the newspaper: A lot of people sit down with a graphic novel and expect the pace and style of a comic book. Your books, however, are more about inaction and reaction than the action itself. The characters seem to internalize a lot more than in comic books, where emotions are readily apparent on the surface. Is there a common thread among your works as far as character development? What kinds of messages are you hoping to convey through your characters?
Seth: A long time ago I decided that I was more interested in portraying the interior world of an experience than the exterior one. That is a bit misleading because as a cartoonist you are always drawing the outside of things; you can only hint at the inside of experience. That said, I try to keep my comic books quiet. I'm attracted to things that are slow and contemplative. To be honest, I am attracted to a lot of things that are downright boring. I know that my work is always teetering on the edge of that kind of boredom. I try to keep it from being boring, but I don't worry too much about it. I can only hope that what I find interesting will interest some readers as well. Most comic books are about action because of their pulp origins. That approach has defined the medium. I don't think regular life is much about "action". Quite the opposite, really. Most people's lives are slow in pace. I'm trying to get some of that into the work. All my work is about this is some manner. I'm especially concerned with that profound schism between our inner lives and our outer lives. I don't have any "messages" in my work, but I am trying to convey some sense of "being alive." Disappointment, sadness, regret, and death figure prominently in my stories, but that's probably because I tend to write about old people. I'm a pretty melancholic person, but I'm also generally a very happy person. I don't think sadness and happiness cancel each other out. They complement each other. Depression is another story. That cancels happiness.
tn: How did George Sprott come about?
S: It came about simply because The New York Times called me up and asked me if I would do a "graphic novel" to serialize in their magazine. I was really trying to finish up my Clyde Fans story, but I couldn't turn them down. I gave them three possible choices for a story. Choice number one was to continue and finish a story I had begun in Toro Magazine but had left unfinished due to an editorial conflict. Choice number two (my favorite at the time) was a quiet, meditative study on a block of abandoned buildings. I looked over my first two choices and instantly knew that I needed to give them a third. It was pure strategic thinking. They were not going to pick number one; they wouldn't want to continue something begun elsewhere. Number two was a shot in the dark, but probably too "poetic" for them. Too artsy. It seemed obvious that there had to be a third option that was a more traditional story and had some human characters in it. Sprott - a rather unformed idea at that point - was what was currently floating around in the back of my brain, and Sprott it was. I figured they would pick it, but I was still hoping against hope that they would go for the second option. In the end, they were correct. Working on Sprott was the more challenging choice, and ultimately the more rewarding for me. I had no specific plans to turn this serialized piece into a book, but when Drawn & Quarterly asked me what I was planning to do with the work, I decided to expand on it and make it into its present form. This was another lucky accident. Expanding the work deepened it to some degree. I like the strip much better in its final form than in the original magazine run.
tn: Many of your works (Palookaville and It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken) seem autobiographical, or at least semi-autobiographical. Is the Seth in your books the Seth from real life? How are you the same and how do you differ?
S: Well, the easy answer is no. The character in the strips isn't really like me, mostly because it's difficult to create a reasonable facsimile of yourself without putting more effort or time into it. When I use myself in a comic strip, it is usually for a straightforward purpose: to capture some moment or to relate some thought. There's not usually enough complexity to the character to really transmit my personality. The Seth in the comics is probably a lot more one-note than I am in real life (I hope). Lately, I've been working on some strips in my sketchbook in which I've been trying to write a memoir of sorts. I'm hoping to dig a little deeper into my own character, but it's hard to say. It's pretty impossible to present an objective view of yourself. Just trying to know yourself is difficult enough, but to put it down on paper accurately is a daunting task. The character of Seth that shows up in my strips certainly represents aspects of my personality. He is just a little more consistent in his behaviour than I am. Real human beings have more contradictions.
tn: Your characters are obsessed with the past, reaching back to days gone by in a search for meaning. Your own dress sense and style of drawing are also quite anachronistic. Why do you continually revisit that theme in your works? Why is it important?
