SETH INTERVIEW with THE BOOK STANDARD

“Graphic Novelist Seth Talks About His Latest Creation, 'Wimbledon Green,' What He Learned from Charles Schulz and How He Speaks Through Comics” / The Book Standard / Anna Weinberg / November 1, 2005

Seth was born Gregory Gallant in southern Ontario, and has been creating comics for more than 25 years. His graphic novels Clyde Fans, It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken and Bannock, Beans and Black Tea, a biography he worked on with his father, are classics of the form, and are as well-known for their beauty as for their intelligence.

His latest, a gorgeous bottle-green hardcover called Wimbledon Green, was designed by the author himself. In it, the often silly, sometimes serious story (told “with Indiana Jones–style vigor," said Kirkus) of the greatest comic-book collector in the world—Wimbledon Green—comes to light through a series of seemingly unconnected panels.

The 42-year-old artist, who lives in Guelph, Ontario, with his wife and three cats, took time from his touring schedule to talk with The Book Standard about fanboys, Peanuts and the challenges of working with his father.

The Book Standard: Why do you go by Seth?

Seth: It’s really not a terribly interesting story. I was in the punk scene in the ’80s, and I wanted something to set myself apart. There were several more pretentious options I could have chosen—which I will never tell you—but I chose Seth, which is okay now, because thankfully it is actually a name. I liked it then because it had these mythical overtones. I’ve been called Seth for so long now that I don’t always remember that it isn’t my real name.

TBS: Your real name—Gregory Gallant—sounds a bit like a comic book name, actually.

Seth: Yes, some people have accused me of making up a fake real name, too.

TBS: Where did the story of Wimbledon Green come from?

Seth: Wimbledon just appeared in my sketchbook one day. I had been thinking about a certain kind of comic storytelling structure, where you use a lot of short comic strips that later connect up to tell a bigger story. A kind of storytelling that I had observed other cartoonists using and I wanted to give it a try. So I decided to do some strips in my sketchbook. At that moment I was reading a wonderful book on obsessive book collectors titled A Gentle Madness and I just used that as a springboard for ideas. Wimbledon Green was the result. An obsessive, absurd, comic-book collector.

TBS: How do you find working in those shorter, unconnected panels? Compared to the longer-form stuff you’ve done with your other books?

Seth: It is actually a pretty great approach. It allows you to tell a complex story without having to fill in all the gaps. The reader will fill them in for you. So you can do one story about the character's childhood, for example, and never have to come up with some clever bridging device to fit it into the narrative. It can sit there in the middle of the book as a separate piece and the reader will mentally fit it into the storyline. This allows you to explore any aspect of the character and story without having to painstakingly find a way to shoehorn it into the story structure. Of course, like any method, it has to be thought out and planned so that it works, but it is quite flexible.

TBS: Do you think this is something that can be done well without the graphic element?

Seth: It would be more difficult to do this in prose I am sure. But not impossible. If a writer was smart or talented enough, I am sure they could make it work. But it sure is a lot easier in a comic strip where people are somewhat used to the episodic nature of serialization.

TBS: What can graphic novels do that plain prose cannot?

Seth: Like any medium, comics have their strengths and weaknesses. I think comics are still a very fresh medium so we are still working out what works best. For example, film seems poor at doing an interior monologue—comics can handle this fairly well—but certainly, it is more difficult to do pages of talking heads, which is something that prose does without any problems at all. We sit somewhere in between the two. Comics are able to handle complex narratives, both exterior and interior—but you still have to work hard to keep the subtler things visually interesting while still maintaining their subtlety. Cartoonists are still learning. We don't really have a long history of subtlety behind us.

TBS: In the introduction, you also say you deliberately left a lot of the material in its rougher, sketchbook form—why?

Seth: My normal finished artwork is very laborious. It takes a long time. Working in my sketchbook is expedient. It allows me to do comic strips that just take a lot less time. I doubt I would have done this Wimbledon Green book if I had to render it in my finished art style. I reserve that for projects that I consider more “worthy” of the effort. Wimbledon was done on a lark and therefore the artwork was very “off the cuff.” I am fond of this method now and intend to do longer strips this way. It frees me up to experiment with ideas that I might not normally ever get around to.

TBS: Where does the inspiration for the fanboys pictured in the book come from?

Seth: Well, there are a lot of those guys out there, and you do see that kind of behavior at conventions—really strange, obsessive behavior. The fans of comic books, I guess they’re like any weird collecting group, but there are certain kinds of clichés of behavior that are easy to pick up on. Certainly that fan obsessively collecting sketches is very popular. Every convention, most of what you do is draw sketches for people—who don’t even know who you are half the time. They just want a sketch.

TBS: Because there’s a black market for them out there?

Seth: We joke about how in the future, there’s going to be thousands of these black sketchbooks, filled with terrible drawings, from hundreds of cartoonists. Because people at these conventions come up, and every artist there will draw a picture in your book for you for free. And people just want these pictures, and for some reason, they think these albums are of some value, but there are a thousand of the exact same album out there. And every artist who’s doing it knows—they look through the rest of the book and they see that the fans have been through everyone else in the convention. So for the artists, it’s just kind of a meaningless time-filling experience. It passes the time. Till the grave.

TBS: You do a lot of illustration work as well. Do you prefer making graphic novels to illustrations?

Seth: Illustration, for the most part, is not a career I’m crazy about. I’ve always done it for the money. Occasionally I’ll get a job like the cover of The New Yorker, which is nice, because it gives you a chance to apply a bit more craft and a bit more sophistication to it. But so much of commercial illustration is really a very ephemeral decorating of magazine articles to try and draw someone’s attention to it. So you try to do a good job, and you try to make something pleasing, but it’s not something I would say is deeply satisfying. In fact, I probably would never do any more magazine illustrations in the world if I wasn’t being paid for it.

