This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
(http://www.comicsgrid.com) Dr. Kathleen Dunley The Comics: Philosophy and Practice conference was held at the University of Chicago from May 18-20, 2012. At the conclusion of the event, I spoke with Seth, a panelist at the conference and the cartoonist behind well-known works such as The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists, It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken, George Sprott, and the Palookville series, which will see its 21st issue later this year. I wanted to delve deeper into some of the themes that came up during the conference, and Seth graciously obliged my questions on the themes of the future of comics and how the themes in his own work have shifted over the years. Kathleen: During the memoir panel on Saturday, the panelists were discussing the relationship between comics and computers. The question was raised-- when we gather a bunch of comics artists and scholars together, is it a funeral, or is it a wedding? One of the panelists made the point that it has to be a wedding. Artists will get used to the screen, or be phased out. An allusion was made to a master sign painter with a strong craft, but no signs left to paint. A few of my students were watching the webcast, and many pinged me at this moment excited, since so many want to be webcomic artists, or at least have grown up with the screen as a way to read text. When they encounter works like your work, and Chris Ware’s work that have little to no computer intervention, they begin to question how offline works are created and distributed. It seems so foreign to them. Seth: Well, it’s always the mystery of a career. How do you do it? People will ask you that. This may be a bit off topic, but I don’t think there’s ever a career path to doing your own work. The path is to figure out what your own work is and through some sort of alchemy in figuring it out, you also figure out how to get it out to people. They’re intertwined. I think there’s a lot of excitement right now about the computer, like you were saying, but the thing is there’s no problem with putting the work online, but that’s not much different than Xeroxing it and putting it on a post outside your house. You’ve got to get people to come and look at it and that’s going to be a really complicated problem. I actually think the system we came up through was even simpler in a way. I mean, it was hard to get a lot of people to look but with the whole underground comix and the alternative comics there was at least a system you could tap into that you could directly access people who might be interested in what you’re doing, but just putting something out on the web… that’s actually like a gigantic net of things that people have to fish through. I wouldn’t even know how you’d navigate that to begin with. But I think the thing is that this next generation will be the ones to figure it out.
But, of course, I won’t be that interested. That’s the problem. I think sometimes, there’s a lot of pressure that the digital world is changing everything and it really is, and there’s a pressure that you MUST go along. I guess it comes in with every wave of technology. It’s funny-- I was just thinking of this with the automobile the other day-- the idea that when the automobile first appeared there were people shouting, “Get a horse!” It was a funny idea that anyone would waste their time on the automobile. But how quickly that shifted until the entire culture was built around the automobile. Those people who were yelling, “Get a horse,” it was over for them and they didn’t know it. And I know that I’m in that position. Resisting the technology, or being uninterested in it, let’s put it that way. I’m not resisting anything anymore-- it’s pointless to resist it! But it won’t change anything; this is where things are going. For me, it’s not leading to a world of cartooning that will probably be my great interest, but it will be leading to something new, guaranteed. I don’t know what it’ll be and it might be something I’ll be interested in, but I don’t know. But that’s just because, for me, I wanted to replicate the things that excited me about comics to begin with. I came into comics because I wanted to make physical comics, but people coming along now may not have that same connection. Kathleen: It is an interesting time, and I especially like that analogy of wedding versus funeral. Seth: For me it might be a funeral. For others, it is definitely a wedding, or a birth, maybe. Kathleen: I know I was surprised when I saw that Chris Ware did an iPad comic [“Touch Sensitive” for McSweeny’s]. I remember my husband came to me and said, “I bet you’re going to get one! How can you resist Chris Ware?” And while I’m a collector, I kept thinking I’d borrow one from a friend… Seth: Yea, that’s the one thing of Chris’ that I have not seen because I wasn’t interested enough to go the distance to see it. I’d have to make an effort… an effort that’s beyond my realm of effort. Kathleen: Yes. My students keep bringing that up because it’s part of Building Stories, which we have been studying in fragments, but it looks like it will be part of the complete Building Stories box. Seth: It is. It is in there, so obviously you won’t have to “touch” anything in that box! Kathleen: On a similar note, Dan Clowes brought up the notion of the book as a sculpture during your panel. I read the piece you wrote for the Devil’s Artisan about how you designed the Collected Doug Wright to reflect the Vimy Ridge Memorial. Similarly, my students always called George Sprott “the tombstone book.” Seth: Which is right! I’m glad to see they recognized that. Not many people actually did even though it’s a fairly obvious image that the book is a tombstone.
