Why I Read Seth a Lot

In the last post I went into how much the Doom Patrol has been a part of my transition into comics studies; they’ve been important to me, as I said, since I was a kid. One other comics artist who has been a big deal to me — but one that I was introduced to much later — is Seth.

I first found out about Seth when I was watching this television program that used to show on TVO (Ontario’s public station): Big Ideas, which featured lectures by academics across the disciplines and across the province. It billed itself as the only TV show devoted to the art of the lecture; since it went off the air several years ago, I suppose there are none. Anyway, I happened to catch a lecture by my colleague at U of T’s St. George English department, Nick Mount, who was talking about Seth’s It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken in a lecture for his large class of first-year students. I’d never heard of this artist before, but I was intrigued. I got a copy of the book, and in a couple of years it was front and centre in the comics course I was newly teaching. Since then I’ve acquired a lot more of Seth’s works (all of his books and many though not all back issues of Palookaville), as well as a couple of books about his work and a collection of interviews with him, not to mention a personal copy of the National Film Board’s documentary Seth’s Dominion. I also had a chance to meet him; he was somewhat amused at my first name, as it’s also the name of his best friend the great graphic novelist Chester Brown.

What I’m saying here is, Seth has become a pretty important artist in my personal and mental libraries.

I suppose there are any number of reasons his work appeals to me, the most important of which is simply that it is very very good; in any account of comics artists working today he is at the very top of the form. But there are also more specific reasons.

For one thing, his interest in the formalities of narrative is fascinating to me; few other artists in any medium pay such close attention to the fine, even trivial details of place and of time. When I was in high school, I did a photography project in which I documented small details of a single neighbourhood. As it turned out what most interested me was not the houses or the populated, busy spaces; what I filled my camera roll with was images of small, abandoned, forgotten things and places. Seth’s books are full of such places.

For another, the kind of anxieties that he speaks to are very much the sort that I often feel in my own life. There’s a recurring motif in Seth’s work of people having moments of clarity, but too late to do anything about them. In his monumental Geo. Sprott, for example, the title character has a sudden epiphanic realization about the person with whom he should have spent his life — but it is decades too late, and she is long dead. In Seth’s Dominion, he performs a puppet show with a similar theme, in which a man suddenly understands what he should have been doing with his life, the moment before he dies. And in Clyde Fans, the reclusive Simon Matchcard spends decades carefully researching and writing a definitive book about an obscure topic, only to find himself scooped by a hastier author before he can go to press.

Small, almost unnoticed failures that undermine our need to live meaningful lives; the quiet cruelty of time and the melancholy of still, forgotten places — these are among the central themes in Seth’s work, and to me they speak very loudly indeed.

The Doom Patrol and Me

I probably first came across the Doom Patrol when I was about seven years old, which would have been 1975. Of course the original Silver Age comics had been cancelled years before (the year I was born, in fact, 1968), but I suppose I must have come across some reprints. If I remember correctly, they were reprinted along with some Challengers of the Unknown stories.

The story I remember first reading had originally been printed in Doom Patrol 87 (May 1964); in the first scene of this story the team stops an airplane from crashing. It was apparent to me from the moment of their arrival that the Doom Patrol are not like most superhero teams. For one thing, they come rolling up onto the airport tarmac in a … car. Just a regular car; they don’t have a special DP-mobile or a cool superjet. They don’t look like much either: no spectacular physical specimens here. They are a guy made out of clunky metal who is always getting banged up, a guy in bandages whose only superpower consists of collapsing while the spirit that possesses him does all the heroics, and an ordinary-looking woman whose power is to suddenly become a giant and send civilians scattering in panic. Their original uniforms are nothing special, just plain utilitarian green, like the colour that a public works labourer wears. When they first appear, no one goes “Oh thank goodness, it’s the heroes!” The control tower yells at them to get off the runway, and the crowd asks, “How can they help?” Of course they save the day anyhow, and go off without much in the way of thanks.

They were weird. They were unsettling. The general public, and other superheroes, never seemed to respect them much. They weren’t, as Grant Morrison later observed, the kind of heroes a kid ever daydreamed about being.

I loved them instantly and forever.

What is it that I loved about them? I think it’s simply that they are a team of heroes for people who can’t really imagine themselves as heroes. Morrison said that no one ever dreamed about being Cliff, Rita, or Larry (or Jane, or Niles); and he’s right. But the fact is, even as a child I had a hard time imagining myself as a hero, and as an adult I simply can’t; I’ve been battered around too much for that. The Doom Patrol was a team I understood as a scared, unsettled seven-year-old; I was feeling fairly broken in my life, a feeling that has never really left me. They were broken heroes who got up every day and did what they could to save the indifferent world anyhow, and that made a deep impression.

