Michael Cavna Interviews Seth, Revisiting "Palookaville 21"

“SHELFIES: Re-appreciating Seth’s ‘Palookaville 21′: ‘That is my entire purpose as a cartoonist.’” / The Washington Post / Michael Cavna / July 3, 2014

Reading Seth, the great Canadian cartoonist who dresses and draws like a man out of time, is an act of ever-shifting reconciliation.

Whether he is plumbing the loaded sibling history of his aging “Clyde Fans” brothers, Abraham and Simon, or unpacking the intense sense-memories of his “autobiographical” childhood in the 20-panel grids of “Nothing Lasts,” Seth keeps sliding and eliding our feel for the past — which in turn challenges our perspective on the present. Missed kisses, or conversations unspoken, or paths untraceable, keep lapping back from our personal histories, beating against our assumptions of accumulated wisdom.

“It’s funny… ,” Seth writes in his “Nothing Lasts” installment from last year’s Palookaville 21 (Drawn+Quarterly), as he recalls a swimming hole from his ’60s boyhood. “We know so few facts about our own lives. We are plunked down in the middle of a complicated maze…and all we ever see is our own little narrow path ahead.”

Rendering comic snapshots from his upbringing — within the structure of a succession of his family’s home addresses — Seth gives us small panels as tight portholes into his “past,” yet the overall effect is one of expansive windows into his mind, ultimately forming a poignant mosaic of cumulative remembrance.

The stirring effect, if nothing else, lasts.

Next January is due “Palookaville 22,” the Ontario-based cartoonist’s newest from It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken. It will pick up the “Clyde Fans” serial, as well as “Nothing Lasts” as it turns to boy Seth’s discovered providence that is the library shelf and drugstore comics spinner-rack. (No word on whether we’ll get another Rubber Stamp Diary, in which comics journaling is made easier by using stamps as quick and limited art options for the narrative — an idea sparked from conversation with fellow cartoonist Ivan Brunetti.)

So as we eagerly await 22, this seems like a good time to re-appreciate 21 through the words of the author:

MICHAEL CAVNA: All three sections [of Palookaville 21] are absolutely engaging. I’m curious: Does working with narratives as serialized material help you hit each creative milepost and benchmark? And what’s your thinking behind offering Palookaville as separate and very disparate sections — even if such similar themes as impermanence and loneliness and attempts at connection can emerge?

SETH: To be frank, I’m working in this particular way because of necessity. It’s probably not the ideal method to present the material but, for me, I got used to the serialized method because of the old comic-book periodical system. If I had been required to only publish completed works right from the start of my career you’d probably only have seen a book from me once a decade — or shorter projects perhaps. I have a pretty fragmented work schedule–many projects on the go at the same time.

I appreciate that the audience is bearing with me. On “Clyde Fans” — which began before the dawn of time — I fully expect that no one whatsoever is reading or following that section of the book. Or, they are simply perplexed by it — having long forgotten what is going on in the “story.”

I publish portions of “Clyde” because a deadline forces me to finish a good chunk of pages. Otherwise, it sits gathering dust. It’s a long, complicated project — of which I am still deeply invested — and I’ve gotten past feeling guilty at how long it is taking to finish. It will finish when it is done. Hopefully, future readers will enjoy the complete story more. I present the other works in Palookaville to hopefully give the reader a more satisfying experience. Something with a beginning, middle and end.

I also have lots of other little side projects that I enjoy, and this gives me a chance to present them. Cardboard cities, sketchbooks, diaries, etc. I suspect that after “Clyde Fans” is done, I will generally work in shorter story segments so that I can publish issues of Palookaville that feel more “complete” in themselves. They may still contain serialized stories, but the chapters will be more fully resolved each volume. Here’s hoping, at least.

MC: I’ll be honest: “Nothing Lasts” leveled me. … Many artists, of course, plumb the specific to relate the universal — and your progression of vividly “personal” panels delivers a powerful nostalgic punch to both the brain stem and the sternum. As a top-notch storyteller, are you fully aware of how this taps into the audience’s sense of “universal” experience when you’re writing it — or do you write for, and to, yourself in the act of creation?

SETH: Thank you for those very kind words, Michael. I don’t really think about the reader too much except in the matter of clarity and communication. I want to be sure that what I am putting down on the paper is written clearly and drawn clearly. I always assume if something is of interest to me, then some segment of readers will empathize, as well. It gives me the confidence to navel-gaze — to be very slow-paced, or even to be downright boring.

