In our first “Meta Grid” contribution (a category under which we will publish ancillary posts mainly in the form of interviews and brief conference reports, for example), Kathleen Dunley talks to Canadian Cartoonist Seth. You can read Kathleen’s post on Seth’s Palookaville #19 here. -The Comics Grid
I had the pleasure of hosting Seth at the 2011 Comic Arts Conference, held in conjunction with the San Francisco Wondercon. During our conversation, we touched on many ideas, but as a sequel to my last post here on The Comics Grid, I wanted to again focus on the nature of attention, a topic came up as part of our discussion. I wanted to know Seth’s thoughts on attention and the tie-in between attentiveness and pacing within the comics medium. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation. The full conversation can be heard on this video.
Kathleen Dunley: To return to the theme of preservation, something that always strikes me within your work is that it does require that type of heightened attention. Those that try to read it too fast, and I’m just coming at this from a teacher’s background, the students who go really quickly and don’t pay attention, especially to the buildings and especially to the background details, they miss out on the story and it’s something that I think is quite important because, again, it’s teaching somebody to look in a new way. It’s forcing, in some cases, someone to look beyond what’s happening in the front of the panel.
Seth: That’s what’s exciting in comics, I think. For myself, I’m very interested in it as a slow medium. I think that a lot of the work I do barely registers as a story and so it really is about the actual details of reading it, like you say. I like things that are slow and I like things that are boring. I actually think like, there’s something I refer to as “sublime boredom,” which is the sort of a thin line between things that are interesting and dull, but it’s like a major thin line. You have to stay like right on the edge and it requires… I always think of it as a kind of like a hypnagogic state. It’s like when you’re watching a very boring movie and drifting in and out of sleep and that’s the kind of perfect sublime boredom. It’s interesting but boring at the same time. So much of the comics I’m doing, I’m trying to achieve that actual state, and I think that has to be done slowly. If you read one of my comics like just in a very quick way, there’s really not much going on and it really is about all the little details. And even with the details, there isn’t that much going on, but the details add… the texture that is missing from the plot. It’s all kind of about the texture of life.
KD: And it even ties back a little bit into the idea of preservation. There’s a great book by… Jonathan Crary. It’s called Suspension of Perception and his whole theory is that the kind of contemporary sense of attention is schizophrenic, where we’re trained to watch everything in ten second bites or 140 character tweets and that type of media will train the mind to think in a way that needs to be deconstructed, essentially.
KD: And so, when something like Clyde Fans opens with some 70-odd pages of an old man going through his routine, it’s demanding in a sense, but it’s also very necessary. And what Crary calls a suspended perception, where you get into a state, almost like your definition of [sublime] boredom where you can actually experience a kind of hovering out of time. So, any of the many moments on a given page, and his work is not very often applied to comics, because that moment of finding that image, or detail, or whatnot really cracks that barrier and I think it’s important since it will make people look. It will make them look closer and really start to see, and maybe think twice about how they think.
Seth: I agree. I don’t think we’re living in a culture that’s geared towards close reading of anything. I mean, I really don’t think it’s been that way for a very long time to tell you the truth. I do think it’s kind of speeding up at the moment. That people have less attention spans, if you want to call it that, than they did 20 years ago. I don’t think our attention span was fantastic 20 years ago either, but I’m aware of it even in my own life. […] To read a book in real detail as opposed to like ‘skim your way through it quickly to move on to the next one,’ there’s a big difference in those experiences. […] I certainly feel like that scattered sense in my own life that I have a wide and vast superficial knowledge, but when I feel like I am getting deeper into things, I do think it brings a sense of well being that feels missing from much of society to me. I do think that’s one of the main reasons that I do want Palookaville to be slow and want it to be accumulated detail. That sequence you talk about at the beginning of Clyde Fans and also in chapter three are structured so that you will walk through the rooms of the building enough times that you will know the rooms well. I wanted it so that by the time you get to the end of Clyde Fans that you would know the space that the characters lived in very well and I knew that the only way you could do that is to have the action continue to go through these rooms, back and forth again, so that you’re always aware of where they are. But you can only do that in a kind of methodical way and I think there’s a value in that storytelling… that if you want to slow things down that you have to have a strong sense of place.
* * * * *
The sense of methodical storytelling over the course of Seth’s body of works shows a distinct maturation. Recent previews of his forthcoming graphic novel, The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists shows a distinct page structure that extends both the concept of attention and the concept of place.
Working from an extended panorama that breaks up the shelf of heads into three segments to invite reflection before moving to a related, faster paced moment in time creates a dual pull between the objects at rest and the objects in use. The bottom of the page focuses on related scenes, though the panels are divorced in terms of obvious connection, either in details or in chronology, demanding the reader to put the pieces together, and introducing a sad truth as the page turns; namely, that the “always important” cartoonists, within the next two pages, will be represented as faded and nearly forgotten.
Crary, J. (2001) Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture (Cambridge: MIT Press)
Dunley, K. & Seth. (2011, April 1). “Focus on Seth.” Comic Arts Conference (San Francisco, CA).
Seth. (2004) Clyde Fans: Book 1 (Montreal: Drawn and Quarterly)
Seth. (2011) The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists (Montreal: Drawn and Quarterly)