It was hard to find other Silver Age Doom Patrol stories in the 70s (it’s possible that I never read another one until they all got reprinted over the past couple of years), but I remained fond of them in a way that I was fond of no other superheroes. Even after I stopped reading comics altogether, they stayed there in the back of my mind. Later, when I heard that the team was back in action in the late 80s and early 90s, I eagerly bought and read the complete Morrison run; I started with issue 46 (August 1991) — I had been away from comics for a while and hadn’t known that the group was back until then — and just kept going in both directions until I’d caught up. My friends who were still into comics were — surprised, I guess you could say? — at my enthusiasm for this one weird supergroup out of all the supergroups out there. I guess you could say that it was the Doom Patrol that got me back into comics again, and I’ve been in ever since.

At this point in my career, I’m more or less refashioning myself from a medievalist (which I started out as) into a comics scholar, which, to be honest, is a field I find much more congenial. My last few forays into the medieval left me fairly unsatisfied, both with the experience and with the quality of what I ended up doing; I’m much happier working with graphic novels. But despite the sophistication of comics theory and the richness of the field in general, I’m nearly positive that I wouldn’t have found my way in if it hadn’t been for my favourite super-team. I owe Arnold Drake and Bruno Premiani, the team’s original creators, a lot.

On Experiencing Space

I’ve always had a sort of desultory interest in how we experience space. Not outer space, although I’ve also always liked science fiction, but the everyday spaces around us: the streets we walk, the shops we frequent, the rooms in which we work, play, think, read, teach, learn.

That interest has followed me around in a number of different ways. Most obviously in my line of work, it led me to an interest in teaching spaces, and in exploring ways to use the physical resources of the classroom. I’ve been particularly lucky in being able to use some pilot Active Learning Classrooms in my work over the past few years, and in being able to contribute through experience to the creation of more of them on my campus.

As a graduate student, I wasn’t really consciously thinking about space as a factor in my work, but it was there. My thesis on medieval plays — which were performed in all kinds of different spaces — played a role in shaping my thinking, as did my focus on rhetoric, which, I’ve come to understand, uses spatial metaphors as a way of organizing many of its basic principles. Over the years since then, I’ve started to read more about space and how we experience it; writers like Bachelard and Lefebvre, urbanists like Sudjic and Jacobs, troublemakers like Debord, creators like Calvino.

I suppose the problem I’ve always had is that, as I say, my interest is a desultory one. I’ve never really been able to figure out what I want to do with all of this. The pleasure of spaces is for me a meandering one, not an argumentative one, despite rhetoric’s use of spatial metaphors. Many of the writers I’ve mentioned above work meandering right into their work. Bachelard’s Poetics of Space is a lyrical, often confusing wander through the phenomenology of houses and what can be found within; Calvino’s Invisible Cities is a mythopoeic ramble through emblematic, symbolic cities of Kublai Khan’s empire; Debord and his Situationist colleagues turned the aimless dérive through city streets into a political and creative act.

But in the world as we have it, we want direction. The rambling intellectual journey to and from nowhere in particular has never exactly been recommended. Today, it is even less valued; you need a project, a direction, a goal. You need, if you wish to be a paid thinker, to be able to explain in an elevator pitch what you’re doing, where you’re going, what you expect to find when you get there.

I sometimes wonder if the intellectual world itself needs a dérive. Perhaps that would do it some good.

On Daydreaming

The more time passes, the more I begin to understand the importance of being a daydreamer. This is not the same as being an idler, nor the same as being a loafer. An idler is one who spends the day doing nothing, often pointedly so, while a loafer is one who does so where people can see him. A daydreamer does not care about being noticed, and is frequently very busy. A daydreamer may spend a great deal of time reading books, pondering pictures, listening to music. A daydreamer may peruse the open spaces of the city, or may intently study the workings of the small places of small towns. A daydreamer may create art, or not; talk to others, or not; live actively; or not. What marks a daydreamer is not what she does but how.

Imagine two people both lounging without purpose, perhaps twenty feet from each other, in a park on a Sunday afternoon, neither one aware of the other. The first one sits on a blanket, sunglasses over his eyes, earbuds in his ears, listening to music. Once in a while he looks at a person passing by, but only for a while. He has no aim at the moment. He is not thinking of anything in particular. He is loafing and idling the afternoon away. There is nothing wrong with what he is doing.

The second person also sits on a blanket, sunglasses over her eyes, earbuds in her ears, listening to music. Once in a while she looks at a person passing by, but only for a while. She has no aim at the moment. But her mind is full of thoughts: she notes the shape of that tree and wonders whether it might be mistaken for a very tall man, then whether it might become one under the right conditions. Letting the thought develop she begins to imagine a blurring between tree and person, the slow time of arboreal decades and human days. Are there two cities instead of one? Do we speak with each other? What might that mean for us? Can we be treelike? She is daydreaming the afternoon away.

