Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly
Release Date: August 9, 2017
Whatever you have to say about eccentric cartoonist Seth, you can’t accuse him of failing to make his readers think. The 23rd volume of his Palookaville series contains, as in previous iterations, three stories: the conclusion of Clyde Fans (which he began serializing in 1998), chapter three of Nothing Lasts (a memoir) and a selection of paintings and drawings of buildings.
As we age, our personalities distill themselves into a purer and purer essence of who we are: talkative, easily irked, confrontational, etc. You could graph it as a bell curve, where we start off as unfiltered children, then sand down our rough edges as we become socialized, then devolve back into unmediated honesty from middle age on. Palookaville is an illustration of that progression, whether intentional or not.
This volume is also an undeniable pleasure to read, although not because of its words. When I say “read,” I mean “read the pictures, read the panels, think about how they fit together even as your eyes keep moving from panel to panel and page to page.” Seth accomplishes this through mixing two different types of panel structures. As usual, the panels are square, arranged 16 to a page for the most part.
But one set portrays “normal” panels, read left to right, row by row from top to bottom, in which each successive panel either takes place in a slightly later time than its predecessor and/or from a slightly different perspective. This can produce, for example, the point of view of someone walking or driving down a road, objects in the distance growing closer and bigger with each additional panel. And that’s the point of sequential art: to break up and communicate time (and distance a bit less so). Second, Seth constructs panels that function more as windows onto a larger scene, in which each panel is (probably) occurring at the same time and from the same distance as its peers. Imagine the white spaces between these panels as opaque, used to view the overarching vistas Seth splays out. Sometimes the cartoonist composes an entire page in this latter fashion. Sometimes he combines the two approaches.
The result is a mind-trip. You’re constantly trying to read in a linear fashion even as your brain and your eyes are aware of other ways in which to look at the page and process its information. It’s as though your eyes are shifting between looking at objects close up and far away, like the experience of trying to get a Magic Eye picture to appear. Your brain is whirring. You might even miss bits of the text and have to go back and read them. You can also consider whether or how the text might influence the panel structure selected. Seth keeps you busy.
This technique mostly appears in Nothing Lasts, which comes first in the book, but it influences the way one reads Clyde Fans, rightly placed as the last chapter. Consisting largely of an ecstatic vision by Simon Matchcard (one of two brothers who run a fan company), it mostly leaves humans out of its vision. Instead, our perspective resembles that of a bird, swooping in, out of and around empty buildings as Simon enjoys his solitude. He even thinks, “This is a cold place. And lonesome. Terribly lonesome. And yet, like all these hidden places I’ve visited tonight…hidden in plain sight…I desire to linger here. To drift…unnoticed…serene…invisible.”
Noticing without being noticed is the privilege of the reader and a fantasy for a certain type of person—despite narratives like Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story, which pull their characters into the book within a book. It is a relief, sometimes, to abandon responsibility and the stress of self-presentation in order to read without being seen. That view is made all the clearer by the fact that Seth draws Simon Matchcard in profile (see page 52) almost exactly the same way he draws his present self (page 9 of Nothing Lasts in this volume). Both characters are made uneasy by the steady progress of time and the constant adaptation it requires by the individual. Being able to pull yourself out of that flow of change, by adopting a godlike perspective that sees all time and space at once, might not actually be possible, but even the thought of it can set one’s mind at ease.