Memory. Loss. Grief. The past. Canada (“Oh Canada”). Down time. Dead time. Time passing. Melancholy as a state of mind. Men’s hats. These are some of the things I think about when I think about the cartoons of Seth. I think, too, of silence, of winter, of old records, of the first time I read his comic Palookaville (in the back room of my mate Neil’s flat in Bethnal Green more than 20 years ago). I think of how the past is always present and the present is always disappearing moment by moment, second by second, into the past. I think of thick black lines and grey washes and recall an idea I had that Seth’s characters are a version of what Charlie Brown and Linus would be if we’d ever seen them grow up.
I have been watching Luc Chamberland’s new film Seth’s Dominion. Perhaps you can tell. It’s a short quiet film about a quiet, determined life of creativity. Here is Seth drawing and talking about cartoons. Here is Seth talking about and building the cardboard houses that are the 3D incarnation of the imaginary town that fills his head (Dominion by name, hence the film’s title).
Here, too, is Seth discussing the nature of nostalgia and why he doesn’t think that applies to his work. “Nostalgia,” he says, “implies a kind of Hallmark card sentiment. That there is a golden past you’re yearning for.”
That is not what his strips offer however, he suggests. “There’s a lot of yearning in my work but I don’t think of it as being that kind of nostalgia. I always think the stories I’m writing, to flatter myself, are more complicated about the past than that.”
Seth’s cartoons are delineations of lives of quiet desperation. “I feel a strong sense that the base line of human experience is sadness,” he suggests at one point.
Sadness not anger. Unlike so many comic strips, his are rarely interested in sturm and drang. The emotional weather of his cartoons is hushed. There are no gales blowing here. And yet if the water is still it’s also deep. Deep enough to drown in.
Chamberland’s film fathoms those depths. It explores the cartoonist’s relationship with his parents (by turns stormy and distant and loving), and with his barber wife. It notes his teenage reinvention of self. (“Be the person you want to be,” he tells an audience at one point, “because you’ll start out faking but eventually you’ll be that person.”) And it leaves a sense that he is happiest alone yet has a real fear of loneliness.
The film is a mixture of interviews and Seth’s strips turned into gorgeous monotone animation. The best thing I can say about it is it feels very Sethian. The film perfectly matches the subject.
As you’d expect of Drawn & Quarterly, Seth’s publisher, working in conjunction with the National Film Board of Canada, the DVD of Dominion comes in a beautifully designed package that also contains old comic strips and old photographs (Seth with his fellow cartoonists Joe Matt and Chester Brown, Seth in his days as a long-hair, Seth when he was just a boy). This is a worthy addendum to the cartoonist’s own work.
The temperature is dropping. Soon there will be snow.