“Well of course there are Canadian cartoonists: Cartoonist salutes his homeland” / Daily Record / Michael Re / February 10, 2012

Most people in the States probably don’t know a whole lot about Canada, despite its proximity. Apart from a few small cultural differences, like free health care and education, our northern cousins seem more or less the same as us. This proves particularly true in the arts, where prominent Canadians seem to simply assimilate into the larger world of American pop culture, seeming to neither abandon, nor really represent their roots. Perhaps it’s this odd phenomenon that inspired the cartoonist Seth to pen his inspired blend of history and colorful fiction, “The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists.”

It might be a bit of a stretch to call “The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists” a graphic novel, as it’s a little short on traditional narrative. Seth opens the story by depositing us in the fictional city of Dominion and leading us to the building that houses the book’s namesake — a curious institution of the sort one might expect to find in a Wes Anderson film, with a long and bizarre history.

As Seth guides the readers on a tour of the building’s banquet halls and back rooms, all decorated with artifacts from a rich history, he leads us through that history. Seth follows the course of comics and cartooning over the last two centuries in broad strokes, but the little anecdotes and excerpts he offers are made up mostly of the colorful imaginings. Sowing confusion and paying homage in equal measure, Seth does pepper the tale with a handful of real-life Canadian cartoonists and glimpses of their work, including acclaimed cartoonist Chester Brown.

As the story develops, Seth starts working in layers, with a tongue-and-cheek meta-textual narrative voice above his playful fantasy world. From there, he occasionally delves another level down into the assorted cartoon works of his imagined history, including one extended segment late in the book where Seth seems to be commenting on his own work in progress.

By the story’s end, Seth pulls us all the way back, past the borders of the story’s central conceit. While still refusing to reveal where exactly the line between truth and fiction lies, he does illuminate the motivations and desires behind the playful dream penned across the preceding pages. It’s a warm and beautifully sad moment.

If you think Seth’s quirky approach and curious subject matter make the whole thing sound a little self-indulgent, you wouldn’t be alone. According to the artist, he never intended the story for publication. It was only due to the interest of publisher Drawn & Quarterly that he was thankfully convinced otherwise.

Let me assuage your fears and his. In spite of its the peculiarities, or more likely, because of them, “The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists” is a truly compelling read. And if, in his delightful blend of history and make believe, Seth has a little fun at the expense of American audiences not well-enough informed to tell the two apart, I for one don’t really care.

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