The Comics: Philosophy and Practice conference was held at the University of Chicago from May 18-20, 2012. At the conclusion of the event, I spoke with Seth, a panelist at the conference and the cartoonist behind the Palookaville series, which will see its 21st issue later this year. I wanted to delve deeper into some of the ideas that came up during the conference, and Seth graciously obliged my questions. To see a full transcript of the interview, click here.
Kathleen: During the memoir panel on Saturday, the panelists were discussing the relationship between comics and computers. The question was raised– when we gather a bunch of comics artists and scholars together, is it a funeral, or is it a wedding? One of the panelists made the point that it has to be a wedding. Artists will get used to the screen, or be phased out.
Seth: I think there’s a lot of excitement right now about the computer, like you were saying. [...] I think sometimes, there’s a lot of pressure that the digital world is changing everything, and it really is, and there’s a pressure that you must go along. I guess it comes in with every wave of technology. It’s funny– I was just thinking of this with the automobile the other day– the idea that when the automobile first appeared there were people shouting, “Get a horse!” It was a funny idea that like anyone would waste their time on the automobile. But how quickly that shifted until the entire culture was built around the automobile. Those people who were yelling, “Get a horse;” it was over for them and they didn’t know it. And I know that I’m in that position. Resisting the technology, or being uninterested in it, let’s put it that way. I’m not resisting anything anymore– it’s pointless to resist it! But it won’t change anything; this is where things are going. For me, it’s not leading to a world of cartooning that will probably be my great interest, but it will be leading to something new, guaranteed. I don’t know what it’ll be, and it might be something I’ll be interested in, but I don’t know. But that’s just because, for me, I wanted to replicate the things that excited me about comics to begin with. I came into comics because I wanted to make physical comics, but people coming along now may not have that same connection. […] For me it might be a funeral. For others, it is definitely a wedding, or a birth, maybe.
Kathleen: On a slightly different note, Dan Clowes brought up the notion of the book as a sculpture during your panel. I read the piece you wrote for the Devil’s Artisan about how you designed the Collected Doug Wright to reflect the Vimy Ridge Memorial. Are there sculptural influences in any of your other book designs?
Seth: Well, nothing that direct, probably. And the thing is, a lot of the times I’m working through things that are kind of, I guess you could call them like secret organizations of how things are put together that would probably be too complicated to explain why I bothered. Like, the rhythm of a particular piece or section of a book might actually be based on some music where I’ve actually sat down and listened, not in any mathematical way… said ‘ok, here we’re moving and it’s a bit fast, now it’s a bit slow, now it’s a bit fast,’ and I would try to replicate that rhythm within the comic based on how those pages operate. And that’s just like a game. It has some meaning to me, but I don’t think it’s important in the sense that it adds any layer of specific meaning to the work. That stuff is more just something I enjoy doing for my own secret reasons.
But when I think of the book, I actually think more like a house than a sculpture. I think there’s very obvious like sort of metaphor of opening it up and you’re entering in, down the hallway, which opens into the first room etcetera. I definitely think of it as walking through a book. That whole opening sequence in any book I do is always… it’s an introduction, but it’s also like entering into the world of the book. So in the Peanuts books, you open it up and the first thing you go through is that spread of grass… you’re walking across the lawn into the world of Peanuts. Most of my books in some way follow that pattern.
Kathleen: During your panel, you had recalled the story of collecting some GI Joe figures you had as a kid, and sitting down and trying to play. Talk about a vanished space. My daughter tries to teach me how to play, sometimes with my old toys, but it’s like a lost vocabulary.
Seth: Yeah, I think that’s very true. I think there’s like something in that ability. I think that’s what adults want to do, and that’s what we spend much of our life trying to create these scenarios where we’re trying to lose ourselves, but in childhood, you’re actually capable of doing it. You can sit down on the floor and lose yourself in play with physical objects. You can imbue them with empathy in some way that’s impossible as an adult. I think that’s what I’m trying to do in art. I’m trying to create an interior world that I can pour my empathy into, but I’m not kidding myself that it’s the same as getting down on the floor and playing. You never really achieve that state of play again in life. And I’m not really sure why. I mean, part of it must simply be that, as the mind grows more sophisticated, that you lose that ability to get away from your own ego. Maybe it’s adolescence that does it. Something happens in adolescence.
