SETH interview on UGO.com

“The Comics of Seth Gallery” / UGO.com / Daniel Robert Epstein / January 12, 2006

Every comic fan has a certain fantasy. No, I'm not talking about the one where you marry a woman who always wears a Vampirella costume, but the one where you are driving cross-country and you stop at a garage sale. Then you happen to open a trunk that is filled with hundreds of near mint Golden Age comics that the owner sells to you for 50 bucks.

For all of us, Seth has created the book Wimbledon Green: The Greatest Comic Book Collector in the World. This book was just released in hardcover by Drawn & Quarterly and is about a short overweight man named Wimbledon Green with the most amazing comic book collection of all time. He got that by outbidding many of the other biggest collectors, traveling the country buying collections and, of course, even stealing some collections. Seth didn't need to do much research into old comics because he made up all of Wimbledon Green's greatest finds such as Fatsy number seven, Hippy Hudson number 12 and, of course, Green's favorite, an obscure series called Fine and Dandy about two adventurous hobos.

Seth created this story in a documentary style fashion, with most of the characters talking to the audience, with the exception of an adventure story where Green tracks down a very valuable book that another collector is transporting across the country. Until now, Seth has been best known for his series Palookaville which has been collected in such books as It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken and his sketchbook work in Vernacular Drawings. Seth is also a good friend of Joe Matt, and therefore has appeared in many issues of Matt's autobiographical comic book, Peepshow.

UGO: What are you working on today?

SETH: Today, I'm working on a little ten-page comic strip that is going into the next issue of this magazine called Comic Art. I guess you'd say that I'm doing a little book that's sort of reviewing 40 old cartoon books.

UGO: Comics that have been recently reprinted, or just older books?

SETH: Old stuff that I've collected over the last 20 years, so it is long out of print. I'm doing the opening of it in a ten-page comic strip and then I'm going into 80 pages of just reprinting pages from the books and talking about them.

UGO: These must be some of your favorite books.

SETH: Not necessarily, although they are books I really like. I deliberately steered it away from being a best-of list because that would force me to deal with more contemporary books. I mostly just focused on interesting books, let's put it that way. The thing is called 40 Cartoon Books of Interest. Even amongst artists that are favorites of mine, I've tried to pick works that are a bit more obscure.

UGO: What's a good example of a book you're talking about?

SETH: I've got a book from 1890 that's Punch cartoons. Basically, this book is the earliest form of The Flintstones you've ever seen. The book is by the guy who invented that idea of caveman doing things as if they were people of today. But from there I might jump to a 1960's gag book by a specific gag cartoonist or something. So it's really an eclectic mix of cartooning stuff.

UGO: Are these books we could find easily?

SETH: Yeah, you could probably find 80 percent of these if you just went online. It depends on how much stuff is out there floating around. If this was ten years ago and you asked me if you could find them, I'd say good luck. Before the Internet and the second hand book trade, some of this stuff took me ten years to find. But the funny thing is, as soon as I got a computer in the house, I found every book that I'd been looking for in about an hour. It's really changed things.

UGO: It sounds a little Wimbledon Green-esque.

SETH: Oh, it is. Wimbledon Green doesn't come of nowhere. There's some background there.

UGO: How would have Wimbledon Green done with the Internet?

SETH: I guess it's hard for me to put him into those mundane sort of terms because I see him as such a comically big character. I suppose if Wimbledon Green was dealing with the Internet, he'd find some way to corner the market on things.

But for the small time collector like me, I'm not sure if the Internet is a fulfillment of a dream or the ruin of the collecting pursuit.

UGO: It makes it too easy, doesn't it?

SETH: Yeah, it does. It makes it about acquiring things rather than seeking them.

UGO: So was Wimbledon Green an actual story done in your sketchbook, or was that just hyperbole?

SETH: Yeah, it is, totally. Everything in the introduction is exactly how it came about.

UGO: What kind of research do you do on a book like this, if you did any at all?

SETH: I didn't do any research on it because it was very much off the cuff kind of work. But I guess you could say that the book I had read just before I started was research, A Gentle Madness by Nicholas A. Basbanes. That book really sparked the idea of doing something about these big collector types. So that was all very fresh in my mind. He wrote about collectors like Getty and Carnegie who had the resources to scour Europe for the books they wanted, and then set up libraries named after themselves. I thought these guys were so pompous and so much of it was so entertaining with reading about their egos, especially some of the more modern guys. So that just segued immediately into Wimbledon. All the comic-related stuff certainly required no research because either it's based on my own love of cartooning or years of attending comic book conventions.

UGO: Did you have your own Fine and Dandy?

SETH: There are probably a few things, but I guess when I was working on that, what I was most thinking about was this cartoonist by the name of John Stanley who did Little Lulu comics back in the 50's. I'd say that he's probably pretty high up on my list of cartoonists in that vein. I suppose if I were really to talk about who's the most meaningful cartoonist to me, it would probably be Charles Schulz or Robert Crumb. But in the world of commercial comic books, John Stanley would have been the guy.

