Vancouver Sun Features Seth, Clyde Fans and Bannock, Beans & Black Tea

“In cartoons, square is the new hip: GRAPHIC NOVELS I The new heroes aren't caped crusaders, but hospital file clerks and salesmen” / Vancouver Sun / Shawn Conner / July 3, 2004

Clyde Fans: Book 1

By Seth

Drawn and Quarterly, 156 pages ($26.95)

Bannock, Beans and Black Tea

By John Gallant and Seth

Drawn and Quarterly, 174 pages ($24.95)

The Complete Peanuts

Charles Schulz

Fantagraphics Books, 344 pages ($39.95)

High above city streets, a life-or-death struggle is taking place. One costumed super-powered being is fighting another. The fate of the world hangs in the balance. Meanwhile, down below, on the second floor of an abandoned-looking storefront, a plain, elderly man sits on the toilet, describing his life as a fan salesman.

And there you have the two opposite ends of the comic book spectrum circa 2004. By the time you read this, Spider-Man 2 -- the sequel to one of the most profitable super-hero movies ever made -- will be setting box-office records with its mishmash of computer-generated fight sequences, absurdist humour, mythic comic-book lore and sappy love scenes. But there's a substrata of comics that has little, if anything, to do with radioactive spiders and maniacs with mechanical arms. Its heroes are hospital file clerks, maladjusted cartoonists and, in Clyde Fans, Seth's latest collection, traveling salesmen.

To backtrack a bit, the Toronto-based cartoonist isn't alone. He belongs to a small pack of like-minded individuals who have opened up the comics medium to memoir and autobiography. Harvey Pekar pioneered the form in 1976 with his series American Splendor, but the more adventurous graphic cartoonists of the time were still caught up in the freewheeling sex-and-drugs fervor of the '60's underground movement. It wasn't until the advent of '90's alternative comics titles like Hate, Love and Rockets and Eightball that a new, more narrative-driven esthetic was introduced, and artists began looking close at hand for fresh subject matter.

What sets Seth apart from contemporaries like Joe Matt, Chester Brown and Julie Doucet, as well as progenitors like Pekar and Robert Crumb, is his impassioned fetishization of nostalgia. In It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken, his previous "picture novella," as he calls them, Seth documented his search for a gag cartoonist from the '50s. That the object of his search was revealed later (in Details magazine, of all places) to be a fictional creation didn't matter as much as the artist's obsession over a bygone age of cartooning itself. And in life, Seth -- perhaps the only cartoonist who finds inspiration in old company staff photographs, which he reproduces with ink and water -- dresses like a slightly hipper Willie Loman.

Clyde Fans represents for Seth a further distancing from traditional comic-book subject matter. "And in its own rather mundane way it's an interesting story," says salesman Abraham Matchcard early on. He's right. His tale, about a small business started by his father and driven into the ground by Abe and his brother, is rather mundane. But it's elevated by the art, which supplies the conflict, the character illumination and sometimes the sheer esthetic pleasure not always supplied by the narrative.

Part One of Clyde Fans, Book 1 follows the retired Matchcard during his daily routine. We see him pour coffee, light a cigar, put out the cigar, pick up a volume of an encyclopedia and put it down again as he roams from room to room above and in a Toronto storefront. All the while he soliloquizes about fans, and his life. Part Two, which takes us back 30 years to 1957, is a WWF grudge match in comparison. In it, Matchcard's pathologically shy brother Simon attempts to overcome his fears as he cold-calls store owners in a small Ontario town.

This would be about as compelling as the Home Shopping Network if it wasn't for the pictures. Seth's thick, gentle brushstrokes convey sympathy for his slump-shouldered, marginalized characters, and he captures emotions with a few simple lines. A dedicated mood-setter, Seth invites his readers to linger over wordless panels of falling leaves, old brick buildings and plumes of industrial smoke billowing against a starry sky. Melancholy hues of gray and blue cast a further pall of gloom and loneliness over the otherwise cream-coloured pages..

Yet the content of the panels sometimes raise more questions than answers. For instance, who does Matchcard think he's addressing when, attending his morning bathroom routine, he rambles on about people stranded on desert islands? Is it significant that he picks up the "C" volume of an encyclopedia set? Is the cigar just a cigar? With no answers forthcoming, we're left with the impression that the particulars aren't as important as the rhythm of words and pictures. However, despite the artist's overly precious manner and willful ambiguity, the reader is left anticipating the second, concluding volume, which will tell us more about these "mundane" lives. Just don't look for this one at a multiplex anytime soon.

The same could be said for Bannock, Beans and Black Tea. Illustrated by the Clyde Fans creator, the book is a memoir of Seth's father's hardscrabble youth growing up on Prince Edward Island during the Depression. Yes, it's as dire as it sounds, and John Gallant's first-person narrative (compiled by Seth, a.k.a. Gregory Gallant, from his father's notes) includes a veritable checklist of poverty-associated horrors. Here are battles with the elements, encounters with uncaring authorities, relationships with shift-less, resentful adults, and diversions such as staring out a window at a dirt road. If you were lucky, you might see a horse and wagon go by.

Seth adds elegant little drawings and some full-page pictures (the hardcover book is about the size of a paperback), and hand-letters his father's recollections. The handsome volume is obviously a labour of love for all concerned, and would be a valuable addition to every elementary and high school library in the country. It also offers perspective for anyone driven to apoplectic rage over such modern inconveniences as downtown parking or downed Internet servers.

When not writing and drawing his comic book Palookaville (where the material in It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken and Clyde Fans Book One first appeared), and documenting family history, Seth works as a commercial illustrator and, occasionally, a designer. One of his more recent design projects is the first volume (1950 to 1952) of a projected complete collection of all fifty years of Peanuts strips from Seattle publisher Fantagraphics. It's apparent in the pages of The Complete Peanuts where at least part of the Clyde Fans artist's sensibility was formed. Charles M. Schulz's minimalist artwork, his unhurried rhythms and underlying melancholy are also all touchstones of Seth's work.

Both Seth's celebration of the man in the grey flannel suit and the resurrection of Peanuts can be seen as a reaction to the trail of hipness blazed by the alternative comics movement, which celebrated freaks, geeks, punk rockers and other malcontents. Square may be the new hip, at least in cartooning circles.

Since his death in 2000, Schulz has been the subject of a fair bit of revisionist thinking by sequential art types who bandy around words like "existential" to describe running gags such as Lucy pulling the football away before Charlie Brown can complete his kick.

I'll buy into this to some extent, just as I have to admit that Schulz created truly iconic characters. At the same time, the first volume of The Complete Peanuts is filled with as many lame punch-lines as inspired ones. Still, I look forward to future installments, which will include such milestones as the debut of Linus' security blanket and Snoopy donning aviator goggles to become the World War One Flying Ace. I guess I'm as nostalgic as the next comics fan.

Vancouver writer Shawn Conner frequently writes on graphic novels for these pages.

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