By Ryan Prittie
Where: Carleton Dominion Chalmers Centre, 355 Cooper St., Ottawa
This free public lecture will be followed by a reception and book signing. No registration required. For more information contact Professor Sara Jamieson.
This year, for the first time in its thirty-five-year history, the Munro Beattie lecture will be delivered by a graphic novelist, the celebrated Canadian comics creator who publishes under the name of Seth. Entitled “Inkwell’s End,” the talk will take place on Saturday, March 21 at the Carleton Dominion Chalmers Centre.
Growing up as Gregory Gallant in a series of small Southwestern Ontario towns in the 1960s and 70s, Seth was a voracious reader of comics and soon began creating his own. After moving to Toronto and attending the Ontario College of Art (as it was then known), he began to develop the aesthetic associated with his mature work, an elegant and evocative drawing style influenced by the cartoonists whose work appeared in The New Yorker magazine in the 1930s and 40s.
Seth’s books include It’s A Good Life If You Don’t Weaken, an autobiographical narrative about a collector’s obsessive search for a forgotten cartoonist of the past, and The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists, a fictionalized account of a Canadian society in which comics creators are respected and revered. His most recent book, Clyde Fans, moves away from the metafictional, comics-centred concerns of these earlier works to tell the story of two incompatible brothers trying (and failing) to keep their family business afloat as the fan is quickly supplanted by the air conditioner. The Guardian hails the book as “a masterpiece” that excavates the melancholy at the heart of mid-twentieth-century capitalism.
In conversation with PhD candidate Ryan Prittie (Department of English), Seth discusses aspects of his work and life, from his interest in book design and the changing status of comics to the sadness of the past and his sense of having been “born old.”
Your talk this coming winter will mark the first time Carleton’s Munro Beattie lecture will be given by a comics creator. As you are no doubt aware, comics are now taught alongside traditionally “literary” texts; our department offers whole courses on comics that are very popular with students. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the changing reception of comics in the university and elsewhere.
In the words of the Grateful dead, “What a long strange trip it’s been”. When I was a child, comics were just comics. Not that I thought about them in any conscious way—they were too ubiquitous in a kid’s world to even ponder them. Like television or schoolyard chants there was no reason to even consider them. They were an everyday mundane aspect of childhood. Later as a teenager, when my interest in comic books became serious (and I decided to devote my life to them) I still considered them nothing more than an exciting entertainment genre. I certainly was very serious about them but I recognized that most folks thought of the comics medium as a bottom of the barrel medium—just mass-market junk. I never expected that to change.
But it certainly did change. By the time I’d got to high school comic books were on their way out as a mass-market medium. Sales were declining rapidly for mainstream companies. It looked like they were coming to an end. However, more interestingly, new kinds of comics were appearing (this was the 1980s)—comic books produced for adults, with a modern sensibility and with high-brow aspirations. I’d lost interest in mainstream comics by this time and these new comics showed me the way. I’d found my calling. This was very exciting to me—and I had great belief in the medium itself as a way to tell real stories about real life—but I certainly had no faith that the “real” world outside of the comics shops would ever embrace or understand what I and my peers were trying to do. Long story short—30 some years later everything has changed. The graphic novel has remarkably become a fixture in bookstores and comics are reviewed in the New York Times, cartoonists are profiled in the New Yorker, comics are taught in university and perhaps most surprising to me—the old mainstream comics that I abandoned decades ago have become the main thread of popular culture. Now bus drivers and scientists and CEO’s know who Iron Man or the Black Widow or Stan Lee are. I certainly never would never have predicted that!!!
Your upcoming lecture is titled “Inkwell’s End.” You certainly don’t have to reveal everything, but could you give us a general sense of what you have in mind for the lecture?
Very straightforward, really. A career overview. “Inkwell’s End” is the name of my house in Guelph but it also implies a journey’s end. Where that inkwell has led me. That’s what I intend to talk about. My childhood interest in the medium, the touchstone influences and then what my work is about and where it is going. All this will be done, without notes, but guided by many PowerPoint images.
A lot of your work, from It’s a Good Life…, to Palookaville, to works such as The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists draw inspiration the atmosphere of small-town Ontario. What is it about these small towns that make them a continued source of interest for you? Do you see your work as relating to other textual representations of small-town Ontario, such as the work of writers like Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, or Stephen Leacock?”
I grew up in small towns and though I lived in Toronto for 20 years it turns out that those small towns had a lasting effect on me. I would have denied this during those first ten years in Toronto—in those years I was furiously urban (and shaking the dust of the small town from my feet) but over time I’ve come to find myself constantly going back (in my mind) to those little places. I’ve never made a conscious attempt to employ those small towns as a theme or a motif in my work…but they have made their way into my iconography year by year. Some time ago someone commented to me about how rural my imagery was and I realized, with a shock, that the urban images I drew for so long in Toronto had been replaced with rolling hills and country roads. A result of living in Guelph for the last two decades I guess.
