“By any name a phenomenon: Seth is a master of the graphic novel or, as he calls it, comic book” / Vancouver Sun / Joe Wiebe / December 26, 2005

Although Seth has made a name for himself with his critically acclaimed book-length comics It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken (2001) and Clyde Fans Part One (2000) and Part Two (2003), he dislikes the term "graphic novel." On his recent visit to Vancouver, he told me it has a "striving quality that makes it sound like you're trying to pretend it's not a comic book."

The 43-year old cartoonist (born Gregory Gallant) from Guelph, Ont., also scoffed at the other labels people have come up with for the genre, such as "sequential art," "comica" and "graphica."

He prefers "comics" or "cartoons."

Comics came into existence about the same time motion pictures did. In many ways, the two media have evolved side by side.

But while film has long been taken seriously as an art form, comic books have only recently acquired the same kind of status.

Seth feels one problem with the term "graphic novel" is the implication that the work is equivalent to a novel.

"It's hard to determine what a novel is when you're doing comics," he said. "Is a 300-page comic book the equivalent of a full prose novel or a short story, or do those definitions not even apply?

"One of the reasons novels are so long is that you've got such a descriptive process going on in them. Obviously, in a comic you're drawing that stuff .... It seems foolish to try to compare prose and comics, anyway; they're just so very different."

In any case, the books commonly called graphic novels appear to be here to stay. Art Spiegelman's Maus was perhaps the genre's first mainstream success, way back in 1986. Over the next decade, few other titles crossed over from the comic shop to regular bookstores.

Mainstream acceptance may have been signalled by the success of the 2000 movie Ghost World, adapted by Daniel Clowes from his 1997 graphic novel. In the new millennium, most bookstores have set aside a shelf or two for graphic novels, and titles like Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (2000), Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis (2003) and Chester Brown's Louis Riel (2004) have earned praise.

The New York Times Magazine published a cover article on "comics lit" in July 2004. If that doesn't signal mainstream acceptance, I don't know what does.

Seth was at Vancouver's Sophia Books promoting his latest graphic novel, Wimbledon Green: The Greatest Comic Book Collector in the World (Drawn and Quarterly/Raincoast Books, 125 pages, $24.95). It's both a playful look at obsessive comic-book collectors and a homage to early adventure cartoons.

He began working on it in his sketchbook as a break from his regular work, not expecting it to be published, or even publishable.

"Generally, creating comics is a very slow process that makes most cartoonists wonder why they're doing it," Seth explained. "You might strive for six months to produce something that someone will read in five minutes."

That's why he works in his sketchbook, as well, playing with other ideas and working on stories he can take less seriously.

"I wouldn't have done Wimbledon at all if I had to do it in the finished style. I would have just thought, 'This sounds like fun, but if I'm going to sit and spend 10 years on a book, I'm going to pick what I consider my most worthy subjects.' So the sketchbooks allow me to free myself up."

During our conversation, he described Wimbledon Green as "silly" and "frivolous." In its introduction, he writes: "The drawing is poor, the lettering shoddy, the page compositions and storytelling perfunctory."

This sort of self-criticism isn't exactly the best sales tactic. I can see his publisher's marketing team cringing.

For all his self-effacement, Wimbledon Green is a great comic. It's well drawn, funny and entertaining, and it comes in a beautifully designed package with gorgeous endpapers and special full-page illustrations.

Certainly, readers who are familiar with his earlier books, which are compilations of stories he'd previously presented in his annual-ish comic book, Palooka-Ville (16 issues published since 1991), will notice a less intricate style, a less detailed approach and occasionally haphazard plotting. It may not showcase his talents quite as well, but it would make a good entry point into his body of work for new readers.

In addition to his graphic novels, Seth has been doing illustrations for magazines, including a New Yorker cover. He designed and co-wrote last year's Bannock, Beans and Black Tea, a book of his father's stories about growing up on Prince Edward Island in the Depression. And he designs other people's books, including Stuart McLean's Vinyl Cafe series and The Complete Peanuts, a 12-year, 25-book project that will collect the entire half-century of Charles Schulz's comic-strip masterpiece.

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