Not long into the 21st century, the cartoonist Seth, whose storytelling, illustration and book design work has made him one of the most revered artists in his field, made what he calls “a very concerted effort to be more Canadian.” The lifelong Ontarian was already well versed in the ways of his homeland, but he wanted to dig deeper.
“I realized at the time that a lot of the design I like has intrinsic qualities of the countries where the (artists) came from. So I sat down and said to myself, ‘What is the essence of Canadiana in design?’ I actively studied it. Over about eight years, I gathered up tons of ephemera, put them in a giant scrapbook and wrote about them. Why is something Canadian? What makes an image Canadian? Why is a particular approach Canadian?
“I eventually boiled it down to three very simple elements of what I thought and felt was a Canadian design sense. It’s also probably something that is part of an older Canada that has changed. The three elements are a sense of landscape, even if only in the shape of the design, the sense of open space; a bureaucratic quality, a government quality, in that Canada is very focussed on its own officialness; and a kind of modesty, a certain small scale in the work, the don't-look-at-me-too-hard quality.”
Seth’s graphic novels, in particular, display these qualities, but you can — and should — take a long, hard look at them. His latest, Clyde Fans, out now from Montreal publisher Drawn & Quarterly, breaks another rule: it is not small-scale. Told over 500 pages, it has been 20 years in the making.
“In some ways, I couldn't even remember what the beginning of the book was about,” Seth says. “One thing that saves that from being a problem is that the book never changed. From its inception to its ending, it followed the path I set for it.”
Clyde Fans tells the story of two brothers who run the family firm of the book’s title. Like all Seth’s work, it is nostalgic, concerned with memory and melancholy and how the passing of time affects people and places. Originally serialized in Palookaville, a comic book written and drawn by Seth and also published by Drawn & Quarterly, its deliberately measured pacing and powerful yet intimate emotional resonance is as far removed from the Marvel and DC universes as it is possible to be. But a boyhood obsession with superheroes was his gateway into the world of cartooning.
Seth was born Gregory Gallant on September 16, 1962, in Clinton, Ontario. He spent a large part of his childhood a two-hour drive south in Tilbury on the shores of Lake Erie. Quiet and socially awkward, he occupied his teenage years with reading and drawing comic books. In 1980, he went to study at the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD University) in Toronto, determined to become the next great creator of superheroes.
It didn’t work out. Moving to the big city, he says, was a big learning curve. He met smart girls who introduced him to art, music and novels. He became a punk and insisted everyone call him Seth, the new name sealing his transformation from unhappy small-town kid to young man eager to make his mark in the independent, alternative-cartooning scene.
After years working as a cook, commercial illustrator and occasional comic-book artist — and a lot of time working on his own stories — came the first issue of Palookaville in 1991. In December 1993, issue 4 had the first part of It’s A Good Life If You Don’t Weaken, the story of a cartoonist called Seth, obsessed with the past, who tracks down a forgotten New Yorker cartoonist. The semi-autobiographical tale would be collected as Seth’s first graphic novel (in 1996), win awards and eventually end up on all-time best graphic-novel lists.
Like that book’s main character, the real-life Seth is obsessed with the past. When you meet him, you cannot mistake him for anyone else. He will be wearing a suit, shirt and tie from the 1930s, ‘40s or ‘50s and glasses that befit his clean-shaven face under a vintage fedora. His shoes will be period-correct too, as will the umbrella he’ll no doubt be carrying.
The desire to dress this way came about in the late 1980s. “It began as an affectation, very much so,” Seth recalls. “I was disenchanted with punk. A lot of the art and design I liked then were early 20th century, and I had a friend who wore suits and ties from the ‘40s. It seemed natural. I had been brought up hearing about that world, the early 20th century, from my parents. I didn’t realize at the time, but it resonated with me. Later, when much of the pure affectation of trying to be Mr. Retro wore off, I realized that there was something about that time period that really spoke to me. I decided it wasn't just nonsense; it was who I was comfortable as. And I built an identity around me, and that identity remains true to me.”
He says that he has “never worn anything but a suit for 20 years. Literally, I can't imagine a situation where I wouldn't have a jacket on. I'm just comfortable like that.” He does not own a pair of shorts, a ball cap or a Blue Jays T-shirt. Working in his studio, in the basement of his home in Guelph, Ontario, he wears a white shirt, a pair of pants and an artist’s smock.
