My brain is geared towards a backwards glance. I think that it is impossible to have any sense of human life without the essential knowledge that everything is moving into the past at every moment.
Canadian cartooning legend Seth always strikes a dapper pose in his trademark fedora and vintage suit, but on this warm October afternoon, with a hounds-tooth overcoat and brown leather gloves, you’re struck by the similarity to another Canadian icon of similar sartorial eccentricity, Glenn Gould. Gloves on a day like this?
Why not? As with Gould, they’re protecting the dexterous, creative hands of one of our cultural titans. Those are the hands behind the break-through masterpiece It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken (acclaimed as one of the top 100 graphic novels), as well as his ongoing acclaimed Palookaville series, now published in hard cover as part of an almanac of Seth works, with edition 22 coming out in the new year. He’s a busy guy. The intimate NFB documentary portrait, Seth’s Dominion, is making the circuit (with a Grand Prize for Best Animated Feature in the Ottawa International Animation Festival), and he still finds time for an exhibition of new paintings at the Renann Isaacs Gallery in Guelph.
He’s one astute arbiter, not just of taste, but of the whole human project: as with Gould, who could talk sagely about anything, a conversation with Seth will veer down many paths, and all of them are informing: “It’s funny how something that can be quite easily acquired at one point, can be impossible to find just a few years later,” Seth observes. Or, on incorporating our junk culture into art: “Everything humans do is alchemy: you take this sort of stuff, base material, and transform it into gold.”
You’ve said that your career was enabled by the fact that the culture had ceased to care about cartooning, it had moved on to hip-hop, rap, another focus.
When I started, I was on the fringe of a culture that was already dying. The comic was once a mass-market form. It was for kids, and the underground cartoonists came along in the ‘60s like Crumb and Shelton, and they created the art world of comics. I think you could look at it as an exciting movement of a bunch of mostly guys across North America who loved comics, especially the old DC comics of the ‘50s and they started to make weird hippie drug comics when that was culturally an odd idea. They came up with it separately and created a little movement. It was a total fringe movement, except the big difference is, it was a pretty big youth culture and those guys were selling in big numbers. Crumb was likely selling in the hundreds of thousands at one point whereas by the ‘80s he was probably selling in the tens of thousands.
So when I rolled in in the ‘80s and started to produce art comics, we were following their lead. The difference was we weren’t interested in taboo-breaking, sex and drugs, rock ‘n roll; my generation was about using comics as a legitimate art medium to tell quieter, deeper stories, closer to literature — that was a slight shift from them. The hippie cartoonists were much more out-there kind of ballsy artists, and we were a much quieter movement. We were very inspired by them, but generationally the two movements didn’t mix that well, for cultural differences. We were more a nerdy type of basement dwellers, whereas those guys were an out-there type of drug-taking hippie, more extroverted.
So when I got on board, the comic book was already dead. The commercial comic book like the Marvel series superhero stuff had ceased to be a mass medium by the time I started. They were selling in terrible numbers in the ‘80s. Even those comics were down into the hundreds of thousands where they had been selling in the millions. The alternative comics that I was involved in were in the tens of thousands or less. When I came and started to serialize, it wasn’t part of a vital communication medium. It was a very small subculture.
But that allowed for a space, a great space for creativity because nobody cared — even the people publishing didn’t interfere with what you were doing. Unlike the zine culture, we got involved with publishers. That’s an interesting point, too. The publishers of the comics that we did came out of the old fan culture and said, ‘we’re not interested in publishing fanzines of Superman anymore, we want to publish real art.’ You had publishers who were interested in the new form artists who had work to do — and no money in it — so the publishers didn’t feel like they had any right to tell you what to do. They were grateful actually to find artists that fit their vision of what they wanted and so you hit this perfect point where you could do what you want – someone to handle the business part of it for you and nobody would interfere and try and edit you or tell you anything.
Someone said that a key memory for you is playing in a cardboard box as a kid, and when you’d return to your mother’s place as an adult, it’d be like being inside one of those boxes: it’s the “true nature of Seth’s nostalgia,” a yearning for a place of safety, a haven, in the past”. Brings to mind a Larson cartoon of chimps eating bananas: one of them says, “I really like bananas. Heck, we all do. But for me, it’s somehow much more than that!” Is that cardboard boxes for you?
A cardboard box is a symbol of something else that is already gone. We still use cardboard boxes, but any of those old signifiers of the past, I’m really connected to them in a heightened way. I like things that represent, well, that pre-internet period I guess. I hate to bring it down to the digital culture, but that period, when I was more interested in our culture, it was a more physical culture.