S: Mostly, it's the aesthetics of that period. I am very drawn to the look and design of the early twentieth century. It was an era - say, 1890 to 1950 - when things were designed with a great deal of care. You can look at almost any common item from that time and see that it is superior to an equal item from today. In the fifties our culture started a downhill slide into cheapness. The current North American landscape is shoddy and ugly. This is the direct result of a culture that has consistently undermined the value of beauty. I am not saying that nothing of beauty is created today, but it is the exception, not the rule. In that earlier period, the ratio was better. I am also not saying that 1920 was a superior time to live in than 2010. That would be an impossible statement to make. The changes are too complicated, some good and some not so good. On a sheer level of aesthetics, however, this time period loses. I'm drawn to the beauty of what was left behind. It almost seems as if that time never even existed, like a dream world. It seems utterly unconnected with today's world. I also find the past fascinating for the simple reason that it no longer exists. There is something about the process of the present fading into the past that is profound and sad... and strange. I think about it constantly. I feel hyperaware that I am moving through time, and that as I pass from one moment to the next those experiences have become inaccessible to me. In some ways I cannot really accept that the past is gone. I feel like it still lives on somewhere, and that I could step into it again if I could just turn the right corner or put certain objects into the right arrangement. There is something about the early twentieth century that has a fetishistic quality for me. Whenever I hear any date from the 1920s or 30s, I get a little thrill. It probably comes from growing up with old parents.
tn: My childhood died a little bit when the ROM renovated its dinosaur exhibit. I kept thinking of the scene in It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken when your character visits the museum. I have to ask: what was your reaction to the ROM’s alterations? How do you feel about the changing face of Toronto?
S: I felt that way as well. I actually haven't been back to the ROM since they changed it. It depressed me tremendously. I think the new exterior is an absolute abomination: the typical, ham-fisted, shoddy show-offishness of certain kinds of modern architecture. A sad piece of work. I have a lot of fond feelings for Toronto because I lived there for 20 years - 20 formative and important years in my life. That said, I don't think of Toronto as a very beautiful city. So much of what was wonderful was knocked down before I even moved there in 1980. It's a city with little interest in its history or the charm of the past. Toronto is about the present, always trying to be "world class." I always found that kind of embarrassing. Still, everytime I go back I feel a mixture of joy and sadness when I look around. Joy when I notice some restaurant or shop that I use to love that is still in business, or sadness when I see just the opposite: some well-remembered place that is gone. I think this is pretty normal for people as they grow older. They watch the landscape of their lives vanish. Bit by bit the city they knew becomes a city of memory, existing only inside the body. It can be depressing. It really causes an ache when you think that the Dinosaur Room from the ROM isn't there any longer, that it's only there in your mind. I can see it so perfectly in my memory. I would like to believe that it still exists somewhere in a concrete form, but you simply cannot get there.
tn: Has your fan base changed since you started writing?
S: It's hard to tell for sure since I don't have that much contact with them. I suspect my readers have grown older along with me. In the earlier part of my "career," my core audience was made up of young hipsters. But that was back when comics were more "underground" or "alternative." They've been "mainstreamed" in the last decade. I write a lot about older people, and I suspect that a 20-year-old might not be all that interested in a story about an old fat man rambling on about his life. Who knows, though. Very young people still come up to me at book signings. When I was 20, I was interested in such topics, so maybe I am selling 20-year-olds short.
tn: Who is your biggest inspiration?
S: That changes from year to year. When I was in my early twenties, I would have said Robert Crumb, Woody Allen, and J.D. Salinger. Out of that group, only Crumb would still make a top ten today. He's still a powerful inspiration. In recent years, I've been influenced by the Canadian book designer and illustrator Thoreau MacDonald. Alain Resnais's film Last Year at Marienbad has left a tremendous impression on me. Nabokov has also been in my thoughts lately. In cartooning, Chris Ware and Ben Katchor are artists I enjoy and learn from. Both these men have opened my eyes in ways I can't even begin to describe. I am a cultural sponge, taking in great amounts of influence from other artists and writers. Some influences are short-lived while others remain active for decades.
tn: Do you find it easier to draw or write? What is the process of crafting a book like for you?
S: Drawing is easier. It uses a different part of the brain than writing. Writing requires a kind of laser-like focus. I can do several things while I am drawing. I like the process of drawing because it is busy work. It keeps me busy all day long and gives my life focus. That's one of the pleasant things about cartooning. The "writing" period, where you work out the content and storytelling of a strip, is relatively short. Then you have a long period where you draw it. This long period is mostly made up of drudgery. It's not taxing in the same way that writing is. I am grateful I am not a "real" writer. I would not like concentrating like that every hour of the day. It's stressful. Putting together a book is a joy. It's all aesthetics, pure beauty. Yes, ideas are behind every choice, but the main point of it is to create something of beauty. I love books, and juggling the various elements that make up a book design is a pleasant task. The actual process changes from book to book, but there is no mystery to it. It's a simple job of taking the subject matter of the book (say, a poetry book) and finding the visual key that describes it (say, landscape) and then building an aesthetic framework for the text to sit inside. Every decision (What will the endpapers look like? Are there illustrations in the book? Is there a dust jacket?) is then made toward making that framework appropriate and as beautiful as possible.
tn: What are the freedoms and constraints of working within your medium compared to prose novels and conventional comic books?