UGO: I really enjoyed Wimbledon Green in a lot of the same ways I like reading Chuck Rozanski's story of finding the Mile High Collection. Chuck finally put the whole story online about five years ago. It's just every collector's dream [laughs].

SETH: [laughs] Yeah, exactly. I've always really enjoyed reading those kinds of collector stories. I remember years ago in Weirdo, there was a really good story by Terry Zwigoff about tracking down these old Valmor Labels. I think collecting stories are almost like a good mystery. There's so much at stake about whether the person's going to get hold of the material they're seeking. I was really thinking along those lines when I was working on Wimbledon.

UGO: Did you not have the desire to tell your own collecting stories?

SETH: I do, and I'm kind of doing that now in this ten page introduction. I talk a little bit about the experience of being a collector and the feelings of the great finds and also the things that you missed. But truthfully, I'm moving more and more into fiction as time goes on. I just find dealing with autobiography tricky.

UGO: Why is that?

SETH: I've been doing a fair amount of autobiography in my sketchbooks lately, and even though I think it's good to do, it paralyzes you a bit to think about the difficulty of trying to portray any of the reality of your own life, and also to try to portray yourself in any kind of an objective way. I find it fascinating to read autobiographical work by other people, and sometimes I find it the most interesting to see inside their actual lives. But often when I'm doing it myself, I find that I'm thinking a lot about what the reader is going to be thinking. I'm trying very hard to be honest, and that's an extremely difficult thing to do. There are so many layers of ego and just distance between this cartoon image of yourself and who you really are.

UGO: I recently spoke to Alex Robinson, and he said he doesn't want to do autobiographical comics because he doesn't want to end up doing some of what Joe Matt was doing. Doing autobiographical comics about doing autobiographical comics and basically eating your own tail.

SETH: Sure, it's kind of inevitable. But it depends how well it's done. I might be biased, but something like Joe Matt's comics would have been an example to me of how it really does work. I became very fascinated with reading that character's life, even if he was character who was talking about the comic he was actually in. There was something about the way that Joe structured it, how humorous it was and how much it really did feel voyeuristic, so it was very appealing. But if it was not done so entertainingly, it could be very boring or off-putting. I could see the complaints with it.

UGO: Did you see the camera or the frames in the Wimbledon book as a documentary about these guys?

SETH: Not really, I was playing around with the form of talking directly to the camera much like a documentary. But truthfully, I didn't really give it that level of reality in my mind. I wasn't picturing it as a film. I think that because the whole thing was done so quickly and so spontaneously that if anything, I was picturing it exactly as I drew it. Working on Clyde Fans or something, I am picturing a real world that I'm trying to translate onto the page. But Wimbledon ended up having a pseudo documentary approach. Since I've done it, I think it could truly work as an animated film. Especially if it was approached in exactly the same way of characters talking directly to the screen and then cutting away to the other more sequential sequences.

UGO: Is an animated film a consideration right now with Wimbledon?

SETH: Nobody has approached me about it, but if somebody did, I would probably be interested. If somebody approached me say to do an animated film on It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken, I would say no. But Wimbledon is something I could see working, and I might enjoy it.

UGO: Why did Wimbledon Green happen so quickly?

SETH: I couldn't say. I just felt very inspired for a change. I have my own theories. First my mother was dying at the time, so I was going through a certain desire to recapture the experience of what it felt like when I was a teenager when we were together. When I was a teenager, I obsessively drew these adventure strips all the time, and I think I recaptured some of that passion working on Wimbledon. Even though the material was much different, there was something in there that I was trying to recapture through the physical effort of creating these comics, and I think it just poured out of my pen. The other part of it was that it was just fun for me. It was a fun break to do something light without losing any sleep over it.

With this, I felt I could just do what I wanted, and I rarely do anything where I'm trying to input any sense of humor. Also, working in the sketchbook, I was not thinking of publishing it even though in the back of my mind, I thought if it turned out good I might publish it in my next sketchbook collection or something. So there was the freedom of, if I don't like this I don't have to publish it. It was only when it was done that I thought it worked thematically and maybe it would be better off to be separated as a single item.

UGO: Did it change much when you decided to publish it as a book?

SETH: Not really, except for about five panels I redrew because they were just a little too awkward. They were just too weird looking and then I just let it go. I knew that if I got too involved in fixing things up that there was no point in publishing it. After the initial story burst, which took about four months, that's when I first read it over and realized that it was missing something, so I added in that whole adventure story that's in the middle.

UGO: Have you met any old timey collectors that say you based it on them?

SETH: I haven't met any old timey collectors yet that have even told me they've read it. But we'll see. I hope some of those guys enjoy it because I know that a lot of times those older collectors don't necessarily connect to the work of newer cartoonists. I'd like to think that some of those guys might get a kick out of it because it reflects a humorous version of their own reality. But I haven't had any such situation yet. Also, I never talk to anybody, so it isn't going to happen until I go to a comic book convention.

UGO: [laughs] You don't revisit characters that much. Would you ever consider doing another story with Wimbledon?