Kathleen: Are there any other sculptural influences in any of your other book designs? Seth: Well, nothing that direct, probably. And the thing is, a lot of the times I’m working through things that are kind of, I guess you could call them like secret organizations of how things are put together that would probably be too complicated to explain why I bothered. Like, the rhythm of a particular piece or section of a book might actually be based on some music where I’ve actually sat down and listened, not in any mathematical way… said ‘ok, here we’re moving and it’s a bit fast, now it’s a bit slow, now it’s a bit fast,’ and I would try to replicate that rhythm within the comic based on how those pages operate. And that’s just like a game. It has some meaning to me, but I don’t think it’s important in the sense that it adds any layer of specific meaning to the work. That stuff is more just something I enjoy doing for my own secret reasons. But when I think of the book, I actually think more like a house than a sculpture. I think there’s very obvious like sort of metaphor of opening it up and you’re entering in, down the hallway, which opens into the first room etcetera. I definitely think of it as walking through a book. That whole opening sequence in any book I do is always… it’s an introduction, but it’s also like entering into the world of the book. So in the Peanuts books, you open it up and the first thing you go through is that spread of grass… you’re walking across the lawn into the world of Peanuts. Most of my books in some way follow that pattern. Kathleen: This is interesting because the introduction… it tends to be the very thing that gets ignored or passed over. Seth: Yeah. Recently I was designing a book for somebody else and I gave them a bunch of stuff that I said would be a good way we could open the book and I sketched it out quite rough. And it was completely ignored. It was basically just like, “well we don’t have a lot of pages up front.” There’s like a clear misunderstanding of how important that is. And it wasn’t my book. I didn’t have the say, but it that had been me I would have been like, “well, we’ll make the pages,” because that’s a very important element of the house. Basically, it’s like saying we didn’t bother with any stairs in the front, so you have to climb up to the front door. That really, to me, is a mistake. Kathleen: It’s an apt analogy, I think. I’m even looking at the Kindle. You can download a book and automatically skip to chapter one on a menu, without flipping past the introductory stuff. That makes me scowl. I remember one text where I knew there was an epigram in the print edition, but the digital version just skipped right past it. Seth: And that’s one of the problems. There’s no design involved yet. I mean there might be later, I don’t know. But I don’t even think it’s designed where each individual… I’m not sure… is the book always laid out the same with the same text or typeface for every book or is that individual? Kathleen: On the older Kindles, from what I’ve seen, it’s all the same, but it varies between readers.
Seth: I was going to say, that’s not a good idea if that’s the case. Kathleen: Different readers even break up the pagination in different ways. Seth: Oh, that’s strange to me, but that really removes the idea of any conscious choice on putting the book together. You don’t want the text to just be assembled at random. It’s like I wouldn’t want my comics to appear where just one panel at a time came up and it’s removed from the context of how I put it together. I don’t know… I’m not well versed enough in this stuff to know like if anybody’s sensitively putting these things together and it’s possible they are. But if they’re not, that’s a basic problem with it, although, people can get used to anything. They can get used to watching a movie that was meant to be seen in CinemaScope on a shitty little black and white TV. So, I’m sure people can get used to reading books in the worst format. Kathleen: On the topic of creation, there was another point that was brought up and then sort of it devolved into a joke—making art as a way to correct the errors of the past. I felt bad that you didn’t get to elaborate on that. Seth: It’s something I talked about before so I didn’t lose any sleep over not carrying on with it! It’s actually a Chris Ware quote. He said it to me at some point and I thought there was some basic truth in that, and I don’t mean—it’s not as in correcting the errors of human kind’s past, it’s in correcting the personal errors of your own life. In a weird way writing, or doing any kind of art is like creating a sort of utopian world, even if it’s not the content of it. Even if it’s this terrible story about people suffering, there’s something about trying to create perfection in a world that’s perfect based on your intention. I think when you hear “perfect,” you start thinking in idealistic terms, like it’s a perfect world you’d want to escape into, but it’s more of the ideas that it’s a perfect simulacrum of life that you’re creating as best as you can do, and there’s something about that removes the nightmare of what real human existence is which is constant error and regret and the fact that you don’t control the world you live in that you are actually just constantly buffeted by it. You’re trying to operate within a system that is random to some degree. Creating your own work is remarkable in that you do get to be the god of that world. Of course, you never do create a perfect reality, but that’s what you’re striving for. Kathleen: And that makes me think a little about change. During your panel, you had recalled the story of collecting some GI Joe figures you had as a kid, and sitting down and trying to play. Talk about a vanished space. My daughter tries to teach me how to play, sometimes with my old toys, but it’s like a lost vocabulary. Seth: Yeah, I think that’s very true. I think there’s something in that ability. I think that’s what adults want to do, and that’s what we spend much of our life trying to create these scenarios where we’re trying to lose ourselves, but in childhood, you’re actually capable of doing it. You can sit down on the floor and lose yourself in play with physical objects. You can imbue them with empathy in some way that’s impossible as an adult. I think
that’s what I’m trying to do in art. I’m trying to create an interior world that I can pour my empathy into, but I’m not kidding myself that it’s the same as getting down on the floor and playing. You never really achieve that state of play again in life. And I’m not really sure why. I mean, part of it must simply be that, as the mind grows more sophisticated, that you lose that ability to get away from your own ego. Maybe it’s adolescence that does it. Something happens in adolescence. I think persona building is kind of about play; the idea that you can create an identity for yourself. I think you spend an awful lot out of your adult life from teen years on trying to refine your persona. You eliminate the things that don’t work, add on new layers that you think will work. It’s a constant process that probably is completely futile. But I think that might be the closest adults have to play is role-play. Except it’s not fun! Kathleen: I guess I see these changes in the work that you do. Memory is almost like a changing character, and the past is almost like a character, if that makes any sense! Seth: Well, the work’s pretty much always concerned with time and memory in some way. It’s always hard to say what you’re doing with that, though. Part of it is just that these are the basic themes you’re interested in. It’s hard to nail down why specifically that is, except I think it’s the central issue of being alive. It’s like the one thing that unites experience is memory. If we didn’t have memory we would not really be these creatures at all. To have to live in the present would be a very strange experience. When you hear about someone who has had one of those neurological accidents with no memory that seems to me like the worst curse. I’ve seen written somewhere that memory is the greatest curse on mankind, but I think quite the opposite. Memory is the one great thing that allows you to have personal identity. You remove memory and personal identity is gone, and I think all my work is connected with the idea of how people have built their identities. And mostly, I relate to it through memory because all of identity seems to be built as an interior experience. That persona building I was just talking about is that attempt to create an exterior version of what you would like your interior personality to be…what you’re trying to project. What I find really fascinating is that we don’t really know ourselves. That we try to figure out who we are is a lifelong experience and that we’re guessing at who we are when we should know. If anybody should know, it should be the person who has access to all the information, and yet we’re lost. We don’t even know what we’re like. We hope to get clues from other people’s behavior to us of what/who we are. Kathleen: …and even that changes. Seth: Yes, which is interesting! Kathleen: On these lines, another theme that is recurring in your work is the idea of reality and fiction and how the lines between the two shift and change.
