Our good friends Eric Hoffman and Dominick Grace, editors of Seth: Conversations, recently chatted with the University Press of Mississippi about their fantastic book Seth: Conversations. We thought you would be intrigued by this fascinating conversation about one of comics’ most singular artists.
UPM: Why Seth?
Dominick Grace: I’m from Southern Ontario, so I have a general interest in artists from the area. Seth, perhaps more than any other Ontario cartoonist, really roots his work in the specifics of place; his world is recognizably my world (sometimes right down to specific buildings), so it holds a special fascination for me. Furthermore, Seth ranks not only as an important Ontario artist but as an important comics artist, full stop. Even laying aside personal interest, he merits close attention. Finally, he is one of the three key Southern Ontario cartoonists (at least of the ones emerging in the 1980s), so a book on Seth makes an excellent companion piece to the ones we have done already on Dave Sim and Chester Brown: there’s always something to be said for patterns of three, and this “Canadian Trilogy” is no exception!
UPM: Your introduction to Seth: Conversations claims that Seth is sui generis. Why? What makes Seth unique?
Eric Hoffman: Seth has been quite vocal about his influences, particularly the pantheon of New Yorker illustrators, John Stanley, Charles Schulz, and others, and while his work does bear some surface similarity to those artists – at least in terms of style and tone – Seth really stands alone in the comics landscape in terms of what he is doing. His “autobiographical” work, primarily It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken, published during a period of considerable innovation in autobiographical cartooning (on the heels of Pekar’s American Splendor and Spiegelman’s Maus), is fiction disguised as non-fiction, which is to say it is a work of the imagination that contains certain autobiographical elements. Really it’s somewhat postmodern and self-conscious, yet at the same time is refreshingly sincere; ironically Seth, for all his affectation, both in his work and personal life, is possibly one of the least pretentious cartoonists of his generation.
His later works bear this out: Wimbledon Green and the GNBCC are essentially whimsical, if somewhat elegiac, tributes to the postwar Canadian cultural landscape he loves, while George Sprott and Clyde Fans, though more tragic in tone, are fascinating fictional representations of the inexorable decline of this landscape, portrayed symbolically through the crumbling lives of its protagonists. So while Seth’s precursors may utilize certain tragic elements – Schulz is perhaps closest in spirit here – I don’t know of any other cartoonist, other than perhaps Chris Ware, who so effectively utilizes such a simplified, cartoony style to convey such engagingly funereal, yet compulsively readable, material.
UPM: Which of Seth’s work do you find his best or most representative?
Grace: The best, for me, without doubt, is George Sprott. Much as I admire all of Seth’s work, this one especially really hit me. It is also characteristic of Seth in its evocation of the past, in its self-consciousness, in its narrative structure (notably in the use of fragmented and subjective narratives), in its precise and yet allusive invocation of space, in its complexity of character, and so on, but more than any other Seth book, it for me carries an emotional resonance. Seth’s work often has a sort of cool distance to it, invoked both by his style and his characteristic narrative perspective; George Sprott has that but also manages to make Sprott a sympathetic character, despite his evident and numerous failings. Throw in the amazingly detailed, varied, and complex page designs, and you have a work of remarkable ambition and impact, in less than one hundred pages. Sheer comics genius.
UPM: Where should the reader new to Seth’s work start? Why?
Hoffman: George Sprott really is the best place to start. It’s his most compact and focused work (interestingly as its composition was a bit more piecemeal than his other works), it contains many of themes that are present in his other work, it’s his most cohesive and coherent piece, and it really does the best job of covering just what Seth’s work is all about. I found it interesting that Seth in our interview essentially agrees with that estimation.
UPM: In your interview with Seth, he lists a number of influences, animator Norman McLaren and pianist Glenn Gould (both, notably Canadian) among them. Who stands out among Seth’s influences as the most interesting or peculiar, and why?
Grace: I don’t think the importance of Crumb for Seth had really sunk in for me before interviewing him. He’d mentioned Crumb in interviews before, of course, but I was surprised at how much prominence Crumb seems to have for him – mainly because there is nothing obvious stylistically in Crumb’s work that I see reflected in Seth’s, though they do have some common thematic interests (e.g. the way the modern world has degenerated, the inherent value of the past and past art forms).
UPM: How did interviewing Seth for this book clarify your own thoughts about and understanding of his work?
Hoffman: In an introduction for a volume of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, Alan Moore writes of the present moment in history that “there would seem to be new opportunities for liberating both our culture and ourselves from time’s relentless treadmill. We may not be able to jump off, but we’re no longer trapped so thoroughly in our own present movement with the past a dead unreachable expanse behind us. From our new and elevated point of view, our history becomes a living landscape, which our minds are still at liberty to visit and to draw sustenance and inspiration from. In a sense, we can now farm the vast accumulated harvest of the years or centuries behind.”
This to me seems a fairly accurate summation of Seth’s art and even to a great extent his lifestyle. As much as he abhors the present, Seth does not suffer the illusion that life was better in the past; he is however convinced of the superiority of its artifacts. These he uses in both his life and art to fashion not a recreation of the past so much as an alternative present. He mentions in our interview the deep enjoyment that this constructed reality brings him, and wonders why more people do not similarly engage in constructing an artificial reality for themselves, why they are instead perfectly content to endlessly chase after the neoteric, much of which is manufactured anyway.
Yet I think unlike Seth, who possesses this profound aesthetic appreciation for this very specific point in time – almost to the point that it might be considered a fetish – most people lack the knowledge or imagination necessary to conceive of anything other than their contemporary environment. I am left with the sense that Seth considers this a great tragedy; that the past, rather than being moribund and inaccessible, is instead a great wellspring of imagination and creativity, a “living landscape,” as Moore calls it, from which one can “draw sustenance,” a way of transforming the self and of regarding the world from a different vantage point, a means of escaping what Seth sees as the modern world’s inevitable trajectory of decline.
A review of Seth: Conversations, with an accompanying short film on Seth, can be found at the Maclean’s website.