is the only one that you must experience alone. It cannot be altered into a shared or group experience. The process of silently combining the words and pictures together in your brain is something that must be done entirely alone. And, being done alone, in your own head, it really does an excellent job of emulating an interior singular experience. Even a novel can be easily read aloud and experienced in an outward manner. Comics cannot be read aloud (in my opinion). There is some odd disjuncture when the attempt is made that breaks down the magic of the word/picture combination. They can be adapted, of course, to animation or live action. I think the animations in Seth’s Dominion are really excellent and do a wonderful job of capturing the tone and sensibility of my work. However, they don’t capture the interior experience of comics reading. The combination of words and memory-pictures combined silently in the brain is a special experience.
DR: I want to get back to George Sprott…and after all, it is one of your favorites. The book, expanded from the New York Times Magazine strips, was published in a very large format, bigger than standard BD and a challenge to bookshelves. What went into your decision to publish in that format?
S: Two simple reasons. First, the strips were complex in design and would read better in a larger size. It was difficult to get all that info into each installment for the original publication in the Times Magazine. But when we reprinted, I wanted to make them as clear and legible as possible. Bigger was better.
Second, I had always wanted to make a big book, but didn’t really have a good excuse besides indulgence. This one made sense because of the number of panels per strip and the overall theme of the arctic. I wanted those huge double page spreads to give a sense of vast space.
DR: One of the things that stands out about this book, besides its size, is its narrator. In George Sprott you do something that you haven’t really done in your other works: make the narrator a tangible figure. This isn’t merely a detached, abstracted, omniscient presence, but much more of a rounded character with his own — or its own — personality. What were your thoughts in crafting that aspect of the narrative?
S: To be honest, it was a simple case of being infatuated with Cervantes’s introduction to Don Quixote. I’d read the intro very closely when I began working on the strip and was impressed with how modern (or maybe postmodern) it was. It was written in a very unreliable voice, and that struck me as so utterly funny and smart — opening the door to all kinds of narrative tricks — that I couldn’t help but take a big piece of inspiration from it. I must admit I have always liked unreliable narrators. I like earnestness, but it can be cloying if not handled right. A narrator that is a bit befuddled or missing some facts while still being basically omniscient seemed a good way to both get in a lot of details and still leave some ambiguity for the reader to guess at.
DR: That’s a good point. The life of George Sprott is not only somber, but it’s a bit of a mystery. There are parts of the book that remind me of a Citizen Kane approach to storytelling, where the narrator/curator inserts remembrances and commentaries from people that had known George, to great or lesser degrees. And even though there’s no Rosebud, no single missing piece of the puzzle that may (or may not) create a larger picture, there are several narrative gaps that place the protagonist just out of arm’s reach. The unreliable narrator plays a large part in this ambiguity. Do you see the original material — that which wasn’t included in the New York Times Magazine — as mitigating, or perhaps even adding to, the obfuscation?
S: You could not be more correct in mentioning Citizen Kane. I saw the film for the first time when I was really quite young, and it impressed itself deeply on me. I have watched it countless times since (and still do at least once a year) and sometimes I think that it is the pattern for all my stories. Many of my tales follow that pattern of an unresolved search, or they follow the sweep of a whole life. You are correct that I usually leave out the Rosebud …but I suppose I learned Welles’s lesson of Rosebud. No one’s life can be easily understood or explained.
And yes, the new material that went into the book (after the initial Times material) is meant to elaborate but not explain, as you guessed. It thickens the stew a bit but essentially adds only window dressing. George’s life remains as unexplained at the end of the book as it did in the initial run of strips. We continue to stand outside and look in at George. What that new material also did was allowed me to complete another idea I had had floating in my head for some years: to do a life story told only in short anecdotes that took place ten years apart. To put it more clearly: a series of small, trivial incidents (one from each decade) that do nothing to explain a person’s life but do show how circumstances change over time for an individual. This is where the sepia-toned three page strips in the book derive from. I was pleased to be able to finally use this formal idea and I thought this book was just the spot for it. In fact, it was a real pleasure constructing the Sprott book, in general, because it allowed me to add material in quite a variety of forms — material that enriched George’s world but (hopefully) didn’t gild the lily too much. Keeping the story essentially unchanged but making it a touch meatier.
DR: So although George Sprott was crafted in a different manner from your Palookaville stories, there was still a sequential nature to its construction, meaning you published most of it in pieces before pulling everything together as a whole. Will you continue this sequential form of storytelling, or do you imagine a time when you’ll be doing what many creators are now doing, such as Chester did with Paying for It, forgoing installments and producing an all-at-once “graphic novel,” as it is now commonly called?