Seth: All my work, right back to the first book, I realize now… I didn’t plan it that way, but I think that might be my essential interest, and essential approach. I’m not sure why. Not to belabor the point, but I think it might be the most influential film on me when I was a kid was Citizen Kane. And I think I’m kind of repeating it all the time. I just noticed this recently, it’s kind of the structure for everything I do… somebody searches for something, and that film is set up like a fake documentary about a fake person who seems real because it’s Hearst with basically just a thin veneer of fiction over the top of nonfiction. But I guess at some point I’ve lost interest in the difference between fiction and nonfiction, and it’s like the worlds blur because I’m not that interested in constructing a story anymore. I can feel as my work is moving forward that I’m getting less interested in characters and more interested in just talking about the world. I have a feeling that if it’s not the next book, it’s coming soon, where it’s just going to be a book about Dominion and have no plot whatsoever. Kathleen: I’d love that! Seth: I may just talk about the city for a couple hundred pages. Kathleen: …and people used to write stuff like that. I read one by Alan Dunn, East of Fifth. Seth: I love that book. It’s an interesting early attempt…very interesting. I probably don't have a tremendous amount to say on the book except that I like it a great deal. It has the key elements that appeal to me specifically as a writer-- a specific location with its own history and a contained cast of characters and actions. I like that the characters are linked by location, but not necessarily are they all interacting. The building is, naturally, a microcosm of a city and Dunn has done a pretty interesting job of pulling out a sensitive narrative--especially considering that the book is primarily meant to be merely a trifle. Humorous entertainment. Still, I find it interesting that Dunn had real ambition. He seems to be trying to forge a new narrative art form out of the gag cartoon. He's not illustrating a prose story, nor is he using the comics medium to tell a sequential narrative. He's creating something that has the feel of the New Yorker--text accompanied by gag cartoons. Both separate from each other...but interestingly here, he's using the usually unconnected gag cartoons to do half the work of telling the prose story. I wish others had picked up the thread of this approach and given it a try as well. Kathleen: In Palookaville 21, you're going to be profiling Jacques Gagnier, the cartoonist behind La Vie En Images. He seems like a George Sprott character-- few citations, hard to find publications. It almost seems like you're engaging an act of reclamation. Seth: I guess, to be honest, I am a bit of a contrarian. Like so many people, I like to get my hands on things that I can claim my very own. Because of this I am somewhat drawn
to obscurity. Gagnier is obscure. However, it's not pure perversity. He is very talented as well and deserves to be given a second look before his name vanishes. I do feel some real sense of reclamation with the old time Canadian cartoonists. I want to save them before they are lost in the jumble of culture that surrounds us; sucked into that vortex that grabs everything from the past that didn't get a foothold in the modern world. He's a good cartoonist and I hope to expose him to a new generation in a small way. I have similar hopes for a handful of Canadian cartoonists whose work I adore. Peter Whalley will hopefully be the subject of an upcoming book. I recently visited the home of his widow in Quebec and was absolutely bowled over by an almost unknown body of his work as a painter and sculptor. So exciting. I hope someday that a cartoonist in the future will care about me and my work in the same manner. Kathleen: One final question. I think all of us collector types have a list of cartoonists who we either try and push on our hapless friends, or at least wish more people could appreciate. I know you published one such list in Forty Cartoon Books of Interest, but with nearly six years past since that booklet came out, who are you actively collecting or discovering that our readers might want to know about? Seth: Well—Peter Whalley as mentioned. Jon McNaught would be really high on my list as well. I'm extremely fond of Michael Deforge's work currently. I think his mini comic INCINERATOR was a small masterpiece. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, 444 Castro Street, Suite 900, Mountain View, California, 94041, USA.