Calgary Sun Features Seth, Clyde Fans & Bannock, Beans & Black Tea

“Seth's World: One of the decade's great cartoonists looks at life” / Calgary Herald / Nancy Tousley / July 10, 2004

Novelist Philip Roth once told cartoonist Art Spiegelman he couldn't read him because he couldn't look at pictures and read at the same time. Now it seems this talent is one that people all over North America are busily pursuing with the ascendancy of the graphic novel.

One of the cartoonists who is driving them to it is a Canadian with one name who seldom leaves his book-filled house in Guelph, Ont., dresses with hipster formality in fedora and thrift shop suits, loves the past, collects toys and is considered one of the great cartoonists of the decade. Afficionados of the genre will know him immediately.

His name is Seth, a pseudonym he took in his heavy metal goth days, whose recently released, bestselling picture novella, Clyde Fans: Book One (Drawn & Quarterly, 156 pages, $26.95), is the first part of an extended graphic novel that he began in 1997 and hopes to complete by 2006.

"If you can read Peanuts or Ziggy, you've got all the skills you need," Seth says in response to Roth's remark, and that's true. But it's still not the same thing. Seth's sophisticated, layered work rewards lingering over pages and repeated readings you might not want to give the Sunday funnies.

Comics being a sequential word-and-picture medium, reading and looking are activities that Seth barely differentiates. Likewise writing and drawing: "You get to a certain point where they are not separate entities," the 41-year-old cartoonist says. "When I sit down to work, it's not to writing or drawing; I sit down to cartooning." The means do affect the way stories are told, though: "That's the difference between writing and drawing," Seth says. "All the description falls to the background."

The melancholic narrative of Clyde Fans: Book One advances by pictures and words in tandem. One or the other might take the lead, but neither takes precedence overall.

The two-part book begins the story of the Matchcard brothers, Abraham and Simon, who inherit the Clyde Fans Co. The family business both supports and bedevils them. Abe, the elder, cigar-smoking, mustachioed and more outgoing of the two, forces himself to learn the skills of travelling salesmanship to go out and pitch an increasingly anachronistic product. Simon, however, is a shy, sensitive, socially inept recluse who hides himself in his room, writing a book about novelty postcards.

The idea for Clyde Fans began to form as Seth regularly passed by the storefront of the Clyde Fans Co. at 159 King Street West in Toronto. Inside the office on the back wall, he could see photographs of the two men. From this shard of now vanished visual reality he began to construct his picture novella.

Part One, 1997, focuses on Abe as an old man alone in the Clyde Fans building, which houses living quarters as well as offices, workrooms and storage.

In the wordless, first four pages of the book, dawn breaks over downtown Toronto rooftops, birds take wing, and the sun rises to illuminate the storefront and an upstairs window. Like a tracking camera shot moving through the window, the following sequence shows the sleeping Abe being awakened by his alarm clock, rubbing his eyes, getting up, lowering the shade and pulling on his pants.

Seth's fluent brush drawing sets the Hopperesque urban scene as if it were a long descriptive passage, while his palette of pale blue, greys, black and the cream-coloured paper, put to work as an additional colour, suffuses the pages with the growing light. The mood of this restrained lyricism is broken by Abe's first ironic words as he shambles into the adjacent office in his suspenders and stocking feet: "A salesman rushes into a busy executive's office, right past his flustered secretary."

So begins Abe's running monologue as he roams the rooms of Clyde Fans, talking to himself, rehearsing the triumphs and defeats of the past, getting through the day. We follow him to the kitchen, the bathroom, the attic, the basement, and out the back door into the lane, until it's dark again, and Abe is alone in the front office, where portraits of him and Simon as young men hang on the back wall.

Seth's radical disconnection of words and pictures, which operate independently as Abe's thoughts are juxtaposed with the detailed depiction of the shabby interior, intensifies the sting, second guessing and disappointments of his life. As Seth says, this is an underused device in comics. "The most interesting things you can do are have tension between the two (words and pictures) or make the relationship so natural you don't notice."

This tension characterizes the first part of the book, while naturalism characterizes the second.

Part Two, 1957, focuses on fearful, self-defeating Simon and his last ditch attempt to make it as a salesman. As the section opens, Simon is speeding through the dark countryside on a train headed for Dominion, a fictional Ontario small town, where determined to sell fans and haunted by his overbearing brother, he makes cold calls on the town's merchants. As we follow him, his failures mount, until he runs away from the town at night to take refuge on a hill with three trees. Here, the relationship between words and pictures might be more straight-forward, but the narrative is a more psychologically complex, reflecting Simon's character.