S: I don’t know. It seems the smarter thing to do. But it is also the harder thing to do. You have to slave away for years without publishing anything. I kind of need the incentive of occasional publishing to get the work done. I wouldn’t go so far as to call Palookaville‘s schedule a deadline (without risking laughter), but putting a volume out every year or two does get some pages finished. I like the idea of surprising the readership with a complete book once in a while, like Wimbledon Green, but I also like the format of the Palookaville volumes because it allows me to include other little projects (like the diaries, or sketchbook material) that I would have no other place for.
One of my main problems is that I like the idea of big unwieldy projects. Most of the future stories I think about are somewhat long and involved. But you can’t have too many such projects going at the same time because you spread yourself too thinly, and then nothing ends up getting finished. Clyde is a good example of this. I had too many things going over these past years, and it took forever to finish. I worry I may just set up that same situation again without really thinking about it. Yet another endless story (or two) taking years and years to do. Logically I should plan out shorter books – say, 150 pages or so — and then just finish them up one by one, but I am impatient to do too many things at the same time. Chances are that as soon as Clyde and “Nothing Lasts” are wrapped up, I will surely end up with two stories running in Palookaville again. I’d bet on it. I’m impatient and have at least five or six stories champing at the bit to be told.
DR: Right around the time that Palookaville 22 came out, I was talking with a noted comics journalist about it, and he mentioned your author photo in the book. He observed that in that picture, you look like one of comics’ grand lions. (By the way, it is a rather distinguished photo, and the sepia tone only adds to the prestige.) And then at about the same time, I was reading Harbin’s Diary Comics, and, as you may recall, Dustin represents you as an almost pantheon figure. And then there’s Luc Chamberland’s documentary. This may seem a strange question, but do you have a sense of how a younger generation of creators may see you? Do have an inkling, even in some small indirect way, of your reputation within the comics community and the way you may even be seen as one of its respected “elder statesmen”?
S: Let me tell you, you go from being a “young Turk” to an “elder statesman” very quickly in comics. In about five years Michael DeForge will probably be considered an elder statesman as well!
All kidding aside I would probably have no sense of myself in relation to the younger cartoonists if it weren’t for the Doug Wright Awards ceremony every year. That is the one time when I am aware of my age and my position in the comics world. At that event, I feel like someone who has been around for some time now. When I talk to the younger artists I find myself saying things like “Back in my day…” and “When I started out in the ’80s…” or “The cartoonists of my generation…” etc. So….”back when I started out in the ’80s” there were seriously only a couple of dozen cartoonists of interest in the “alternative” comics world. The one thing you wondered about was, “Who is in this for the long haul?” As the decades have passed, you have seen some artists fall away and others endure. It is this process of enduring that gives you some sort of patina for the younger artists. Whether they like your work or not, just enduring and sticking to your artistic goals gives you some kind of status. Who knows what anyone really thinks of you or your work? But you do get a sense, over time, of some respect coming your way simply for enduring and following your own path. The strange part is that you feel time passing and the work accumulating, but there is a powerful sense that you haven’t done any of your important work yet. That is always far in the future, and whatever you are working on now is merely the stuff that will get you to that important work. Maybe that work never really arrives.
By the way, that portrait photo is by a very renowned Canadian photographer, Nigel Dickson. He has photographed so many of Canada’s elite, and I was very flattered to be added to his body of photographs. I’m not crazy about looking at photos of myself but I was very pleased with that portrait. It had the one quality I most wish to maintain as I grow old: dignity!
DR: Do you really feel that you haven’t yet gotten to your “important work,” as you put it? Is the sense of a magnum-opus-in-waiting something tangible for you, or might this look to the horizon be a standard — even necessary — artistic response to aging?
S: I absolutely feel my “important” work is still on the way. In fact, this week I have been working on “Nothing Lasts,” and it is getting longer and longer. I don’t know how many pages it is going to end up being, but what strikes me, while working on it, is how much more confident I feel in what I am doing. That I actually know what I want to achieve with this work, and that I have faith I can achieve it (well, to some degree). I think this will be an important piece for me. It may end up being the most navel gazing thing I have ever done (and that is saying a lot) but it may also end up being the “purest” essence of what I’ve been trying to “get at” for years. Who knows?
