I discovered Palookaville almost a decade into its run while working my way through the fashionable indie series of the late ’90s – Adrian Tomine’s Optic Nerve, Daniel Clowes’s Eightball, Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library, Joe Matt’s Peepshow. It was by way of the latter that I first heard of Seth; he appears as an uppity, judgemental friend to Matt’s character in the autobiographical series. He stole any scene he was in, so I picked up a copy of his first graphic novel, It’s A Good Life if You Don’t Weaken.
Seth’s art immediately set him apart from the others. It was old-timey, cartoony. And the storyline – Seth seeking out details on a long-forgotten cartoonist – was unlike the shameless autobiographical admissions popular at the time. The book seemed, in the best way possible, out of step with its time. I then bought the newest Palookaville available, realized Seth was several issues into serializing a new story arc (Clyde Fans), and then sought out all the back issues I could find, worried the series might finish before I was up-to-date. As it would turn out, there was no rush.
Palookville 23 concludes the Clyde Fans arc, 20 years after the storyline began and nearly 15 since I panicked about catching up before it finished. Those years have seen a change in indie comics; serialization of storylines has moved online or been given up entirely, with many artists opting to put out a graphic novel every few years, rather than run a regular series. Palookaville is one of the last indie series, and even it has dropped the staple-bound floppy issues in favour of a semi-regular hard-cover anthology: each issue now contains a couple of ongoing storylines and a section for some of Seth’s other artistic endeavours.
It’s been a long road to the end of Clyde Fans, but it was never exactly a fast-paced storyline. The first part, which stretched over three issues, portrayed an elderly former fan salesman named Abraham Matchcard wandering around his empty storefront home telling stories. Part two jumped back in time to his brother Simon’s one ill-fated trip as a company salesman, during which he mostly wanders around a town, filled with self doubt. The final parts are just as subdued, the story of a fan business slowly failing while two brothers deal with their aging mother and the fallout of an absent father. The conclusion jumps back to Simon’s sales trip, the final night of which had never been fully shown. Saying much more here would spoil things, but the finale is excellent, with Seth proving again he’s one of the best writers working in comics – pulling off an ending that collects the many strands of a story that sometimes seemed to ramble, giving early episodes new meaning and inviting reconsideration of the entire storyline.
Palookaville 23 also continues Nothing Lasts, Seth’s graphic memoir of his own life growing up in towns around Southern Ontario. In the same way the conclusion of Clyde Fans resets and reconsiders earlier aspects of its storyline, Nothing Lasts invites a new perspective on the Seth’s previous books. All the themes from his earlier comics are given origin stories here; an absent father, a mom coping with mental illness, a lonely child discovering and obsessively collecting things. As the real-life inspiration in Seth’s work becomes clear, it adds emotional weight to his entire body of work.
Seth has allowed himself room to jump through time in Nothing Lasts; memory triggering memory, asides that last longer than the story that triggers them. It’s a testament to Seth’s storytelling that Nothing Lasts never drags; each memory moves it forward, like a well-curated trip through the author’s past. The current instalment deals mostly with the author’s early loves; they’re funny, honest and occasionally uncomfortable. The work is well on its way to being the best of Seth’s already impressive career to date.
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But it might be a while until we know that for sure. While Nothing Lasts is in its third instalment in four years, it’s been over two years since the last, and it’s starting to look as though fans of Seth should prepare for another long haul. Long-time readers of Palookaville know this plight: the wait between issues is long enough that any sense of anticipation or excitement for the next instalment has disappeared by the time the new book arrives. And since the serialized stories inevitably end up collected in a graphic novel, one has to ask, why bother with serialization at all? It seems the utility of the serialized storyline has passed; most of Seth’s contemporaries have dropped the format entirely. There’s no more Peepshow or Eightball, and Acme Novelty has not had a new issue since 2010.
But it’s quintessential Seth to keep his series going, to keep moving out of step with his time. He isn’t really making a book for casual fans anyway; if you don’t own the previous issues, Palookaville 23 is not a good entry point – the only non-serialized part of the book is a section of reproduced small paintings Seth has shown at a gallery in Guelph. While the issue contains some of the best storytelling of Seth’s career, the series has become more of a beautifully designed collector’s item. Most people can probably wait for the collected graphic novels of Clyde Fans and Nothing Lasts to come out; us completists won’t be able to.