A Seth Notebook


Monday, May 24, 2010

 First of all, I would encourage anyone reading this to take a look at the on-going auction in support of the fine work being done on Comics Comics by my co-bloggers.

Below are some entries from my Seth notebook. Earlier excerpts were published in the magazine Sequential Pulp, which was released at TCAF and can still be found on line by clicking to the link I just provided to the fine website Sequential. The version of the notebook provided below is expanded from what was published in Sequential Pulp.  

Without further ado, here is my Seth notebook:

The Englishness of Seth. Seth is of course quintessentially Canadian. Look at all his investigations into the rolling landscapes of Ontario and Prince Edward Island, his work in mapping out a Canadian cartooning tradition through the Doug Wright Awards and the Doug Wright book (among other projects), his indebtedness to Canadian artists like Thoreau Macdonald.

Still, no less than the United States or Argentina, Canada is a creole nation made up of the mix of many ethnicities. Like most Canadians, Seth is a mutt but one strand of his heritage is worth a closer look. His mother was English, a war bride who came to Canada after marrying Seth’s dad.

How does Englishness inform Seth’s work? He’s more appreciative of the British cartooning tradition than any other North American cartoonist I can think of, quick to praise Raymond Briggs, Chris Reynolds, H.M. Bateman, even the various lowly journeymen who work on strips like “Our Wullie” (Scottish, not English, but close enough…) The puckish-ness of Seth’s wit is very English. Isn’t Wimbledon Green a supremely English title?

Of course, Englishness and Canadianness are tightly woven strands, not so much now but in the years of Seth’s youth, when the after-taste of the empire still clung around. TV networks gave big play to Coronation Street and Benny Hill, and Canada still felt like a distant hinterland outpost of the a metropolitan empire.

Perhaps Seth’s love of ceremony and display – as witness all the elaborate fun of the Doug Wright Awards – is also an English trait, a hangover from the pomp of the royal court.

Letting the wit out. When the full arc of Seth’s career is apparent, I think Wimbledon Green will loom as an important turning point. Seth’s always been a witty man, but prior to Wimbledon Green, he never had a means for getting his sense of fun down on paper. George Sprott wouldn’t have had the sly wit it possesses if not for Wimbledeon Green.

Doug Wright and John Stanley. The two cartoonists Seth has worked hardest to revive has some similarities. Neither man was a virtuoso like Kirby or Kurtzman, someone whose talent can be made clear with a single vivid page. Both were nearly anonymous journeymen artists, modest, hardworking, content to work with other people’s characters for years on end, willing to move from genre to genre. These are personality traits as well as artistic ones. They were like Kalo from It’s A Good Life.

Over-egging the pudding? The biggest complaint against Seth’s design work is that, to use an aptly English phrase, he over-eggs the pudding. Some smart people have asked whether John Stanley and Doug Wright deserve the luxurious treatment Seth accords them. As the complainers sometimes ask, aren’t these books more about Seth than the cartoonists they pay tribute to? I’ve already addressed this issue in earlier blog postings, where I argue that the synergy of having contemporary cartoonists designing works by past masters (Ware and King, Tomine and Tatsumi, Seth and Schulz) comes from the dialogue these books create between the past and the present, strengthening our sense the comics have a continuous, living tradition. I’ll also add that Seth clearly feels that Wright and Stanley have been underrated and underappreciated, so Seth’s designs are meant to be a corrective to received opinion. Seth’s design on these books can be seen as partially polemical (although of course the main thing to be said is that these are beautiful books that make you happy when you look at them).

The Under-Appreciation of Doug Wright. The Doug Wright book hasn’t quite had the impact I was hoping for, although it got lots of press in Canada. I thought the book would make as strong an impression as the first Walt and Skeezix, which really caused many people to take a second look at Frank King and rate him much higher in the comics pantheon. One problem the Doug Wright book faced is that came out smack in the middle of the current golden age of comics reprints. There are so many books on old comics coming out right now it is hard for any one of them to make a strong impression. It’ll take a few years for readers to process all these books, at which point we’ll be able to map out a new history of comics. At which point, I think a fuller appreciation of Doug Wright will begin. In the meantime, here is a quick summary of what I think the book achieves: “For too long, Doug Wright was more of a memory than a cartoonist who could easily be read. This lavish volume, stunningly designed by Seth, changes all that by providing the legendary cartoonist with a platform he deserves. Brad Mackay’s introduction is the most in-depth and sensitive biography ever accorded to a Canadian cartoonist. Among the many visual treats in the book, the highlight is the 150 section devoted to Nipper, showing Doug Wright to be a master draughtsman and a keen-eyed recorder of childhood and family life. An instant classic, this book is already one of the foundational volumes for Canadian cartooning.”

Measuring the Iceberg. Like the proverbial iceberg, most of Seth’s creativity is submerged and not visible to the eye. Comics fans think they know his work through Palookaville and the graphic novels, but there are many projects that haven’t been properly gathered together: his best work as a commercial illustrator would make a fine, large volume; in his notebooks he seems to have written out a long elaborate history of the town of Dominion, another project worthy of being published; many of the books he’s designed are for Canadian presses and haven’t gotten attention outside the Canadian literary world (they would be very impressive if gathered all together for an exhibit); the cardboard city of Dominion has toured in museums but hasn’t generated the critical discussion it deserves, and would be an apt topic for an art book; and finally Seth has written some excellent critical essays on John Stanley, Doug Wright, Chris Reynolds and other cartoonists, another set of fugitives that need gathering in a common home. Few people are aware of how productive Seth has been. It will take a few more books for the extent of his creativity to become fully visible.

(Photo courtesy of John Minh Tran).

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One Response to “A Seth Notebook”
  1. Inkstuds says:

    I really agree about how Wimbledon really is a turning point for Seth. I have been a fan of his for a while, but that was a particular turning point, where he stepped out and got away from the shackles of dry, introspective strips.

    I do feel a certain kinship towards his work, since he was my first interview ever and part of that, is installing an important respect for canadian cartooning. When he was in Vancouver last year, we had a bit of a chat about George Metzger and David Geary who have nothing to do with the more obvious classical comics folks like John Stanley and Doug Wright, but both really personify Canadian underground comics work(as well as Rand Holmes). I look forward to that era of Canadian comix getting more attention. There are some forgotten gems out there. Don’t forget that George did one of the earliest modern graphic novels in ’76.

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