TBS: You’d focus entirely on graphic novels?

Seth: Well, I would do other things, but I wouldn’t do commercial illustrations. I’d still enjoy illustrating a book, for example. That’s pleasurable. Even though it’s not my ideal pursuit, there’s something pleasing about creating a book. That’s different from most commercial illustration. Illustration is just problem-solving, so you get an article on something that’s rather dull, like mutual funds, and you have to come up with an image for it. There’s some pleasure in solving the problem, and some pleasure in trying to create a pretty picture, but ultimately, it’s kind of an empty experience.

TBS: What do you get out of illustrating a book that you don’t get from the illustrations of articles?

Seth: I think creating a physical object appeals to me. I like having a book, like to try and create a beautiful thing. Book design seems really pleasing to me, and I think it’s because I really just love the dynamics of how books work. The whole experience of creating—figuring out how the book opens up, and what the endpapers are—for some reason all that stuff seems pleasing in the way that I would imagine a painter feels creating a nice picture.

TBS: Did you design the physical book of Wimbledon Green?

Seth: Yes. In fact, I sometimes think I like designing a book as much as I like writing a book.

TBS: You worked on the Fantagraphics Peanuts books, right? How did you get involved in that?

Seth: Mostly just because it’s well-known that I love [Peanuts creator Charles] Schulz. And I think years ago I’d been talking to Gary Groth, who’s the main publisher at Fantagraphics, and I told him, “If you guys ever do the complete peanuts, I would love to design it.”

TBS: What appeals to you about Schulz?

Seth: Schulz was a premier influence on me. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve loved Schulz. He’s just been such a constant experience in my life. I read him all my childhood and my teen years. And then in my 20s, I sort of reevaluated the work. That’s when I started to look a little more deeply into why I liked the work. And Schulz’s work just had a profound effect on me as an artist. The utter simplicity in how he drew sort of infused itself into me, and I can really appreciate that sort of instinctive way he has. It’s as though his way of drawing isn’t just drawing. Those characters are almost representations of his own psyche or something. He’s managed to infuse the characters with more depth than most cartoon characters have. It’s beyond the material itself, there’s something in the actual manner in which he drew them. They’re more like his handwriting than they are like designs. And it’s really appealing on a basic cartooning level to look at Schulz’s work and see that he was a master cartoonist who understood how to really communicate ideas. I can look at it endlessly and learn from it. But then on the flipside of that, I think his work is extremely touching. I think the Peanuts strips are very funny, and they have a surface quality to them that people have just sort of absorbed, without thinking about it. But over like the 50 years of that strip, I think he really managed to create something very moving. I think that and Krazy Kat—maybe a couple of other choices would be in there—but I think it’s certainly among the best comic strips ever written.

TBS: I love his strips, too. And it’s interesting to go back to them after being raised on the more cloying Christmas and Halloween specials. They’re funny and sweet in their way, of course, but the strips are obviously much moodier.

Seth: You know, I think that the merchandising has sort of hurt Peanuts in the long run, because it has colored our view of the strip. But if you really look at the strip again, you see how much of himself he put into it. It really is very sad in a lot of ways—and very funny—but I think it’s much more sophisticated than a lot of people remember it. Because at one point, I think in the ’60s, the strip was seen as sophisticated adult fare with a sort of black humor that was very timely. But as the ’70s and ’80s went by, people relegated it to a children’s strip.

TBS: Why does that happen? Why do people think that anything about children is automatically for children as well?

Seth: Well, I think kids do respond to it, but it isn’t anything I would pick as the primary reason for Peanuts to have existed. I think it is primarily written for adults. And I know as a child, I certainly responded to it, but it took me 20 years to really respond to what’s going on in the strip beyond the surface jokes. And I think that’s because of the marketing. But Schulz let it happen, so I can’t just damn capitalism. He knew what he was doing. He was a multibillionaire.

TBS: You worked on Bannock, Beans and Black Tea with your father, and it was about his childhood. Can you tell me about that process a little?

Seth: I worked on it for about ten years. He sent me rough-written stories through the mail. They were all these stories I’d loved hearing as a child. Then there was a long period of me sorting through them and re-editing them, because sometimes he would write me the same story three or four times, forgetting he’d even written it down. So I’d look through them and edit them together. Even though I tried not to meddle too much in them, ultimately it was kind of an experience of kind of carving the story out from all the things he sent me. And then the process of drawing the pictures and designing the book was very slow, and kind of took a back burner. For many years I thought, I know he’s going to be dead by the time this book comes out, or else it’s going to be finished the day he’s dead. Part of my purpose in making the book was that I wanted to produce it for him. And I knew I wasn’t getting around to it with any particular speed. Fortunately that didn’t happen. I was really surprised that I actually finished it and put it in his hands. That was a couple of years ago and he’s still alive and well.

TBS: What made you want to add the illustrated part to the story?

Seth: People have asked why I didn’t do the whole thing as a graphic novel, and it certainly crossed my mind. But besides the fact that it would have taken me twice as long, I think the real reason was that the minute I transferred it into comics, it would become more my material than his. The minute I started pacing things out and figuring things out, like saying maybe I should have a silent sequence of him walking through the woods here, suddenly the storytelling itself becomes more important than the story. But I wanted it to stick pretty close to the way he was telling it to me. So I decided to put it together in a very traditional picture-book style, just have some illustrated text and some vignettes. The only place I brought comics in was in the introduction, because I thought that’s my most natural voice. I speak through comics.

Anna Weinberg

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