SETH: I have a vague idea in the back of my brain someday of doing another story, but nothing's formed yet. So unless something really comes together that feels vital, it probably won't happen. But he is a character that I like, so I could see doing it. I've already got a couple other things that I've moved on to since then, so it's hard to say. There's always a tendency to want to return to a character just because you develop affection for them; but unless something comes up, probably not.

UGO: What do you like about leaving the mystery in the books such as, is Wimbledon Green also Don Green?

SETH: The thing is that I don't really have the answers myself, which is one of the reasons why I left it like that. I like to have a little bit of ambiguity with the character. That's one of the things that falls apart with serialized characters, is that eventually you get to know them too well and they become a bit boring. So I did want to leave Wimbledon as a character that even I didn't know too well. If I ever did return to him, I think it would be just one more return. I always think it's a mistake to return too often to the same characters.

UGO: That's one of the biggest problems with mainstream comic publishing.

SETH: Yeah, exactly. I find that in a lot of serialized work, like television or whatever, what is interesting in a character becomes not interesting because they revisit it too often.

UGO: What else are you working on besides what you mentioned?

SETH: I've always got a few commission works going. I've got a book I'll be illustrating next year. I just finished another book. This year I'm carrying on with the next issue of Clyde Fans, and I've got about two years to go until the end, so I'm hoping to meet a certain goal this year. I'm also working on new sketchbook stories that I'm hoping to collect. I'm also carrying on with some other various art projects such as a city I'm building.

UGO: Like a model?

SETH: Yeah, I've been working on a model city. I displayed it this year for the first time. It's up to about 40 buildings at the moment, and I'm trying to get up to a minimum of 50. I've got to get a few more done this year, and there's going to be another exhibit of it in 2007 so I'm hoping to hit that 50 mark by that point.

UGO: Is it based on a real city?

SETH: No, just an imaginary city. I started to build these models of this city, which is potentially the subject of a graphic novel a few years down the road. I started to build it as I started to work out the history of this place, but it turned into a project on its own, and I'm not even entirely sure that it is going to end up as a story anymore. So basically, I'm working out the history of this imaginary town bit by bit as I work through the buildings. I don't know where it's going anymore except that I see it as a long-term project. You can see them on the cover of issue of six of Comic Art Magazine.

UGO: What are the models made out of?

UGO: Cardboard and house paint.

UGO: They look a lot the buildings that you draw on paper.

SETH: Yeah, I've tried to make sure they still feel like my own drawings. They were never really meant to be part of any published work or displayed work until recently. I had some interest from a few galleries that have led to an exhibition last year at this place called the Art Gallery of Ontario.

UGO: Where do you keep the city?

SETH: Right now, it's about to go on display somewhere else, so it's out of the house. I have a room in my basement that has a lot of shelves that I store it on. As I finish a building, I add it to the pile. It's not actually on display in the house because it's too big. At the gallery, it was fun to actually see them set up together for the first time. It's certainly nice to do something that's not drawing for a change.

UGO: Do you design the buildings on paper first?

SETH: Yeah, I do. I draw them out in a rough manner, and then I refine the drawing as I'm refining the model. The process of building the little model gives me the time to work out the history of it, too. Usually, by the time I've finished the model, I've finished writing four or five pages and have done a series of little drawings about it. Something about making the model makes the history feasible. I don't know if I could just sit down and just write this stuff because somehow or other, it just seems boring without the other project on the side to give it some impetus.

UGO: Have you put a Clyde Fans shop in there?

SETH: Yeah, Clyde Fans is connected to it. In Clyde Fans Part II, the city that Simon is walking around in is actually the model city, although it's totally unimportant to the story. Clyde Fans does have a small branch, but it's just one of those minor sort of things.

UGO: Have you seen the Peepshow pilot yet?

SETH: No, I don't think it's going to reach that stage. I think it's dead at this point.

UGO: I didn't know that. That's too bad.

SETH: Yeah, they got through several stages. I know that they had more than one script, but I think it died before they reached casting. I guess it's too bad. But I'm not sure I really want to see myself on television, especially Joe Matt's version.

UGO: I saw you drew a cover for The New Yorker. That must have been amazing because you are such a fan of The New Yorker's comic strips.

SETH: It's a big thrill. It is a milestone in my career that I checked off the list. But in many ways, there are two disappointments to it. One is that if there's a big book of New Yorker collection of covers, I'm at the wrong end of the book. I can't go back to 1930 and get the cover. So even though it's a great thrill, I'm not kidding myself that I'm going to be in the company of Peter Arno or anything. The other part is that I almost had a cover published in the mid-90's, and I was so excited about that, so I was so disappointed when it didn't happen. That took some of the edge off of this one because I was so prepared for it not to happen that I think I'd lost some of that innocent enthusiasm. So it was a great sense of satisfaction, but I think part of me was just very happy that I could cross it off the list, and I don't ever have to think about it again. So it was not such an innocent thrill, but more like a sigh of relief. Let's put it that way. There's a second cover in the pipeline that's supposed to be published sometime soon. So we'll see about that.

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