What I do know is that it is certainly a bridge to better works. I’ve learned concrete things (as a comics storyteller) working on this piece that will directly instruct me on future works. I feel, if I can just live long enough and keep working diligently that I have a couple more good books in me, and if I can just get them done, they will surely be closer to what I want my work to be. As an artist, you can’t really see your own work as others do. You mostly see it as a pale reflection of what you wanted to do. Each work is something of a failure when held up to the imagined book you had hoped to produce. That said, with each book, you grow more confident and your skills get better, the work gets a little closer to the ideal. If I can just produce a few more books, I think I may just make that “important” work I’m longing/hoping/aiming for. The one worry is that each book will take so long to do that you will miss the opportunity to make that one “perfect” book. That by the time you’ve learned enough and you are ready to do it, you will be so old that you’ll be in the “decline period” that happens to almost all artists. A period when your skills are no longer what they once were and that, sadly, you won’t be clear-minded enough to recognize the decline occurred. A genuine worry.
DR: This is interesting about “Nothing Lasts,” because this all began as one of your sketchbook projects. And it is your story. You’re not known as an autobiographically leaning artist, at least overtly so. Do feel this is a direction you’ll continue to explore?
S: Hard to say….but probably not. I think “Nothing Lasts” is an obvious attempt, at mid-life, to sort out what my life “means.” An attempt to put it all into “proper order.” But it is also an experiment in direct, expedient storytelling. That will probably be the more lasting element from this exercise. Not the autobio aspect. In fact, I’m 100% sure that the next project will be right back to fiction. And I have several fiction ideas lined up for after that. I’ve also been playing with the idea of adapting some short stories or poems as a future exercise. Who knows if that will happen. To be honest, I hadn’t realized till you asked, but I haven’t been planning anything based on direct experience lately.
DR: You mentioned adapting stories or poems. What about adaptation draws your attention?
S: Adaptation gives you the chance to work purely with the storytelling form. Breaking a story down into panels and figuring out how to tell it in comics form is actually a very pleasing exercise. You have so many different ways you could approach it. Very different than just writing in the comics form. Plus, it gives the chance to work with some story material that you know you like and actually think is good! Your own writing is always doubtful when it comes to your own taste. The funny thing about personal taste is that it doesn’t necessarily extend to your own work. I’m never too sure if I would like my own work if I could see it thought different eyes. If someone else was doing my work I might not even like it.
DR: Do you have any interests in adapting “classic” or canonical texts, or would your tastes tend to be broader and more democratic in scope?
S: Esoteric or eclectic might be better descriptions. Just something or other that strikes me as interesting. Probably more on the obscure side. Probably public domain as well. I doubt I’d adapt Tolstoy or Salinger or something like that….but then again who knows. Who knows if I will ever even do this.
DR: What are your feelings about adaptation and fidelity? One of my favorite comics adaptations is Lance Tooks’s version of Twain’s short story, “A Dog’s Tale,” where he makes it about the African American experience. Do you think artists should stay true to the original — whatever “true” might mean — or have the liberty to represent the narrative broadly?
S: I’m pretty clearly in the non-faithful camp. I’m drawn to the idea of adaptation only because it allows me to interpret as I see fit. To be honest, I would barely give the author a second thought.
Whatever I chose to adapt would be seen only as raw material to shape to my own purposes. I mean, I’d obviously want to deeply consider what the author had written, and I’d want to convey some essence of that. However, I’d be in favor of presenting my own take on it — even it if my own insight into the work changed the more obvious meaning. Let’s face it: I’d be doing it for my own purposes. Not someone else’s. I’m a poor collaborator. A good dictator, though.
I haven’t actually done much in the way of adaptation. Very little. But it’s an interesting idea to think about. Not too long ago I illustrated two books: one of a classic Canadian author, Stephen Leacock, and the other, Chekhov. In both cases I made a stylistic shift in context for my own purposes. With Leacock I changed the era of the story from the turn the century to the 1920s.
With Chekhov, I changed the characters and setting from Russia to rural French Canada. In both cases I did it because it made the project more interesting to me. I had other reasons too, but at the core, it was to please myself.
DR: This takes us back to an earlier comment, where you discussing your willingness to work with others in adapting your own comics for animation. Would you have problems with someone “translating” your comics for their own purposes, or would you want to insist on having a hand in any adaptation?
S: Easy answer: they can do what they like. I had absolutely nothing to do with the animation in Seth’s Dominion and didn’t see any of it until it was done. I recently told someone they could do whatever they liked with Good Life when they suggested the idea of turning it into a musical (although it will probably never happen).
For once, I am not a hypocrite.
I have to admit though, if I am honest, both these instances were with people I figured would be interested in keeping somewhat true to the material. I doubt I’d be happy if someone turned George Sprott into a sci-fi story or a zombie thing.
Check out the art and narrative of Seth: