SETH interviewed by The Globe and Mail

“Canada's comic-book hero” / The Globe and Mail / James Adams / May 8, 2009

"I think I like the idea that the world could be more interesting than it is.” – Seth

You wouldn't notice the three-storey house by the railway viaduct unless you were looking for it. Tucked by the elevated tracks just a few blocks from this small city's downtown, its red-brick exterior is unprepossessing. The confusing confluence of roads and car traffic at its front means a driver's attention is likely going to be elsewhere. Accidents happen here, you think. But for the former Gregory Gallant, Inkwell's End – that's the moniker he has etched into the glass on the front door – is a kind of Shangri-la. Or, as this Citizen Kane fan would likely prefer, Xanadu.

Inside, it's surprisingly quiet, faintly hermetic. A train goes by five, maybe six times a day, but the vibrations are gentle, almost comforting, and, in tandem with the drowsy demeanour of Orange and Henry, two fat cats who also call Inkwell's End home, they only serve to emphasize the stillness.

Which is all to the good for the former Gregory Gallant. “I like the sound,” he says.

Let's dispense with Gregory Gallant – he hasn't been called that for more than a quarter-century, and he turns 47 in September. To Tania, his wife of seven years, to his friends, his brothers and sisters, even to his 92-year-old dad, a long-retired high-school shop teacher living in Prince Edward Island, he is Seth. Not Seth Gallant, mind you. Just … Seth.

“I changed it simply because I was looking for a pretentious-sounding pseudonym,” he explained during an interview at Inkwell's End one recent sunny day.

“In retrospect, I wish I hadn't done it. It's a stupid name.” But Seth it is and Seth it shall be, probably even after death hath parted him from Tania and the planet.

His real name, in fact, “sounds fake” to him now, and besides, it's too late for a Mellencamp/Cougar/Cougar-Mellencamp/Mellencamp switcheroo. Because, well, he's Seth, one of the world's most highly regarded and best-loved graphic novelists, illustrators and book designers.

He's the guy who's done three covers for The New Yorker; designed all 25 volumes of The Complete Peanuts ; is often spoken of in the same breath as Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman; has just published, with Montreal's Drawn & Quarterly Press, his latest masterpiece, a $29.95 hardcover “picture novella” called George Sprott, 1894-1975 that The New York Times originally commissioned in 2006 as a 25-part weekly serial for its Sunday magazine.

Seth probably looked more like a Seth in the early 1980s. This would have been after he busted loose from the Ontario towns of his childhood (Clinton, Strathroy, Tilbury) to attend art college in Toronto and live as “a punky club kid with a scary pre-Goth look” who liked to drink and drug and “wanted a name to go along with all that.” Today, he's a decidedly dapper-looking gent – if, that is, you believe the fashions of 1937 represent the sine qua non of male haberdashery.

With his dark, brilliantined hair and round, horn-rimmed glasses, Seth clearly does. Shorts, T-shirts, jeans – the staples of casual 21st-century masculinity – are nowhere to be found in Seth's Xanadu. But vintage suits, patterned silk ties, fedoras, topcoats, wingtips and crisp white dress shirts? This is the place.

Seth easily admits his current look was entirely contrived at first – the result of “a phasing over from being a punk to being kind of a punk in a suit to being a guy listening to old jazz and then being someone who decided he wanted to completely wrap himself up in the world of pre-1940. I've done this several times in my life, made a switch and decided to force it. This time it was, ‘Okay, now I'm going to be an old-fashioned guy.'” After a while, it just became second nature to look like a brown-eyed handsome man heading out to the Zoot Suit riots of 1943.

“I have a hard time believing in things 100 per cent, particularly my own pretensions.”

Seth's home is as carefully curated as his personal appearance, as eccentrically stuffed as Charles Foster Kane's Florida estate in Citizen Kane . While we all have treasures from our past, either self-collected or given by relatives, they're usually few in number and, more often than not, discreetly displayed or boxed in the basement. Seth, however, has them immediately at hand – functioning rotary phones like the kind Bogey dialled in The Big Sleep, a Beaver gumball machine, Ookpik dolls, a working Moffat refrigerator from 1956 in the kitchen, a wall covered with cheap Halloween masks from the early sixties, Mountie bobble-head dolls, Reliable plastic coin banks, a barber's chair circa 1945, figurines of Marvel Comics heroes, a complete kid-size RCMP uniform framed behind glass, old high-school trophies refashioned by Seth as honours to himself from a grateful Old Order of the Grand Portage and the National League of the Brides of the Dominion …

Seth characterizes his world as both “grandmotherly, in that it's like this desire to create this cozy 1930s, 1940s kind of environment” and “kind of adolescent because the place has a lot of toys. There's something about the teenage boy, trying to create your perfect teenage room.

“I can't live unless I've got control of the aesthetics,” he declares. “If I want a couch, it has to be an old couch – unless it's really successful at pretending to be an old couch.”

Luckily, his wife, a 32-year-old men's hairstylist who met Seth while working as a model in a life-drawing class he was taking, doesn't have strong views on decor (although they did “feud” briefly earlier this year over her wish to put a Sylvania colour TV set in the living room). Lucky, too, that Seth has long-since forsaken his once oft-stated wish to have actually lived in 1937. “That now seems patently stupid,” he remarks with a laugh. “I mean, I love 1937 – but would I have loved the actual 1937 if I was black or lower-class or unemployed?”

Better to have the simulacrum of 1937 in the cocoon of your own home than the messiness of the real thing.

To Seth devotees, all this whimsy can come as no surprise. Graphic works like It's a Good Life If You Don't Weaken and Clyde Fans – Book 1 and Wimbledon Green: The Greatest Comic Book Collector in the World are rife with reverential representations of the sorts of artifacts found in Seth's home. His stories are about the ignored, the obscure, the vaguely remembered and how the past persists in the present, be it a rundown old building – “I'm interested in the feelings that buildings put out,” he says. “Nothing's more appealing to me than an old storefront with an apartment above it” – a shameful or pleasant memory, a weathered tree, or visiting a used bookstore and having one's curiosity piqued by a cartoon in a 1951 issue of The New Yorker.

George Sprott could almost be called Anatomy of a Has-been, even though its trim size of 35.5 by 30 centimetres seems decidedly heroic, monumental, like a tombstone. It's a documentary of sorts (replete with Citizen Kane -like flashbacks, reminiscences and interviews) of the final hours of a one-time TV celebrity and lecturer in the mythical Ontario city of Dominion, population 300,000. Dominion has been the setting of many Seth yarns, as much a state of mind as a place, although he has built some 50 cardboard models of the buildings he imagines to be (or have been) there, models displayed four years ago at the Art Gallery of Ontario and that are now a touring exhibition.

Sprott was something of a “star” in the Dominion of the early 1950s, when TV was new and the only station in town was desperate to fill airtime. But by 1975, no one cares any more about Sprott's main claim to fame – nine trips to the Canadian Arctic between 1930 and 1940 – which he parlayed into a long-running show (1,132 episodes and counting, as of Oct. 2, 1975) called Northern Hi-Lights .

Melancholic to be sure but, as Seth notes, “it's not tragic.” Clearly he has an affection for Sprott's obduracy, “but I'm a bit ambivalent toward him and I want the reader to be, too.”

Drawn & Quarterly is putting Seth on the road in support of George Sprott. He's at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival this weekend, then off to New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and other U.S. cities a few weeks later. Of course, as “a very routine-oriented guy” – the kind of guy who, with fedora on head, is at his drafting table in his basement studio each day at 9 a.m., works until 4 p.m., breaks for dinner with his wife, then returns to work until 11 p.m. – he's “dreading it.” It will be fine “once it gets going, but I don't really like the experience.”

“Who you are really depends on who you're with.” - Seth Still, he doesn't entirely begrudge the attention. Nine or 10 years ago, Seth had pretty much convinced himself that he'd be “broke for the rest of my life.” While graphic novels such as Maus, From Hell and The Dark Knight had been critical and commercial triumphs in the eighties and nineties, sales and interest in the genre were flagging, and “it looked like it was all falling apart.” Seth was hunkering down in Guelph around this time with his then-girlfriend (they split six months after moving there from Toronto, 100 kilometres to the east). Over coffee with best friend and fellow cartoonist Chester Brown ( Yummy Fur, Louis Riel) , he'd mutter darkly about “going back to Xeroxing my art.”

Then things started to turn around. Seth doesn't know why exactly. Maybe it was the acclaimed film adaptation in 2001 of Dan Clowes's Ghost World comic. Or the 2002 exhibition that another pal, Chris Ware (of Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth fame), had at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art. Whatever the reason, “years of cartoonists doing adult work in obscurity suddenly burst into the mainstream,” and Seth was buoyed along with the flow. It's why, just 18 months ago, he and his wife were able to become homeowners for the first time.

Seth claims to be happy. He loves his wife. (“It's easy to say ‘I'm sorry' in this relationship.”) He likes growing older and the loss of vanity he believes it entails. He says he's mellowed with age, although not to the point of sappiness. (“Youth culture,” he snorts at one point, “bores me now. I'd even say it irritates me. … What people talk about at that age, how they relate to each other, it seems like a nightmare.”) And the febrile acquisitiveness he once had – that has made his house what it is today, yet also once “disgusted me because it clearly did seem I was trying to fill a void, trying to make myself happy” – has abated. Now that energy is displaced into “a desire to produce things, to be focused on work.”

Still, he's not entirely sure the good times are here to stay. Which is why he says he's probably working too much now, dreaming up logos; doing commercial work for clients as varied as Penguin, Microsoft and the Wall Street Journal; helping organize the annual Doug Wright Awards honouring the best in Canadian comics and graphic novels; editing and designing books. “Ideally, I would like to work on my comics 24 hours a day, but I feel like I always want that backup … I want it all, that's the problem.” Even in Xanadu.

Seth appears at the 2009 Doug Wright Awards Saturday, 7 to 9 p.m., at the Art Gallery of Ontario's Jackman Hall, 317 Dundas St. W., Toronto. He'll be launching the first volume of a planned two-volume set, The Collected Doug Wright: Canada's Master Cartoonist (1917-1983), which he designed and co-edited with Brad Mackay.
The sweet vanished past

 

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