Let’s face it: I like old things. I have two approaches. One, I could intellectualize it, and give you a good story about why I like old things. But the other thing is I think I just have an emotional connection to the old world. I grew up with old parents, they had me late in life. They were both in their mid-forties when I was born. I was one of five kids, the next was ten years older. It might have been an accident, but it may have been on purpose, that I was a buffer zone between me and father. So, I was late in the game, kind of an only child, and because of the fact that they were much older than me, as I grew up, I was very interested in them. I forged some kind of almost fetishistic interest in the world they grew up in. And that’s still super-true. I feel that all the time. My house is full of old stuff, all old stuff.
So a cardboard box is a good example. I just like it as a fetish object almost, in a way that I don’t like a modern object. If somebody shows me an iPhone, I think it’s interesting, I’m impressed with the technology on some level, but also I’m turned off by it. I think part of me just rejects it naturally, and I would be much more interested if someone showed me any machine from the past. I’d immediately like that, I’d like the feel of that.
Designing the collected works of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts – what an honour. How did that happen?
I knew the publishers who would eventually publish the Complete Peanuts, and I’d always stressed to Gary Groth, who’s the publisher there, how much I loved Peanuts, and he ran a magazine called The Comics Journal. At one point they did a big interview with Schulz. He asked me to do the cover. I was already publishing some zines of my own, gathering up Peanuts strips that had never been republished — illegally — and I said, if you ever do a collected works, which needs to be done, I’d love to be involved designing that.
That wasn’t a tedious commercial commission?
Not in the least. That was a job I poured myself into. I knew exactly what I wanted to do with the books, I think even more than I would know now. I was deeply attached to Peanuts. It was an early influence. In my early 20s I came back to it and I really dug deep into the work. I thought he was the cartoonist, of all cartoonists in the mainstream, who had managed to infuse a personal aesthetic into the work. Very different from the other cartoonists: Schulz’s was the work of an artist. Unlike say Beetle Bailey, it’s not gonna have that effect on you.
It’s because it was deep, it’s personal. All those strips were about things that mattered to Schulz, they were about self-expression. He was one of the few examples of a cartoonist that actually infused the strip with an artist’s sensibility. There’s a couple of other early examples. Krazy Kat would fall in that category, but generally, Schulz is one of the few examples in the mainstream media of the comic strip where it was a form of personal expression.
Which character did you identify with?
I identified with Linus as a kid because he was the “sensitive” one. It’s always self-flattering to pick Linus or Schroeder to identify with because they are smart and artistic. I think I liked that Linus was a bit of an oddball and he was a reader. What’s funny is that I recall a friend of mine (who identified as Charlie Brown) once told me that I thought of myself as Linus but really I was Lucy.
And the Charlie Brown Christmas Special – that’s a highpoint in our cultural era – the music, dialogue, animation . . .
I’d say that it’s profound. It’s a good example of where you get people who come together at the right time, right place. It could’ve failed, but the right people were involved in it, and it worked.
Was Schulz much of an illustrator or was it his storylines?
I think what you have to do when you look at cartooning is, you have to forget about whether the work is well-drawn. That’s the hardest thing for people to understand who aren’t cartoonists. It’s not about drawing. Schulz’s drawing is just about communicating. It’s like handwriting. Chris Ware said to me, ‘Charlie Brown isn’t a drawing of a boy – he’s Charlie Brown. When Schulz draws Charlie Brown, he’s drawing Charlie Brown.’ It’s like, he’s something specific: it’s not a picture of something – that is Charlie Brown. He doesn’t exist in any other form, and that’s what cartooning is. When you’re doing illustration, like representational painting, that’s where skill is involved, and whether you’re capturing reality. But cartooning is not about that, it’s about symbols that mean things. So, drawing a house in a cartooning format is not much different than writing the word ‘house’. They’re abstract symbols that you recognize, and you fill in the details. You don’t even have to be a good artist to be a good cartoonist. You have to be a good communicator. You transmit something through this medium that involves symbols and words, and symbols of drawings.
Snoopy does a lot of stuff on top of his doghouse — he’s a fighter pilot — isn’t that sort of a cardboard box for him, a box of imagination?
I guess so. When you look at cartooning, it’s mainly a form of miniature, you’re drawing in little boxes. In that sense, everything in cartooning is in a box. On some level, it’s like manipulating a doll’s house, you’re moving little things around in little rooms. I think that is one of the key appeals of it to me. Everything I do is miniature: building little cities, drawing little comics, it’s like being the god looking down on your own miniature world.
I see a deep connection in the way you look at the past through your work, and the films of Andrei Tarkovsky. His approach to nostalgia isn’t about sentimentality, but, about the world that was, and could be still: if only we could stop time.