A daydreamer lives mythopoeically. The mind of a daydreamer creates bespoke, fleeting mythologies out of the stuff of everyday life. To a daydreamer, moments of stillness and out-of-the-way corners echo with significance that arises, manifests itself, then melts away again.

The artists of daydreaming are surprisingly few. That is to say, while it is true that much art and creativity comes from daydreams, relatively few artists in any medium capture the daydream itself. The daydream is as volatile as its nocturnal counterpart, a momentary vision that eludes memory. A few artists in various fields do manage to capture some of the quality. But, while frequently (though not always) quite popular and of undoubted skill, such arists are often denigrated or overlooked by critics and fall into the category of guilty pleasure for many — a function, I suspect, of the general disrepute of the daydream among modern Westerners. Life and art, we are told, ought to be about more serious stuff than this.

But why must that be the case? In what is the insistence on seriousness grounded? For some, I suppose, it is a matter of morality. It is wrong, somehow, to daydream, to raise one’s own personal imagination above the greater and more urgent realities of the world; egotistical, to attend to one’s own impossible thoughts rather than to the living reality of the many people around us. These are thoughtful objections, not lightly dismissed. If one also believes in a god, and therefore in a high morality encoded directly into life itself, then certainly it might seem that time spent imposing one’s thoughts on the world can only be wrong, even idolatrous.

The genre of fantasy fiction, which in some versions is at its best a formalized way of daydreaming, has often been attacked on such grounds. “Escapism” is the usual epithet. As J. R. R. Tolkien once pointed out, though, there are different kinds of escape: the flight of the unjustly imprisoned is not the same as that of the shirker or deserter. How we see our escape, our daydreaming, is likewise dependent on how we see our mundanity: is it our duty to be confined only to the real world as it is, or are we entitled to more?

In Waiting for Godot, Vladimir berates Estragon for dreaming and wishing to speak of his dreams; Estragon, in anguish and frustration, gestures at the world around them and asks, “This one is enough for you?” If you are a daydreamer, then the answer to Estragon’s question is both no and yes. It is no, because the daydreamer is always adding to the world, always embellishing and imagining, the mythopoeic imagination always creating new things. But the answer is also yes, because without the things of everyday life, the daydreamer has nothing. This world is enough, because it gives us endless occasions to daydream about it, to add to it, to see it anew.

Let us seek out times to daydream and not be ashamed.

Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going

Over the summer I’ve been working on some things, as I noted in the previous post; some of these have been professional and some personal.

To begin with the personal. I found out, basically by accident, two things about my family: first, that the central branch on my mother’s side is Dutch; I had never known this. Second, that they first arrived in North America (in what is now Brooklyn) much earlier than I had ever realized; in the mid-1600s, in fact. Furthermore, the house that the original arrivals built still exists, now as a part of the Brooklyn Museum. I’m making up for lost time here: I’m learning Dutch on Duolingo (and it’s so far my favourite language I’ve ever studied), and I’m reading about the Netherlands and also about Brooklyn. I’m not sure if this is ever going to lead in a scholarly/professional direction, but at this time that’s not the point.

Professionally, I’m working on several projects: for the first, I’m working with a team of other researchers on how students self-present in academic integrity cases. We’re trying to discover what frameworks students use both to understand and to explain their situations in this stressful context; we hope to use what we find to help foster an environment in the classroom and at the university that makes it easier for students to avoid getting into such messes in the first place. For the second, I’m taking a course through my university’s Centre for Teaching Support and Innovation on excellence in post-secondary teaching. For the third, I’m working on several writing projects: an essay on the character of Rita Farr in the early-60s Doom Patrol comics, and an essay on the narrative motifs of space, the body, and knowledge in Tamaki and Tamaki’s YA graphic novel This One Summer. I also have a few other writing projects on the back burner.

And of course I’m resurrecting this blog. Like other people I’ve been on social media a lot over the past few years, but I’m becoming pretty tired of it. The short-form blasts of Twitter are pretty much endless annoyance; I miss the longer form of the blog. Even though neither of these posts are what anyone might call true long-form writing, I’m looking forward to stretching myself out a little bit again.

Beginning Leave in Earnest

Technically, I’ve been on my first academic leave since the beginning of July, and I taught my last class in April. Yet somehow it doesn’t really seem to have kicked in mentally until today, the first day of classes in twenty years that I have not been on campus getting ready to teach.

It’s been a productive few months in their way: I made some progress on various projects, did a lot of intellectual and physical re-organization and housecleaning, came to terms with some limitations and past mistakes, and learned some things about myself. But those months have had the shapelessness that summer often does; it’s not really until now that I’m beginning to see a more organized schedule beginning to form. Force of habit, perhaps.

This is all by means of stating that I’m going to be writing things here as the time continues. I’m not sure what form that will all take, but we’ll see.