Both parts of Book One observe the characters from the outside, overhearing Abe's monologue and overlooking Simon's mounting distress and troubled dreams. Book Two, which is one third complete and like Book One is being released first in the serial comic Palooka-Ville, will have three parts. In Part Three, Seth moves into the interior of Simon's character using cinematic point of view. In Part Four, the two brothers will be brought together. As for what happens in Part Five, Seth says, "I won't tell you."

It won't be overly dramatic, he says, but expect some of life's big moments to occur. Sales, in fact are a metaphor in Clyde Fans, a rare comic-book look at work, for how one lives a life. "Fans sales was a sort of natural comparison to the world of cartooning because it's not something people give any great thought to, it's kind of mundane. The idea of time passing them by is something I could relate to as a person who is practising an archaic art form."

In fact, it 's been remarked, and Seth agrees, that the Matchcard brothers embody two sides of his own personality. "I feel there's a real conflict in my own personality between these two sorts of characters -- a person who is like outgoing and able to go out in the world and deal with things and the other side which is a frightened sort of person that feels like the more legitimate self. Though I'm not so sure I planned it out very thoroughly when I started the story, I am aware that it is what I'm doing now."

Some people would see him more as one side than the other, he says, depending on their relationship. "Some people think of me as being a much meaner person having a harsher, more judgmental quality to my personality, which I think is true," he says. "But I think that's where I come into real conflict. So inevitably, I feel I'm always writing about identity and that I feel very conflicted about it.

"I think early in my childhood I suffered the typical story of all cartoonists, a great deal of social ineptness and a lot of stuff like not fitting in and a lot of ostracization." As a teenager, he took pains to fit in with people. "I built a framework of a personality over the top of myself that is very capable of going out in the world and dealing with people, but a real sense of self-loathing developed toward that personality."

If this conflict is rooted in his childhood so is his work. He has been cartooning all his life. "As an adult, when I'm working I'm trying to recreate some sense of what I felt when I was working as a child," he says. "I'm trying to recreate that sense of of isolation and immersion. It seems important when I'm in the studio."

Seth was born Gregory Gallant in Clinton, Ont. in 1962 to a family that moved constantly when he was a child.

During his teenage years, he drew Superhero comics, creating hundreds of characters. Then, in the early '80s, he attended the Ontario College of Art, studying commercial design. "Around the third year I was very confused as to what I was doing and then I ended up doing nothing, which resolved that problem."

He was in his 20s when he was "tricked into becoming a cartoonist," he says. "You grow up with this desire to draw the comics you love when you're a kid or pre-teen, and when you're old enough to actually have the skills to do it often you're not interested in that material anymore. So then you have to think 'What am I going to do with it?' Fortunately for me, I was at the right time period and age to try to tell different kinds of stories."

Around 1983 or '84, Vortex Publishers hired Seth to do Mr. X, a mainstream comic book with high-production values that gave him an opportunity to hone his skills. The Hernandez Brothers, American cartoonists known for their book Love and Rockets, had done the first six issues. They provided the key to his own work by showing that a cartoonist could tell stories like anybody else. "I related it to my everyday life," Seth says, "the aimless pleasures of a 20-year-old punk."

Seth's influences are varied and rich. His love of Charles Schulz (Peanuts) and Edward Hopper permeates everything he does. Other people important to him at various times include J.D. Salinger, Robert Crumb, Woody Allen, Alice Munro, Glenn Gould, Chester Brown (Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography), New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno, British painter Stanley Spencer, cartoonist John Stanley (Little Lulu), the Japanese novelist Tanizaki, the American outsider artist Henry Darger, and British film director Mike Leigh.

A lot of the forms in Seth's work come out of old cartooning, he says, "but the modern take on them comes from reading fiction, and watching films, too."

His deep appreciation for Schulz has led him to undertake the design of The Complete Peanuts for Fantagraphics Books, a 25-volume set that will be released over 12 years. Schulz, says Seth, is the perfect example of how to live your life as a cartoonist. "His work really was him. He infused his personality into those characters."

The source of Seth's bent for storytelling -- "It must be a family trait," he says -- might lie in the other book, he published this year. A labour of love, Bannock, Beans and Black Tea: Memories of a Prince Edward Childhood in the Great Depression (Drawn & Quarterly, unpaginated, $24.95) is a book of his father John Gallant's stories, illustrated by Seth. The book's cartoon-strip introduction is one of the few times he has drawn events from his own childhood. He loved hearing his father's tales. In the last panel of the introduction he shows the boy following his father on a walk in the woods and recalls, "I had a lot of turmoil in my childhood . . . but at that moment, looking up at him, I felt genuinely happy and secure."

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