In our culture, nostalgia is a pejorative word. But I think we’re in a funny point in time now, where looking back is a commodity. We’re looking back now to glean things from the past to reuse, to resettle basically; even people’s longing for their own youth is being resold to them. There’s something inherently unpleasant about the whole process of looking back, and that might be why the youth culture right now is completely uninterested in looking back. But for me, my brain is geared towards a backwards glance. I think that it is impossible to have any sense of human life without the essential knowledge that everything is moving into the past at every moment. Yesterday is gone into the past already, and there’s a base line of sadness connected to that, because it is beyond our grasp.
There is a quality of Tarkovsky’s work, where he has an ability for the past to linger without it being sentimental. You feel the past is potent. He makes an interesting comparison between the human past and the complicated decay and corruption of the natural world. That imagery is interesting because clearly Tarkovsky has a complicated view of the past, as being both potent and decaying. I think that’s true. We are made up of the rotting essence of who we used to be. But that’s super-essential to me: you could almost say that as things rot, they become sweeter, and that’s very true of our own past.
Tell us about this upcoming show – paintings of buildings from across the nation.
They’re very modest, not like a big statement or anything. They represent that world of what we’d call 20th century reality — factories, government buildings, hotels. Little simple buildings, simple scenes that I think have a feeling to them. I try not to worry too much about meaning with what I’m doing, because I think meaning is accumulated or accrued from just doing it. It builds up its own meaning. I think that might be the bad legacy of modern art, the concern about ‘what does it mean?’ I don’t think that’s important to the artist. The artist kind of knows what it means, but it’s up to other people to determine that. It’s one thing Andy Warhol said – the guy who I blame for much of the change, though I like Warhol. He said, ‘Just keep working. Make art and let other people figure out what it means.’ While they’re figuring out what it means, just keep making more art.’
You grew up in southern Ontario. Where does London sit on your cultural or aesthetic compass, then and now?
I grew up in Clinton, Strathroy, Tilbury, and a few other small towns in south-western Ontario but never lived in London. My sister, brother and later my mother lived there and I have visited London very regularly since around 1981 oe ’82. I have a deep affinity with the city. It occupies a very large, dusty section of my brain from years of tramping around its wonderful old streets and parks. I can still see clearly in my mind many places that are gone now that I had a real love for. London always felt a bit back in time to me (much like Hamilton or Kitchener) and that appealed. Like all the best cities, London has a feeling that you might bump into something surprising or unexpected around the next street corner. I love it’s grand old Deco towers, like the Dominion Public Building or the stunning TD bank downtown. But I am equally charmed by it’s more modest treasures like the Toddle Inn or The Melody Grill (now defunct) or Tony’s famous Italian or the wonderful old bookstore (now long gone) The Book Brothers (where I found so many of the early 20th century cartoon books that influenced me). I once tried to draw all the businesses on Hamilton Road in my sketchbook. I never finished that project but I haven’t given up. I still draw one now and then and may make it to the end of the road eventually. Speaking of Hamilton Road: Back when I had to take the Greyhound to get back home to Toronto, I recall it always exited on Hamilton Road and I always felt melancholy as it made it’s way along because I was leaving my mother, and was never sure when I would see her again (or if I would). It seems in memory that it was always evening as that bus left London, and I would say a kind of goodbye to the city as it passed Wacky Webster’s store and turned up toward the 401. As the years rolled on, it evolved into a kind of goodbye to Wacky Webster himself. Even today when I drive out of town I make a kind of mental goodbye to that sweet cartoon nebbish on the sign.
Like many significant artists before — and especially the crappy ones — your work may be destined to a period of apathy on the cultural radar. Your drawings might be used to wrap fish, until someone rediscovers you and champions your genius again. Are you okay with that? What do you have to say to someone looking at your work for the first time in, say, the year 2200?
I only wish to communicate what it felt like to be me. That’s essentially what my work (fiction or memoir) is all about. I mostly wish to speak to my own time but who doesn’t want posterity? It’s an unlikely thing for any writer/artist to really remain vital as the decades pass beyond their deaths. That’s reserved for a few giants. Not many Bachs or Shakespeares. That said, I hope some oddball collector type in the future adopts me and loves my work the same way I have for many obscure (yet brilliant) artists of the past. In an ideal world you get in the art history books of Canada. When I was young there was no hope of this happening for a cartoonist so I didn’t consider it. Things have changed though and who knows – cartoonists may find themselves in that history of art after all. My fingers remain crossed.
Seth : Paintings in Gold
Renaan Isaacs Contemporary Art
31 Quebec Street, Guelph, ON
November 15 – December 24
Sunday, November 16, 7 p.m. and 8:45 p.m. at the Bookshelf Cinema, Guelph.
Originally published online on November 7, 2014
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