When I started reading comics seriously, 11 or 12 years ago, and considering them as a genre (after not thinking about them at all for at least a decade while I was majoring in English and then doing graduate study in that field and reading Very Serious Literature), Seth’s It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken was one of the first works pressed upon me by a friend. It’s 1990s independent-comics canon. It is, basically, Very Serious Literature for comics. I liked it, but I didn’t identify with it. Still, I kept reading his work, on and off, which is the best way to encounter and learn to appreciate any artist. He started writing Clyde Fans in 1997, and it’s appeared in serialized form over the past two decades, but now you can buy the whole thing from publisher Drawn and Quarterly as a beautifully designed brick (a better way to read it). Some things benefit from serialization. This one is much more successful as a complete piece, although if you were looking to convert someone to Seth’s work, it’s not the gateway drug, being nearly 500 pages about two brothers who own a fan company inherited from their father and don’t have a very good relationship. There are pages and pages of what is essentially thinking, rendered as comics. It’s not an easy read, but it’s a good one, and it gets stronger as it goes along. By the time we’re encountering Simon Matchcard’s turning point in his life (a sort of Campbell’s Journey of the Hero with “transformation” replaced by “self-acceptance”), it’s at its best, and then it glides gently to a close, like a beautiful bird coming in for a landing. Seth spoke with me over email about his process, his dreams, his rivalry with Jason Lutes and whether or not he’s a square.
Clyde Fans Cover Art by Seth
Paste: I know you didn’t mean for this project to take as long as it did, but do you think the years changed the story or your approach at all?
Seth: Not the story but certainly the approach. This is the thing I’ve been trying to explain in various interviews and onstage events this last week (currently on tour with the book). I had the story planned out completely from the start but I didn’t write a script. Just a lot of notes. As I worked my way along I would review the notes and then, when the moment came to draw that section of the story—that is when the “writing” was done—at the same time I was drawing it. Sometimes it’s hard to explain this aspect of making comics—the writing comes to life on the page as you draw it. Much like adding music to a set of lyrics. Before the music it’s not a song; it’s just a poem.
Anyhow, over the years my approach changed. How I paced the storytelling, how I composed a page, how I arranged the shapes inside the panels. This stuff is the stuff of comics and, naturally, over the years my approach grew more sophisticated. The earlier chapters are a bit perfunctory in how the story is told and the book grows more subtle (in my opinion) as it moves along simply because by the end of the book I understood the comics medium more than I did at the beginning.
Paste: Do you feel any kind of kinship with folks like Jason Lutes as a result?
Seth: Probably more of a rivalry!! A jokey rivalry. Along the lines of, “my book took longer to do than yours.” Or perhaps it should be, “I’m more ashamed at how long it took me to do this book than you are.”
Paste: You also mention, in your afterword, that you didn’t redraw things from the early chapters, even though you badly wanted to, but I did notice a few small differences from chapters’ original appearances in Palookaville to their printing here. Could you talk about those small changes and why you made them?
Seth: The couple of small changes made were really just about clarity. Awkward storytelling decisions that could be easily fixed or strange drawing choices that always bugged me. When I went to correct these tiny elements I found out I could not fake my old drawing style enough even to make these little fixes. It was just beyond me. The old inking style would not come out of my hand. So, I did the next best thing, I xeroxed bits and pieces from the panels themselves and rearranged them to make the corrections. That way nothing is glaring. I did make a lot of changes to the color in the first chapter. My initial coloring job on that chapter was wispy and tentative. I went in and made an attempt to bring it more in line with the later color work. In the end though—there was only so much that could be done with those early pages—they represent a different phase of my visual thinking. I was still working out my drawing “style” back then and still figuring out how best to tell a story.
Paste: Your panel borders appear to have grown thicker over the years even as your overall drawing style has simplified. Why do you think that is?