Unless I am trying to be obtuse — rarely — I don’t want the reader to be confused. Beyond that, I am really operating entirely on a self-indulgent level. I try to write just for myself. To try and get down on paper some small aspect of my inner life. That is my entire purpose as a cartoonist. Trying to bridge the gap between the inner reality and the outer one. That inner reality inside us is so complex and vivid and yet strangely vague and amorphous as well. … It’s hard to pin any of it down into a comic narrative.

With “Nothing Lasts,” I wanted to try and just write somewhat spontaneously about my past. Not get bogged down with structure or try to get too much polish on the thing. I decided that if I made a simple grid and stuck to writing about specific places, it would build its own rhythm and structure as I went along. I also decided to make no references to specific pop-culture items. So much of looking back nowadays is focused on shared pop culture and the nostalgia that goes with that. I figured I should avoid that mucky cultural stew. If I brought up comics or television in the narrative, I tried to keep it vague — generic. There are a couple of places I couldn’t avoid specifics. I had to mention the movie “The Snake Pit” by name because that detail was so important. Most pop-culture stuff need not be named. I tried to keep a calm voice in the narration to avoid too much golden nostalgia, too. What can you do though? Writing about childhood — it’s hard to get away from nostalgia.

MC: You, of course, sparked a bit of a kerfuffle when you acknowledged that earlier “autobio” work was actually a mock autobiography. Now, Drawn+Quarterly has advertised “Nothing Lasts” as autobiography — so it is indeed autobio, or mock-memoir, or in some gray area in between? And to you, strictly as a storyteller, does that make a difference?

SETH: I love fake histories. Most of my work involves some kind of fictional history or other. That imaginary city of Dominion is just one big elaborate fake-history book. That said, I don’t care all that much for hoaxes. I wrote Good Life as a “fake-out” simply because I thought it would be a better story if people thought it was true when they first read it. Putting myself as the main character did the trick. The important point for a strategy like that is that it must have “the ring of truth.” Emotional resonance is what makes a story tick. I find that new readers of that book still generally think it’s true. That’s fine with me. I don’t burst their bubble.

This story is different. It’s all true — or as true as any memoir is. My life has been pretty mundane in general. As you read the concluding parts of this memoir, you will surely recognize that and say,”No one would bother making up this boring life.”

MC: “Rubber Stamping” has a fascinating effect — or effects. For me: 1. I focused on the precise wording even more as a result until 2. I began to appreciate the kinetic quality of the stamp-placement variation until 3. The visual repetition and variation subtly heightened the sense of experiencing “everyday” real life. Could you please speak to what draws you to Rubber Stamping as a tool and technique for storytelling?

SETH: Simple expediency. I want to keep a diary of regular life because I genuinely learn a lot about myself by doing it. I’d probably rather just draw the diary strips, but I haven’t enough time in a day. It will never happen. The idea of using rubber stamps was just a happy accident and it solves a time problem. I’ve grown to like this solution — it works for me. It’s certainly a lesson in minimalism, as well.

I find it interesting how every few months, I realize there will be some new image I’m drawing over and over again. That usually means I need a new stamp made.

MC: It seems telling that both Clyde boys are co-depicted on the cover — especially since earlier chapters focused more on one brother or the other, or one’s perspective over the other. This chapter spotlights Abe — but both within the story and as character, Simon speaks volumes when he has “screen time” and a line. Could you talk about your thoughts on, and approach to, this chapter?

SETH: Even though Chapter 4 is officially “Abe’s chapter,” I have had it planned out for a long time that this chapter is where we finally get the two brothers together to talk. It’s an important talk. It might be the central scene of the whole story — or it might not be, that might be Chapter 5′s role. Each chapter has fullfilled a specific purpose and has a different narrative approach. Chapter 1 is a monologue by Abe. All speaking — no interior dialogue. Chapter 2 is seen entirely from the outside of Simon — we follow him “cinematically.” Again, all from the outside. Chapter 3 is an interior chapter for Simon. We experience his inner thoughts. Now, Chapter 4, it’s Abe’s turn to allow us inside. Chapter 5 adds the final pieces to the puzzle.

It is a very, very small story, but kind of told with a long flourish. I think it will be my most realized project…but we shall see what others think when it’s finally done. I’m far too close to this work to really judge. Sometimes I’m proud of it and sometimes I wince in embarrassment.

MC: Speaking of aging: Marjane Satrapi told me that now that she’s well into her 40s, she weighs her selection of projects — as an artist — in terms of years spent, and “lost,” on each. As in: “Is it worth doing for 1/5 of the rest of my life, perhaps?” Are you [in your early 50s] yet at a place where you think of terms of creative peaks and career arcs and months and years “spent” on a project, or not-so-much?