The house, Inkwell’s End, is also kitted out in immaculate pre-1960s style. Display cases and shelves on every wall in rooms and hallways are packed with collected knick-knacks, pictures and books. Fixtures, fittings and even some appliances date back 50 years and more. Any new additions, like a recently remodelled bathroom of Seth’s design, are made to match with the help of local craftspeople and makers. “I’ve always wanted to fully art-direct my whole life,” he told Maclean’s in 2015. He seems to be getting what he wants.
In his wonderful, moving book George Sprott: 1894–1975, the lead character lives in a Canadian city of Seth’s invention called Dominion. The town also features in his graphic novels Wimbledon Green, about a comic-book collector, and The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists, about the mythical group of the title. In the basement of Inkwell’s End, Dominion has been made flesh in some 100 paper-and-cardboard buildings, constructed over about a decade, another long-term personal project. Dominion has been displayed in part in galleries in Canada and the U.S., along with original comic-book pages and other work highly prized by collectors. In 2014, a National Film Board of Canada–funded film, Seth’s Dominion, showcased the city and its creator in a part-animated documentary.
There is one bricks-and-mortar building in Guelph that looks to have been transplanted from Dominion. The Crown Barber Shop has a Seth-designed interior and a Seth-loving proprietor: his wife, Tania Van Spyk, who opened the store in 2012, 10 years after they married.
(The first thing Seth did on meeting his wife was draw her. This was not a move from the cartoonist’s romantic playbook. She was the model at a life-drawing class and, as he told the National Post in 2012, “I would never have even spoken to her if she hadn’t talked to me first. It is utterly unacceptable and crass to chat up the nude model. I am a gentleman if nothing else.”)
Crown Barber Shop has vintage seats, mirrors and cash register; Seth signage inside and out and a retro-modern feel. “I loved doing a full design for the three-dimensional world,” he says, “but those opportunities do not arise very often.”
Seth does venture beyond the confines of his tightly controlled world. He has created a number of covers for The New Yorker, including a special true-crime edition; an album cover for Aimee Mann; DVD and Blu-ray covers for the beloved-by-buffs Criterion Collection and numerous book designs and covers. His illustrations feature in the prequel series to Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events children’s books. Since 2010, he has provided covers and art direction for every issue of Canadian Notes & Queries, the triannual literary magazine published by Biblioasis of Windsor, Ontario, for whom he also designs Christmas ghost-story books (ideal stocking stuffers for literary types).
Most widely seen, however, are his book designs for The Complete Peanuts, a 26-volume reprint of all 17,897 comic strips Charles Schulz drew to tell the adventures of Charlie Brown, Snoopy and the gang. The strip, held up as a pinnacle of comic-book arts, was a formative influence for the young Seth alongside his superhero books. “I still love Peanuts,” he says. “It was an honour to work on those books.” They appeared at a rate of two per year from 2004 to 2016. “I was afraid that something would go wrong and we wouldn't finish the series. I told my editor certain things — plans for the books in case I died — and then he died, which was very ironic and terrible. The books made it, and I am so grateful for that.” A minor human drama suffused with melancholy, the very ingredients of a Seth “picture novella,” to use his preferred term for his graphic novels (although he allows Clyde Fans at 500 pages to be a “picture novel”).
In person, Seth is gregarious and an excellent conversationalist. The [EDIT] met him in London, England, where he was breaking a holiday with Tania to sign books and meet a long queue of fans in Gosh, one of the city’s best comic-book stores. After staying past the designated finish time to ensure all requests for signatures and selfies were satisfied, he suggested a short cab ride to Scarfes Bar at the Rosewood, a five-star hotel. At Scarfes, the décor, from large artworks on the walls to the logos on the napkins, comes from the pen of the cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, of whom Seth is a big fan. The bar also does a good line in red wine, another of Seth’s passions.
Seth remains enthusiastic about his work because he divides it into two: work for money and work for love (sometimes the two cross over). Dominion and a series of giant sketchbooks fall into the second category. Working purely for the artistic satisfaction, he says, “frees me up. I don’t have to be concerned about what anyone else thinks. I do believe that working this way is the secret to happiness. You can find other elements of happiness in your life. Obviously, a good relationship helps, but that doesn't solve your problems. A good relationship can be destroyed by being unhappy in your regular life.
“The strongest thing you can do is to do what makes you happy — if you can figure that out. When I was much younger, I thought what made me happy was doing comics, and I would have been happiest to have more and more comics. I have realized that I more enjoy doing these things that are across a variety of disciplines, and maybe I don’t show them to anybody.”
There is little danger that something Seth turns his hand to will remain unseen.