Seth: Without a doubt I am on a path toward simplicity. I may not have known this when I first started as a cartoonist, but I certainly know it now. Cartooning is, in my opinion, about simple images. Sometimes the simpler the better (though not always). But even more, just in my ideas about art and graphic design I am always in a process of boiling elements down…refining…trying to get to the heart of some kind of visual “purity.” It sounds all very highfalutin’ but to be honest it’s most likely just my own personal aesthetic—I’m drawn to bold and simple shapes and designs. That’s probably why, even in youth, I was more drawn to Art Deco and modernism than to art nouveau or the more organic approaches. There seems to be something “mystic” or “deep” in a design when you boil it down to mere shapes. Maybe this is nonsense but I feel when I’m working that I’m trying to get to that place where the strong shapes (inside the drawings) bring some underlying quality of mood or emotion to the page by themselves.
Clyde Fans Interior Art by Seth
Paste: How did you determine how much of a chunk of Clyde Fans to include in Palookaville? Natural narrative breaks? Page count? Something else?
Seth: To be honest, the format of the publication always determined the “chunk.” In the early days when Palookaville was a comic, comic books were 24 pages long—so there you go. You had 24 pages. When I serialized It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken—I just made each chapter 24 pages because of that. With Clyde I wanted longer chapters so I simply made sure, when working on it, that things ended nicely every 24 pages. A nice end “beat” to close the comic but not to end the chapter. Later, when Palookaville became a book, I made the sections as long as I felt…but to be honest I didn’t really know what I was doing at first and I think those sections of chapter four were strangely truncated chunks. Not fully satisfying to read. Only in the most recent Palookaville (no. 23) did I get it correct. There I published the entire last chapter of the book in one go. I’ve come to see that with the new hardcover format you need a more substantial piece of the story if you are going to serialize. My next longer story will be told in three complete sections. One per volume of Palookaville. At least, that is the current plan.
Paste: Whole-page construction seems more important to you than it does to a lot of cartoonists. Is that true?
Seth: Without doubt. I always design the pages as a “spread.” I hang the pencil versions up next to my drawing table while working on them so I can constantly see how they balance—how they read—and simply how they look next to each other. “Are they pretty together?” I think the nature of a visual book demands you consider how the eye takes in a spread (and a single page as well) when you turn the pages. Especially when you are telling a story because the eye quickly takes in everything at a glance and you want to control that experience as much as you can. Direct the eye. Also, the shapes in the two pages (within the panels and the panel shapes themselves) really effect each other—you have to keep vigilant about where horizon lines fall and how big shapes effect smaller shapes etc. It sounds terribly dull, but when you’ve done it right the reader barely notices at all. When you mess it up it’s like a skip in a record—you don’t need to be an expert to realize something is wrong.
Paste: Do you remember your dreams, and, if so, what are they like?
Seth: Funny you should ask. I have been trying for the last few weeks to write down, each morning, just where my dreams were taking place. Not so much the dreams as the locations. I was curious to see if there was a pattern to where the stories happened. I have found this is harder than I expected. I don’t remember well most of the dreams—even if I wake in the night and make a mental note to remember. Come the morning that has usually vanished from my mind. Usually I recall the last dream of the night in some detail but even so, should I neglect to write that down immediately, by noon it is vague—maybe even gone.
What are the dreams like? Stress dreams mostly. The usual stuff. Losing things. Getting lost. Trying to gather your possessions up in some catastrophe (and failing). Sometimes I dream I am in some horribly dirty place and I’m trying desperately to clean it up. More stress. Sad sometimes. Dreams of dead people or old friends who are gone. I find it odd that I have so few “joy” dreams. Why does our brain hate us so? It could give us any experience but usually it offers nothing but frustration. How irritating. By the way, have I discovered a pattern to the dream locations? Only one so far. I don’t seem to set my dreams in real places I know. I tend to make them up.
Paste: Have you ever had an ecstatic experience like the one Simon Matchcard has?