I think persona building is kind of about play; the idea that you can create an identity for yourself. I think you spend an awful lot out of your adult life from teen years on trying to refine your persona. You eliminate the things that don’t work, add on new layers that you think will work. It’s a constant process that probably is completely futile. But I think that might be the closest adults have to play is role-play. Except it’s not fun!
Kathleen: I guess I see these changes in the work that you do. Memory is almost like a changing character, and the past is almost like a character, if that makes any sense!
Seth: Well, the work’s pretty much always concerned with time and memory in some way. It’s always hard to say what you’re doing with that, though. Part of it is just that these are the basic themes you’re interested in. It’s hard to nail down why specifically that is, except I think it’s the central issue of being alive. It’s like the one thing that unites experience is memory. If we didn’t have memory we would not really be these creatures at all. To have to live in the present would be a very strange experience. When you hear about someone who has had one of those neurological accidents with no memory that seems to me like the worst curse. I’ve seen written somewhere that memory is the greatest curse on mankind, but I think quite the opposite. Memory is the one great thing that allows you to have personal identity. You remove memory and personal identity is gone, and I think all my work is connected with the idea of how people have built their identities. And mostly, I relate to it through memory because all of identity seems to be built as an interior experience.
That persona building I was just talking about is that attempt to create an exterior version of what you would like your interior personality to be…what you’re trying to project. What I find really fascinating is that we don’t really know ourselves. That we try to figure out who we are is a lifelong experience and that we’re guessing at who we are when we should know. If anybody should know, it should be the person who has access to all the information, and yet we’re lost. We don’t even know what we’re like. We hope to get clues from other people’s behavior to us of what/who we are.
Kathleen: On these lines, another theme that is recurring in your work is the idea of reality and fiction and how the lines between the two shift and change.
Seth: All my work, right back to the first book, I realize now… I didn’t plan it that way, but I think that might be my essential interest, and essential approach. I’m not sure why. Not to belabor the point, but I think it might be the most influential film on me when I was a kid was Citizen Kane. And I think I’m kind of repeating it all the time. I just noticed this recently, it’s kind of the structure for everything I do… somebody searches for something, and that film is set up like a fake documentary about a fake person who seems real because it’s Hearst with basically just a thin veneer of fiction over the top of nonfiction. But I guess at some point I’ve lost interest in the difference between fiction and nonfiction, and it’s like the worlds blur because I’m not that interested in constructing a story anymore. I can feel as my work is moving forward that I’m getting less interested in characters and more interested in just talking about the world.
I have a feeling that if it’s not the next book, it’s coming soon, where it’s just going to be a book about Dominion and have no plot whatsoever.
Kathleen: I’d love that!
Seth: I may just talk about the city for a couple hundred pages.
Kathleen: In Palookaville 21, you’re going to be profiling Jacques Gagnier, the cartoonist behind La Vie En Images. He seems like a George Sprott character– few citations, hard to find publications. It almost seems like you’re engaging an act of reclamation.
Seth: I guess, to be honest, I am a bit of a contrarian. Like so many people, I like to get my hands on things that I can claim my very own. Because of this I am somewhat drawn to obscurity. Gagnier is obscure. However, it’s not pure perversity. He is very talented as well and deserves to be given a second look before his name vanishes. I do feel some real sense of reclamation with the old time Canadian cartoonists. I want to save them before they are lost in the jumble of culture that surrounds us; sucked into that vortex that grabs everything from the past that didn’t get a foothold in the modern world. He’s a good cartoonist and I hope to expose him to a new generation in a small way. I have similar hopes for a handful of Canadian cartoonists whose work I adore. Peter Whalley will hopefully be the subject of an upcoming book. I recently visited the home of his widow in Quebec and was absolutely bowled over by an almost unknown body of his work as a painter and sculptor. So exciting.
I hope someday that a cartoonist in the future will care about me and my work in the same manner.