Seth is the pen name of the Canadian cartoonist Gregory Gallant, and I think he’s a genius. I can still remember exactly where I was sitting as I turned the sepia pages of It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken – a shaggy dog story about his search for an obscure (fictional) cartoonist called Kalo, and a book that changed my reading life (it was one of the first graphic novels I truly loved). All the same, nothing could have prepared me for Clyde Fans, a book that has been 10 years in the making.
There is a kind of magic in this one. For a long time – it runs to almost 500 pages – you think you’re reading the story of two elderly brothers. It’s a terribly sad story, but it also feels quite small and clenched and familiar. Only when you finally put it down, do you realise you were utterly wrong. Out of the particular springs the universal. What Seth has given us is nothing short of the story of mid-20th century capitalism: of all that it promised, and all that it failed to deliver. If you don’t know, or know of, at least one Abe or Simon Matchcard, it’s possible that you may not have eyes in your head to see.As he reveals in a postscript, 25 years ago Seth found himself standing outside the Clyde Fans building in Toronto: a defunct business that had once, pre-air conditioning, successfully traded in fans of all kinds. Staring in, he noticed two framed portraits hanging on a wall: black-and-white business photographs from the 1950s of two middle-aged men. These men got inside his head, and in the years that followed, he imagined their entire lives, from boyhood to old age, from optimism to disappointment. It isn’t pretty: as the world around them changes, reducing the business they inherited from their bolter of a father to so much rubble, they seem only to calcify, Abe becoming ever more of a bully, and Simon, whose mental health is frail, ever more of a recluse. But there is a certain beauty in the way Seth portrays their rituals and their routines, their growing feeling that the Clyde Fans building – their family home as well as the company’s office – is a shell they’ve unaccountably grown, like a couple of tortoises.
Seth draws in shades of blue and black – the colours of melancholy, and of (to me) smoky jazz – and he pays special attention to things like advertising hoardings, rotary telephones and greasy diners. The look of Clyde Fans, like all his books, is nostalgic without being sentimental. But it’s his extraordinary empathy that marks this one out: the way he depicts the queasy churn of his characters’ emotional lives; their delusions and missteps and repressed rage. It opens with an interior monologue that runs to almost 100 pages, something that should be practically illegal in a comic, but which, in his hands, makes you feel as if you’re sitting in a theatre, watching some brilliant actor perform Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams. Truly, it’s a masterpiece.