Seth: No. But I took a lot of drugs in my youth and certainly had some “induced” visions.
Paste: Wait. What? I think most people would be surprised to hear that, given that your work comes off more on the “square” and less on the “freak” side of the spectrum. Can you tell me more about your wild days?
Seth: I am a square and probably always was. However, being a square doesn’t mean you can’t be a punk or have taken a tremendous amount of drugs. I really liked drugs back then. But that was long ago and as you age the one thing you try hard to maintain is your dignity and if you wish to remain dignified you certainly don’t start telling your old “drug stories.” Nothing is more unbecoming.
Clyde Fans Interior Art by Seth
Paste: Are there systems or actions you use to organize and process your thoughts?
Seth: That’s a good question. Made me think twice. Initially I would say, no. I’m mostly an intuitive artist and I follow threads of inquiry that lead me (hopefully) to new ideas. I allow a lot of “unplanned” connections when I am working—trusting that these intuitive choices will combine and create interesting things. That said, thinking about this, I realize now that my studio “process” is indeed a process!! I work though ideas in my studio—in sketchbooks, for example—to lead me to future works. By “playing” around in a sketchbook I find new stories or new drawing approaches without the pressure of making “finished” work. In the studio, I have more than a handful of ongoing disciplines—sketchbooks, notebooks, scrapbooks, paper cut-outs, diaries, etc.—whose purposes are not clear. I’m not just doing work with publication in mind.
A lot of this stuff is about the process itself. The paper cut-outs, for example, are just done for the sake of doing them. I’m not sure what the point is. I have no end plan. I am simply learning something about design, something about sequence, by making them. And I have made a lot of them. Certainly over a thousand. I think you are right, these studio processes are about organizing thought and about creating a method to explore and winnow ideas down into a framework of some kind. Increasingly, as I get older, I think it is this studio work that is my real work. The published stuff is almost a side hobby!
Paste: The environments you create in this work (and in others) feel very solid and real. How do you keep track of, say, which buildings are where or which room connects to which other room in those environments? Do you make maps? Just keep it in your head?
Seth: Well, for Clyde Fans I certainly drew diagrams of the interior and stuck to them throughout. Sadly, those blueprints are a mess. As I worked on the book, over the years, I realized I had done a terrible initial job mapping things out. The interior of the Clyde building is certainly bigger than the exterior. Much of the interior doesn’t match the exterior and certainly the different floors line up poorly. I am no Chris Ware!
In my defense, the important part of this is not accuracy. It is the “illusion” of accuracy. I had the characters walk through those rooms repeatedly, chapter upon chapter, to allow the reader to get to know and deeply feel the environment the brothers inhabit. I needed the reader to get that kind of familiarity—to take it in unconsciously. For that, it didn’t matter that the staircase was in the wrong spot. All that mattered is that you “knew” that staircase.
Paste: How much do you use computers in your work?
Seth: Not much. However, I do work with production artists who take my hands-on artwork and scan it, assemble it, add color, etc. All under my direction and with lots of back and forth via email. I’ve made a pretty conscious decision, at this point, not to learn the process myself but to rely on others. I already spend more time in front of a screen than I like. So I am unlikely to learn this stuff now I lean heavily on Tracy Hurren at Drawn and Quarterly to put things together. She is a gift from god. Without her I would die!
Paste: What about in your graphic design?
Seth: Exactly the same answer as above.
Paste: Do you practice any mindfulness techniques?
Seth: No. Not in any organized way. However, I would say that much of my thinking is very focused on the here and now. I do try to be in the moment—especially when in the studio or driving around the countryside. I’m extremely focused on the same things in life. I’ve been on a book tour this last week and traveling alone is a marvellous way to be in the moment and to really see what is going on around. I actually like the touring experience except that you get so little time in each city. I do like to sit down and let time wash over me while traveling (most especially in a stuffy old wood and brass sort of bar with a glass of wine or two!).
Clyde Fans Interior Art by Seth