Sometimes I travel to beautiful foreign places, say Stockholm or Buenos Aires, and think to myself that I might like to live there…but those are fantasies…I could never leave Ontario. As ugly and overdeveloped as much of it has become there is something about the Ontario landscape and its little dots of towns and villages that have got into my DNA and won’t let me leave.
You mentioned Munro and Leacock—two very important writers for me (not so much, Davies) and yes, it is their portrayals of small-town Ontario that make them favourites of mine. For many years if you asked me who my favourite writer was, the answer would have been Alice Munro. I’d like to say she is an influence but the truth is that what Munro does is so mysterious and potent that she is hard to copy. I mostly read her work in pure amazement.
When it comes down to it, I write and draw about these small places because they are the world I grew up in and still live in (to some degree). I’m trying to impart a sense of place and time and feeling with my comics and Ontario is that place and time.
The ceaseless progression of time is another theme you seem to return to often, whether it be through the ageing of an individual, their work, or the world around them. Works such as Wimbledon Green focus on elderly characters, their legacies, and even their deaths. What is it about these topics that interest you as a comics creator?
I think I was born old. Even as an early teenager I was nostalgic for the world of my childhood. It might have been because we moved around so much when I was small. Almost every year my father uprooted us. Maybe that made me aware, at an early age, how tenuous everything is. How easily things disappear. Certainly, that feeling has pervaded my whole life in a very tangible sense. I think of it constantly. Time passing. Things vanishing. Even in my youth as a punk, standing around in dark smoky nightclubs, I was vividly aware that this was just a moment in time and would be soon be gone. I remember a deep feeling of mourning about the places I frequented then—knowing I would be looking back sadly on them when they were gone. And now, decades later, I am doing just that. This sort of thinking underlies everything I write or draw or make. Life has a rhythm of sadness to it—a drumbeat of time passing and events moving out of our reach. This is why the past is sad—because it is gone.
I’ve always loved how your sense of aesthetics doesn’t stop at the edge of the page and in fact bleeds into everything you do, from book design to architecture. It’s clear from your work with publications such as Drawn and Quarterly or The Canadian Journal of Notes and Queries that you place great importance on the overall design of every project with which you are involved, and that you take a very hands-on approach when it comes these projects. What do your aesthetics mean to you, and what does it mean to offer your personal touch to other writing and publishing endeavours?
I think of aesthetics as more than just about design. To me, a sense of personal aesthetic is essential. It’s part of your personal identity. I’ve always been overly concerned with my identity and my appearance—thus my fake name and my contrived clothing. It’s more than just developing an eye for good design—it’s about making design a part of who you are, how you think, and how you live. My ‘design” sense works its way through everything I do, everything I make, everything I enjoy. It defines just who I am. I think this is true for everyone but they don’t think about it so much—they take it for granted. The sports teams they like, the beer they drink, the shirts they pick…whatever. Everyone has an aesthetic. Mine is just super considered.
In my work, especially my book work, I am aware that the appearance of a book, how it is designed is very important to how it is read. The design creates a “feeling” about the work and sets the stage for the reader. Certainly, in my own books, the design work is very important in the process of building a world for the story. By the time the reader starts page one of the comic I have tried to place them into that world already. Again, to set the stage. This is true when I design other people’s books too. I’m trying to create feelings and textures around the “content”. I’m not thinking much about the reader themselves—not in a concrete way—the reader is an abstract for me. I’m building a world for them to enter but it’s directed by my sensibilities not what I imagine would be theirs. I have little idea what a modern sensibility is all about. I’ve kind of isolated myself somewhat from the modern era—surrounded myself with a cocoon of my own tastes. It does put me out of touch…but then, I don’t worry about it much. Mostly I’m aiming for beauty in what I do. I figure you can’t go wrong (or be out of date) by aiming for beauty!!
If you don’t mind sharing, what’s next for you? What sorts of projects are you working on at the moment?
In the last decade, I’ve branched out into a variety of mediums and forms. Lately, I’ve been collaborating quite a bit with craft artists—producing ceramic objects, metalworks, textiles. All sorts of things. This has been enormously pleasurable for me as it is a joy to work with pure aesthetics. Forms without stories. Though to be truthful, a lot of my objects have stories associated with them too. As a cartoonist, it’s hard to get away from that element.
In the studio, I’m working on a wide range of projects. I have at least 3 graphic novels in various stages of production. Two of these are in my sketchbooks and one is just beginning. These will take years to realize but that is the nature of comics. Slow and laborious.
I’m also working on a couple of children’s book ideas right now too—and hope to shop one of them around later this year. This has been something I’ve thought of for decades and I think the time might be right. We’ll see. I just had a big gallery show in Guelph at the AGG and the most interesting thing coming out of that is that in the next few months we will be unveiling a large bronze sculpture installation that I’ve designed. I’m quite excited about this. Again, as a child, reading Archie or Spiderman, I did not imagine how different the world of the 21st century would be for cartoonists.
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