I’m not nostalgic in the true sense,” says Seth, the singly named Canadian cartoonist whose work certainly looks nostalgic at first glance. “I am a nostalgic person, of course, but I can’t imagine myself setting a story in 1950 and writing about it as a golden age that I want to recreate in my work.”
Though Seth fills his comics with old buildings, vintage logos, and retro-looking toys, all drawn in a deft ink-and-wash style that would be at home in a New Yorker magazine from the 1940s, Seth uses these visual cues to draw the reader into stories that explore richer and deeper territory than mere longing for the past. His latest graphic novel, Clyde Fans, will be published by Montreal-based Drawn & Quarterly in April.
Seth’s first graphic novel, It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken, published in 1996, seemed to be a memoir of the author’s attempts to track down a New Yorker cartoonist who had a brief flash of success in the ’40s—but the whole thing was fiction. His subsequent work includes pseudohistorical graphic novels that present fiction as though it is fact: 2005’s Wimbledon Green, the story of an obsessive comics collector; 2009’s George Sprott, the biography of a retired television personality; and 2011’s The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists, which features a fictitious cartoonists’ organization.
“I want to recreate that feeling of something that almost existed or could have existed,” Seth says, speaking of Clyde Fans. “I don’t feel like I’m trying to fool anyone, except with It’s a Good Life, but I do feel like I am trying to create a world that is like a parallel reality.”
Clyde Fans chronicles the decline of a fan business and the family who owned it, moving between 1957 and 1997 and going even further into the past in flashbacks. Abe Matchcard, the eldest of the two brothers who own the business, is a reluctant extrovert who has memorized entire tracts on how be an effective salesman but misses the rise of the home air conditioner, which ultimately dooms the company. Simon, the younger brother, seldom leaves the family home after one transformative but unsuccessful (at least from Abe’s point of view) attempt at a sales trip. The company fails, and Simon goes on to care for his and Abe’s aging mother and tends to his own obsession: collecting and studying kitschy postcards that show giant fish and fruit next to normal-size fishermen and farmers. The story is narrated in turns by the brothers, and the action takes place in their crumbling home and in coffee shops, hotel rooms, and offices that evoke the ’40s and ’50s, even in scenes that take place much later.
Clyde Fans was a real business, although everything else in the book is fiction. “It was a storefront in Toronto I used to pass by all the time,” Seth says. “It was already closed by time I noticed it. I looked in the window and I could see on the back wall two portraits of the owners. They were typical midcentury business photos, black-and-white, with the brothers wearing suits—big shots.”
That quick glance was the launching pad for a deeply personal story. Abe and Simon’s father walked out on the family when they were young, and they react to that trauma in very different ways: Abe takes responsibility for the business and pushes himself outward; Simon retreats inward.
“The two brothers are two sides of myself,” Seth says. “Abe is a very aggressive, outgoing person—that’s part of my personality. Simon is also part of me—very reclusive, cut off, sort of an anxious person. I’m an outgoing person, but because I spend most of my life in the studio, the quiet side, the side that is just dealing with me, is what I am most comfortable with. I think of myself as an extrovert who values introversion.”
Seth says he consciously incorporated his own family’s issues into Clyde Fans. “We had a reclusive kind of family life,” he notes. “My mother had mental issues and my father was probably living a double life. He was rarely home. My parents didn’t have any friends. Nobody ever came to our house. My mother had had quite a bit of shock treatment—she was very stunned—and our home life was fairly quiet except when my father was home.”
The fact that Seth was the youngest of a large family, and that his siblings moved away when he was very young, shaped his aesthetic in a very direct way. “I grew up in a house that was filled with the remnants of an earlier family,” he says. “My house was filled with photos of people and a life that was lived before me. That quality of lingering things from the past is one of the most essential elements of what the work’s about. My childhood was not unhappy, but in retrospect I realize what a strange, closed off kind of childhood it was—how strange my parents were. And I’m always writing about those people. They are gigantic in my brain. It was a complex relationship. I’m not angry, but I think it left a permanent mark on how I think about human interactions.”
It’s impossible to talk about Seth’s work without mentioning Dominion, the fictitious Canadian city that exists physically as a cardboard model and in his drawings but lives chiefly in his imagination. The 2014 film/live-action documentary Seth’s Dominion shows him working on it, and parts of it have appeared as settings in his graphic novels, including Clyde Fans.
“When I started Clyde Fans, I set much of the story in the city of Dominion, but Dominion was literally just a name I pulled out of the top of my head—just any city,” Seth says. “After I started Clyde Fans, I was working on another book in my head that would be a series of short stories, and I thought I would put them in the same town. It was then that I developed this city in my mind as a complicated idea. That graphic novel died on the vine 20 years ago, but Dominion carried on and became a project of its own.”
It’s a project that Seth has been working on ever since. “Most of the work I’m doing on that, nobody has ever seen,” he says. “It’s mostly in notebooks. It fills in the background of my stories, but 99% of that information does not make it into anything I’m working on. Maybe someday this will be used in a book—or maybe the notebooks themselves will be the final work, I don’t know—but it’s kind of an interior space. More than anything, it’s an inner world. I like that whole process of worldbuilding.”
Seth’s love of worldbuilding extends to his life away from his studio. He wears suits that are tailored to look vintage, and, like a 1950s businessman, he never goes out without a hat. His house is filled with items from the early and mid-20th century, including the appliances (“It’s a choice—and a hassle, if the fridge breaks down,” he says).
“I’m about defining my life by the things that aesthetically please me,” Seth says. “A lot of my interests are about the past. My house is an art house, not a recreation of the past.”
The same could be said of Seth’s art. “At a certain age, I was really, really interested in old cartoonists, especially the New Yorker cartoonists of the 1930s and ’40s,” he says. “I studied their work and absorbed a lot. That was what I was doing in the ’80s, and when I look back, it is very ’80s, too. It has an ’80s aesthetic. You can’t help but absorb the time period you are from.”
As much as Seth enjoys toying with the past, he knows he can never go back—and that’s what makes it so interesting. “The past doesn’t exist, and that’s why there’s an inherent sad quality to it,” he says. “It’s inaccessible. Remembering is pleasurable in itself. My childhood was a complex time period, yet I think about it constantly and I think about it with pleasure—even the unpleasant stuff. I think those two things—that the past is always gone so there’s a lingering sadness to it and that memory itself is a pleasurable activity—are what [my work] is about.”
Brigid Alverson writes regularly for Publishers Weekly on comics.