A Life, All Play: Consider Seth as the single most interesting cartoonist of the past twenty years
Photo by Nigel Dickson
As we close the first twenty years of the 21st Century, many people are writing their year-end lists and even decade-end Best Of lists. This got me thinking about who might be THE cartoonist of the first twenty years of the 21st Century. Allow me to submit Seth.
While Seth had achieved some acclaim for his debut graphic novel It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken, he began this century run with the sketchbook best-of Vernacular Drawings in 2001 and followed up with four graphic novels that will likely cement him as one of the most interesting and unconventional cartoonists of all time.
Wimbledon Green (2005) and The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists (2011) were loose and quickly drawn comics history fantasias paying tribute to the collectors who keep the comics flame burning and the cartoonists who quietly struggle to produce a lifetime of idiosyncratic work that is almost always quickly forgotten. In both books, he reimagines these familiar characters as heroic figures. Cartoonists are celebrities with their own museums and legacies that never extinguish. And collectors are adventurers, seeking the lost treasures and holding them up for all to see. These sketchy, spontaneous comics were a new side of Seth for many fans. A witty rollicking jester who disposed of his reputation as a dour nostalgist in thousands of tiny humorous and endlessly creative panels.
In 2009, Seth released George Sprott, a kaleidoscopic look at the career of a blowhard television personality. Seth had flirted with this type of storytelling a few times in various magazines and anthologies but found in Sprott a character worth exploring. Sprott would remain a fascinating type for Seth—a “self-made man” who lacks self-awareness and treats those around him as a means to his own glorious end.
Let’s not forget the incredible side projects that Seth snuck out into the world—a book of his father’s writing lovingly illustrated and designed called Bannock Beans and Black Tea (2004) and an exploration of his vast collection of printed matter in Forty Books of Interest (2006), an indispensable primer for anyone wondering what brilliant comics work exists on the fringes. (I didn't have copies of these handy so I will save you from a few photos.)
Of course, Seth was famously working on Clyde Fans this entire time and serializing it in Palookaville. For many cartoonists Palookaville would be an achievement unto itself but for Seth, it was just another venue to explore his various comics ideas and comics-adjacent hobbies (The buildings of Dominion and the design of his wife Tania’s barber shop being two of the most notable.)
Seth’s Dominion, a sparkling and dramatically creative documentary about Seth’s artistic life arrived in 2014. This documentary was created for the NFB and shown around the country, animator Luc Chamberland brought many of Seth’s characters to life while also exploring the life of this restless creative spirit.
As the first two decades of the new millennium came to a close Seth finished two projects that would be enough for most people’s entire careers. Clyde Fans was released in the Spring of 2019. A dense and dreamlike exploration of family, fear, sales, industrial North America and depression, Clyde Fans will remain one of the most impressive achievements in comics history. Few comics have been as gorgeously realized, page after page is carefully composed, beautifully drawn. As Seth worked on this book throughout the entirety of the 21st Century so far, it was hard to see just how well thought out it was. Clyde Fans is simply a story about two brothers but so much more. It’s about the collapse of industrial middle North America and the disappearance of the middle-class business, It’s about family and trauma. It’s about how nostalgia can strangle a person and how maybe we just don’t change that much no matter how much we think we do.
And to cap things off, Seth opened a show of his “other art” at the Art Gallery of Guelph in mid-September. A Life, All Play is Seth’s comics world made physical. Sculptures, ceramic playsets, dolls, puppets, one hundred carefully detailed cardboard buildings, hand-painted wall hangings, giant sketchbooks filled with symmetric cut-outs, silk-screens, iPads filled with sketchbooks and process photos. It’s a remarkable document of one man’s nearly secret creative life. Seth has dedicated his entire life to exploring what comics can do and where they can lead a curious artist. As comics achieve a wider acceptance and we’re increasingly saddled with half-assed auto-tune personal essays stretched to accommodate a spine by wannabe graphic novelists all one has to do is turn their attention to Seth’s 21st Century body of work to realize that comics is as expansive and vibrant a medium as we’ve ever had.
A selection from the sculpture room—ceramics, cut glass, wooden boxes, playsets:
Details from the puppet theater, "The Apology of Alfred Batch."
Selections from the drawings, paper cut-outs, mock-ups, dolls, and ceramic figures:
Details from a wall-sized painting (approx 12' x 30' ?)
And, of course, a selection of the One Hundred Buildings of Dominion, created between 2000 and 2017.
A Life, All Play is up until December 15th at the Art Gallery of Guelph in Ontario.