“Not-so-fond memories” / The Globe and Mail / Nathalie Atkinson / May 22, 2004

Clyde Fans: Book 1

By Seth

Drawn & Quarterly,

160 pages, $26.95

Bannock, Beans & Black Tea

By John Gallant

Design and illustration by Seth

Drawn & Quarterly,

120 pages, $24.95

Canadian cartoonist Seth has quietly joined the ranks of über book designers such as Chip Kidd, having recently designed raconteur Stuart McLean's Vinyl Café Diaries and the much-anticipated, definitive, 25-volume reissue of The Complete Peanuts. Bannock, Beans & Black Tea is a far more personal project: Author John Gallant is Seth's father, and his stories were told to Seth as a child.

Seth spent a decade editing, designing and illustrating this petite book, and his postmodern retro aesthetic is evident everywhere, from the tall, stylized deco script on the bottle-green stamped cloth cover to his trademark font, hand-lettered chapter titles, illustrations and drawings throughout. As a result, Bannock resembles a vintage elementary-school primer.

But beyond the elegant design, the story is far from an island bucolic: While the son revels in the past, there is nostalgic longing in the father's memoir. In a six-page comic foreword, Seth admits that the humour he remembers in his father's stories has, in the writing of them, “taken a back seat to bitter reality.” Time has not diminished the suffering of Gallant's childhood, and clearly, at 86, the bitter taste of injustice is still in his mouth: “I did a lot of praying, asking God to give us some food and clothing. However, he never did hear me.” This simple fact sets the tone of Bannock, an anecdotal patchwork more plaintive than pastoral.

It is 1927 in rural Prince Edward Island. In the Catholic village of St. Charles, young Johnny Wilfred Gallant is the second of seven children in a very poor family. Gallant remembers the deprivation from a child's point of view: the ever-present gnawing hunger and desperate food-finding expeditions (picking potatoes, snaring rabbits, spearing eels) and money-making schemes, from working at a lobster factory to selling berries door to door, and quests to local shops to beg for nonexistent credit. Johnny's days are interminably cold and unhappy.

Gallant captures the child's keen eye for injustice, singling out the local priest for living well while his parish goes hungry, and petty childish moments: Johnny resents his brother Francis, exempted from work and chores because of “his famous sore back.” He is particularly angry at the loss of his older sister, Edna, at 14, to whooping cough, and blames this (and indeed all the deprivation of his childhood) on his lazy, unambitious father. Gallant's hunger and anger are still palpable on every page.

Breaking up these anecdotes are wry enumerations about the so-called upside of abject poverty, like night-time snacks: “Raw Turnip. Scoop with spoon and eat.” Throughout, Seth's single-page illustrations, in crisp, classic New Yorker style, are perhaps incongruously upbeat. “Sundays meant church,” the author recalls. “And that meant a three-mile walk without breakfast.”

But his double-page sepia illustrations aptly channel the desolation and misery of the text through dilapidated homesteads and scenes blanketed in snow. Seth is a master of what could be called the cartoonist's visual pathetic fallacy: a small illustration of silhouetted PEI beach cliffs is forlorn, and the grain silos, corn rows and gently sagging power lines of Ontario farm country evoke sadness and isolation.

Inspired by an abandoned storefront in downtown Toronto, Seth's own graphic novella Clyde Fans: Book One looks to the past, a past steeped in melancholy. A silent, cinematic opening lingers on a sleeping city in the moments before dawn: a clock tower, a building façade, a desolate street. The quiet is interrupted by a flutter of birds, the sun rises and the eye settles on a humble storefront: Clyde Fans Company. What follows is a compelling exploration of the relationship and identity of Abraham and Simon Matchcard, two very different brothers working for their family's fan-manufacturing company.

In Abraham's story, told like Gallant's at the end of his life from the ancestral home, Seth subverts the cartoonist's mantra — show, don't tell — and recounts his past entirely through narrative exposition. Seth's slow, deliberate pace is not for everyone: Even for a so-called literary comic, already devoid of bif bang pow! and Technicolor, there is little action. Abraham wanders from room to room in the family flat above the long-defunct fan business, from the moment he gets out of bed in the morning and throughout his banal daily routine. He shuffles around his apartment (with backgrounds rendered in painstaking detail, down to the brands on the boxes), telling his story while making breakfast, going for a stroll, performing his ablutions.

Juxtaposed with this is the poignant second story, set in 1957, of his painfully introverted brother Simon on his first and only sales expedition to the small town of Dominion. The contents of Simon's diary entries and the sales manuals he is studying are conveyed in script and typescript. Black-and-white panels, singly or in short series, are peppered among the blue-shaded panels of the present. Fragments of overheard conversations reinforce Simon's isolation from the bustle around him.

Seth's particular attention to everyday minutiae aptly captures the last mid-century, an era of rail travel, old-fashioned sample cases and possibility. For Abraham, the evidence of this past lives under a layer of dust in the family home: vintage bottles in the medicine cabinet, or a calendar perpetually turned to July, 1978. In Simon's story, as he wanders through Dominion, that past is the present, surrounding him on the street and in shops where he is rebuffed, in diners, on the street: accurate period clothing on peripheral characters, advertisements painted on building façades, signs touting a 10-cent shave or a $2 suit.

Clyde Fans is a nuanced fictional glimpse exploring everyday people in a forgotten time, and under Seth's design direction, John Gallant's simple book of personal history becomes an art object. Each in its own way is the artifact of an era.

Nathalie Atkinson has fond memories of childhood summers on Prince Edward Island.

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