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.