WIMBLEDON GREEN in the GLOBE & MAIL

“It's comically easy being green” / The Globe & Mail / Guy Leshinski / November 5, 2005

For better or for worse, the comic book runs on nostalgia. Even as it scales the heights of mainstream respectability, it remains an anachronism, an inanimate amusement that courts its readers as children and imprints on them a vision of such boundless imagination it can haunt them all their lives.

The rare gift of Guelph, Ont., cartoonist Seth -- and it's rarely so bountiful as in his new graphic novel Wimbledon Green -- is an unfailing ability to share that vision with the rest of us.

The book is anomalous in Seth's catalogue. It arrives unexpectedly between volumes of his larger opus, the melancholy Clyde Fans, and instalments of The Complete Peanuts library, which he's designing for Fantagraphics Books. What makes Wimbledon Green unusual is how it was made: The whole thing was improvised in his sketchbook.

As such, the brushwork isn't up to Seth's usual persnickety standards, sometimes clotting or drifting outside the frames -- but such minor flubs only magnify his amazing control. Seth has steadily become a master draftsman, absorbing the finesse and economy of his cartooning idols -- the workaholics who forged the house styles at places such as Esquire and The New Yorker -- and honing a loose-wristed brushstroke that's instantly identifiable as his. He's reduced his technique to an expressive shorthand for Wimbledon Green: primary shapes punctuated by a classical glossary of cartooning devices, from undulating motion lines to anxious sprays of sweat, corralled within tight, intelligent compositions. It's a bravura display.

The book is ostensibly a character study of the mercurial Mr. Green, "the greatest comic book collector in the world." It's constructed documentary-style, from the rambling anecdotes of peers, who recall their own treasured finds with the tenderness of a first kiss. The discussion sometimes digresses into detailed analyses of the comics in Green's fictitious collection, and here Seth gets to flex his archivist's knowledge of comic history by fabricating loving pastiches of works from each era, exact to their typography. Or the story veers left to become a mad crime caper, where rival collectors clash like mob padrones, each with his own henchman.

Thus the book functions as both a playful tale of intrigue and a primer on the growth of the comic book. Fact and fiction casually merge. The action is set against a backdrop of familiar facades, Toronto's Union Station, say, or downtown Gravenhurst, Ont., and real people make guest appearances. Peter Birkemoe, co-owner of Toronto comic shop The Beguiling, describes the moment Green unearthed his El Dorado: nine suitcases full of rare comic books in the storeroom of a rickety collector. Seth himself makes a cameo -- as Jonah, "history's greatest comic book thief" and one of a "a small faction of nostalgic types . . . [and] self-deluded fops."

If it all sounds a little restrictive, it is. Neophytes may miss the parade of comic-book clichés Seth is both celebrating and lampooning (exhibit A: the lank-haired fanboy in the Rush T-shirt). Even discerning readers will struggle to spot all the references, such as allusions to Little Lulu in Wimbledon's beloved Fine + Dandy comics.

But there's a bigger picture revealed here. Through the musings of its eccentric cast, a portrait is drawn of a man and his motives, much as Orson Welles's fragmentary sketch of a newspaper mogul exposed a longing for a lost childhood in Citizen Kane, a work this book evokes (albeit as light comic farce). Though the improvised story perhaps inevitably loses steam toward the end, it has by this time made its mark. Wimbledon Green is a spoof of the obsessive collector, but it's also a discriminating guide to why comics, such peculiar relics, are still so loved: the vision of a vanished past they momentarily restore.

Guy Leshinski has been reading, drawing and writing about comics for as long as he can remember. His comic-book column The Panelist appeared in Eye Weekly.

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