S: That is a very complicated question. It could take hours of talk to answer. Let me simplify by saying that comics and prose have similar abilities to capture life, but different tools. The main difference between the two is, of course, the drawings. In comics, the drawings supply all the description you would find in a novel. In some ways the drawings are superior to description because it can be a subtler way of presenting information. You don't have to tell the reader that a character is wearing a red sweater, you simply see it. However, the drawing style of the cartoonist can be a drawback. A cartoonist must render the world, and a prose writer can allow his reader to visualize his own reality. In some ways the prose writer has a more direct access to "reality" since the cartoonist can only present visual symbols for the reader to translate into real objects. The drawings are a plus and a minus. I will say this for comics: They are one of the only mediums that cannot be experienced by a group. Comics are an entirely singular experience, meant to be read alone. The words and pictures can only come together in the mind of a solitary reader. Prose can be read aloud to an audience. Doing this with a comic just emphasizes how fragmented its various elements are. Comics are meant to be experienced inside the body. As for mainstream comics, I think they serve a different goal than mine. I am aiming to describe the real world in some manner. Mainstream comics are about escapism and genre thrills. We use some of the same cartooning language. As I grow older, I see that there is less and less common ground between these two worlds.
tn: Chester Brown figured prominently in It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken. Are you friends in real life? Is there a rivalry between the two of you? Are you planning any collaborations?
S: Chester is my best friend and has been for years. I have learned a lot from him over the years. He's a real inspiration, a great cartoonist. There is a real rivalry between us, especially because we are both pretty competitive. Especially Chet!! We rarely collaborate. I'm not a collaborator. I like to work alone. We have been doing a long "jam-strip" for a few years in a sketchbook, but I have let it languish over the last year. It is sitting on a shelf growing dusty. I should get back to that.
tn: Why did you choose Seth as a nom de plume?
S: It's a boring story. It goes back to my youthful days as a punk. I wanted a scary pseudonym and I made of list of names. I picked Seth. I shudder to imagine what else was on that list. Thank God that Seth is, at least, a real name. It could have been much worse.
tn: If you were a character in a book, who would you be and why?
S: That's a tough question. I'm not too sure I would want to be in many of the books I read. I love The Stone Angel, but I wouldn't wish to be the central character. I recently read Nabokov's Pnin, and again, I do not wish to be Pnin. I am probably thinking of the wrong books. I wouldn't mind being Badger from The Wind in the Willows. He has a nice home: secluded, quiet, and comfortable. Plus, he is sensible and wise. Or perhaps Charlotte from Charlotte's Web. She was smart, kind, a good friend, and a good writer.
tn: How do your graphic novels reflect the style of the prose novelists who’ve influenced you?
S: I am a great fan of Alice Munro, but I doubt that I have taken much stylistically from her. I don't think you can. It's easier to take stylistic influence in drawing. However, I think I have learned a tremendous amount from her about characterization. You can't absorb another writer's insights, but you can learn where to look inside yourself for such insight. I have been reading Nabokov lately and I am really responding to the cleverness of his narrative structures. Great writers offer something to aim for, even if it is beyond your reach.
tn: You’ve done a lot of design and illustration work for various books and publications (artwork for The New Yorker, Mark Kingwell and Joshua Glenn’s The Idler’s Glossary, the cover art for The Portable Dorothy Parker reissue). How do you choose your commercial projects?
S: They usually choose me. I can think of a million books I would love to design, but the problem is that it isn't up to me. I'd love to do a deluxe edition of Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel. I love that book, but no publisher is calling me about it. That kind of leaves me out in the cold. Truthfully, I pick the work that comes to me. That's not to say I will do just anything; I have to feel some affinity for the subject. A lot of the time people come to me to supply some sort of whimsy or urbanity to a project. I don't mind that. It's an element of my work, but I prefer to be offered something where I might be able to go a little deeper. It's a tightrope walk between surface style and deeper content. I like it when both elements come together in a project. That's the kind of job I leap at. Just recently I designed the package for the Criterion reissue of Leo McCarey's wonderful thirties film Make Way for Tomorrow. A perfect job: wonderful, moving content and a 1930s context for the design. Heaven!