Over the past half-dozen years, Seth has become nearly ubiquitous—as a cartoonist, as an illustrator, as a designer, his work has seeped into nearly ever aspect of the nebulous publishing world, from a his cover art to Fantagraphics’ Complete Peanuts, to his New Yorker covers, to serials for The New York Times Magazine. In terms of shear presence, his output is perhaps only rivaled by the likes of Chris Ware and Dan Clowes.
He’s been popping up a lot lately at comic conventions as well. Sitting at the Drawn & Quarterly booth in a vintage suit and pre-war style spectacles, he manages to stand out amongst the crowds of storm troopers and Jokers and Klingons all vying for the limited attention spans of over stimulated show goers. “I look for old things,” he’ll tells me later, as we conduct our interview on a subterranean flight of stairs out in front of the San Diego Convention Center—a momentary reprieve from the maddening, sweaty crowd.
As anyone even remotely familiar with his work can tell you, it’s the artist’s worst-kept secret. Seth wears a certain disdain from the trappings of the modern world on his sleeve—both figuratively and literally. The more we speak, the more it becomes clear that the Canadian artist’s first book, It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken, is, in certain respects, not so much a graphic novel as a lesson in his personal philosophy.
But while Seth’s work is something of a perpetual homage to the works of Schulz and a string of illustrators who have worshipped at the alter of Eustace Tilley, it’s hardly bound by the past. 2005’s Wimbledon Green, which was born as an experiment in one of his sketchbooks, soon grew into a fascinating exploration of non-linear storyteller later perfected in his most recent work, George Sprott.
Through his work Seth has managed the rare feat of straddling the thin line between constantly looking back and perpetually moving forward.
Do you enjoy coming out these sorts of shows?
Not really. I think I used to like it more when it was more about looking for old comics, but I don’t even have time to do that at these kinds of shows. I can’t find an hour to look around.
Do you still buy a lot of comics?
Certain stuff I’m chasing. Mostly I’m buying old horror comics at the moment.
Stuff that probably isn’t really here for the most part.
Yeah—well, actually, I just found a stack.
[It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken] is based around digging up old books.
Oh yes. I’m a collector, pure and simple. That’s one of the main things I do for fun. I look for old things. So in that sense, I like to come to conventions, but this doesn’t seem to be about that much anymore. The comics section of this convention seems to be getting smaller and smaller like a collapsing star. A black hole.
Yeah, there doesn’t seem to be much of a place for this, unless you’re pitching a movie.
I don’t imagine you’re optioning anything for a movie right now, are you?
No, I’m not. I could see a movie being made of some of my stuff, but it would probably have to be an independent film.
I could see Wimbledon Green being turned into a movie.
Yeah, I think Wimbledon Green is the one thing I’ve done that I could see working as an animated film. If anyone came to me to do an animation based on one of my other books , I would likely say, “no,” because I don’t want my work to be perceived as ‘comic booky.’ They’re meant to be stories about “real life”–set in the “real world”–not a comic book world. I generally dislike films made from comics that make it a point to give it a stylized comic-y look. And I’m not too fond of the supposed connection between comics and animation either. They are always linked together simply because both are drawn–but honestly, what two mediums could be more different?
That said, Wimbledon Green is the one thing I could see working as an animated feature, and I would like to do it– probably. It could be fun.
You don’t strike me as somebody who would be comfortable letting someone take over something you created.
No, I would. I would totally just hand it over to the right people, if they were willing to pay me enough money. Because what I really don’t want to do is be involved in a project that uses up all of my time–time I need to put into my drawing. I love film, but I wouldn’t want to make a movie. Even if someone came along and asked me to direct a movie, I’d probably say, “no” because I’m interested in doing comics. But I would take the money from a film adaptation, and put it back into making comics. If the movie stank, well, that’s life. The book exists. And hopefully, because of the money made, another one exists as well.
And you’ve already removed yourself from it.
Yeah, It’s not your fault if it’s bad. I mean, It would be terrific if it was a great movie. I’d try not to have that sort of propriety feeling where you think, ‘I can’t allow them to wreck it.’ I hope I could be fairly flexible.
As long as you had some sort of say.
Yeah, I would hope it would be someone copacetic. I wouldn’t just hand it off to anyone.
Have you had offers?
Not in any serious way. I’ve had small offers — options. Never much money involved. Nothing that made me—like I know that Charles Burns has Black Hole optioned, which is seriously on its way to being made into a movie. And that seems like a good arrangement that he’s worked out there. From what little I know, It seems like he’s going to make a good amount of money off of it, the film may very well turn out to be good, and he doesn’t seem to be doing much work connected to it–I don’t think he’s writing the screenplay or anything like that.
Do you envision your books cinematically, when you’re working on them? Do you think like that?
Not generally. Some of my stuff is cinematic in the way the “camera”—if you want to call it that—follows the characters around. I call that naturalistic storytelling. Of course I don’t really think of it as a camera. I actually envision it as the reader following the character around, as if you’re a disembodied head. In Clyde Fans, you’re following the character walking through the house. I think of that as how you experience the world through your eyes. Above shots, close-ups etc. They are film terms but I think of them as simply techniques to mirror how we experience vision. Film, being the more popular, has created the vocabulary to label these things but they are not purely actions of a camera. It’s more about vision in general. In George Sprott, I use a more fragmented way of telling a story. It’s not naturalistic. You don’t necessarily follow the characters around. It jumps around more than that. Time is less smooth.
It seemed like it was Wimbledon Green that really started you along that path.
And you didn’t really expect that to work out as a book, initially.
Yeah, it was just an experiment in my sketchbook—an experiment I was really enjoying. At a certain point, I recognized that it would probably be published. Though, pretty much right up until the end, I just figured I would publish it in my next sketchbook collection. It was only when I reached the very end that I thought, ‘maybe I should make it a book of it on its own.’ And that’s sort of when it became a singular thing for me–a complete thing–not just a section of a sketchbook.
Is that why it’s more cartoony than your other work? Because you didn’t expect to see it published?
Yeah, I think so. I actually did an 80 page story before Wimbledon that was about similar material. I kind of stopped on page 80 and started Wimbledon, because I didn’t like the structure of that story. And that freedom to just quit is why working in the sketchbook is so freeing. You don’t have to publish anything you’re doing. If it fails, no one need see it but yourself. Strangely, that usually makes the work better then the stuff you are carefully planning. It’s less uptight. My other books have been more calculatingly “serious.” Wimbledon was allowed to simply be for fun.
You’ve since done work in that structure for The New York Times Magazine. It works really well in serialized form.
Yeah, it does. This particular kind of story structure works really well in serialized form. It’s a method that I’m more and more attracted to. It helps you control the way you distribute the information into nice, easy chunks, rather than having to worry about creating a certain kind of flow for everything. Clyde Fans, which I’m back working on right now, is all about flow. Each scene has to flow into the next scene. It’s concerned with mood and atmosphere. But with that more fragmented approach, I can just have a little chunk that’s about a dream he had, and then cut to the next one is about, say, going to work. I don’t need to worry about make that transition from the dream–making it smooth. You know, showing the dream and then the character waking up, getting ready, catching the bus…
You do create atmosphere, though. George Sprott has definite elements of that—he travels to the arctic—
Sure, but I do it in a different manner. I want to say that I do it a bit more through design than through storytelling. By using those large spreads of landscape drawings etc.
Is that why you chose the arctic? So you could explore the tundra?
Yeah, exactly. I didn’t want to bombard the reader with symbols, but it was important that George have a certain kind of journey in his life where there was this expanse in his youth, and the rest of his life was in the little box of a city, and a television box.
[Continued in Part Two.]