SETH: I am painfully aware of how much time I might have left. I have a handful of projects that I really want to do before I drop dead. Which ones I choose will almost assuredly mean that other ones will die on the vine. You don’t think that way when you are younger. You have all the time in the world ahead of you. At the age of 50, I made a resolution to get as much work done as I can before the age of 60. For the longest time, I didn’t really feel like I was getting older. That is officially over. I look in the mirror now and know I am over 50. It happens to everyone.

I also fully recognize that my artistic “chops” — I hate that word — have a shelf life, and if you leave things too long, you can find you don’t quite have the same skills you once had. You get better only by working. I might be at my “peak” right now. Who knows? There is always a period in an artist’s career where they go into decline. I don’t want to waste all my time just trying to make money. You’ve got to be careful not to squander the time you have in life. Lately, I am tentatively feeling pretty good about things. I’m working as hard as I can — within reason — and God help me, I’m going to try and get a volume of Palookaville out every year for the next nine years. Fingers crossed.

MC: You’ve said that comics, including some superhero stories, can be experienced as profound when read as a child or adolescent — but not as an older adult. Interestingly, Chris Ware told me “Peanuts” is the only comic he read as a kid that he still experiences as literature — as still worthy. Are there any comic/graphic works from your youth that you still glimpse at least some profundity — or narrative power — in?

SETH: I still have a huge investment in the Marvel Superhero comic books I read as a child…but I don’t think I could give those comics to almost any random adult and expect them to feel anything profound in reading them. They might find them charming. They might even find them engaging, but I’m pretty sure they would be considered somewhat slight in the long run. That said, I think the visceral power of certain superhero cartoonists might transcend the childish stories. Kirby or Ditko produced work of such visual impact that perhaps that is profound in itself. I’m not sure.

I think the problem is the genre of superheroes. They were not meant to be profound. They were meant to be exciting and charming and “neat.” They have a ton of charm about them…but they are balloons that cannot hold the emotional impact that modern cartoonists are trying to fill them with. Superman or Captain America are basically similar to Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny: imaginative fantasy characters for children that have a great deal of charm and the emotional resonance that is suited to children.

We love them now because we loved them then. I think it might be necessary to have read those early Marvel Comics as a kid to be able to enjoy them at the age of 50. Whenever I see a modern superhero comic, I feel depressed. These were innocent, little comic characters and they have utterly deformed them into strange, perverse fetish objects. As far as I am concerned, all those superheroes died when I was a teenager. I don’t know what these things are today.

On the flip side, old humor comics seem to have grown more resonant as time goes on. John Stanley, for example. Almost any adult could read that without condescending to the material.

Some children’s picture books and films seem to easily bridge the gap from childhood to adulthood. “Wind in the Willows.” Virginia Lee Burton. Ruth Krauss books, Margaret Wise Brown, etc., etc. The superheroes don’t seem to have enough human feeling in them to make the jump.

“Peanuts” — beyond a doubt.

MC: And speaking of youth: You won an Ignatz or two back when [Maryland's] Small Press Expo was a mere toddler — three years old or so. Do you have any nostalgic feeling — or hold any kind of emotional attachment to — the [20-year-old] convention and its longtime organizers and supporters, or not-so-much?

SETH: I don’t believe that awards mean you are any good. Obviously, terrible artists win awards all the time. However, they sure can give you a boost of confidence — especially when you are young and need such a thing. Those two Ignatz meant plenty to me at the time. They really did help me to “carry on” back when underground comics got such little attention. I remain grateful.

MC: [Charles] Sparky Schulz once told me he’d never get a Pulitzer — that comics are viewed as too trifling — even though Dr. Seuss/Geisel got one for young children’s books. Do you think broad critical respect for comics — beyond the advances of Crumb and Spiegelman — continues to grow or evolve?

SETH: I do. I think the attention paid to cartooning has grown tremendously during my career. When I first started, all I wanted was an occasional mention in the Comic Journal. It’s all I could reasonably hope for. Today, I’ve grown used to mainstream newspapers reviewing my books. That is a remarkable change in 20 years for a medium that looked like it was about to be dumped into the trashcan of history. I recall sometime around 1999, Chester Brown and I discussed in serious tones how the comic-book industry was on its way out, and what in hell were we going to do? Somehow, I don’t know how, that all turned around and things look relatively rosy today if you ignore the terrifying death-of-print that seems to be steamrolling down on us.

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