The cartoonist known as "Seth"—born Gregory Gallant in 1962—first entered the collective comics consciousness toward the end of the '80s, when he started illustrating the cult science-fiction series Mister X. But genre work never really fit his interest in classic children's comics, magazine cartoons, and commercial illustration. At the start of the '90s, Seth began writing and drawing his own comic series, Palookaville, joining a then-formidable army of autobiographical cartoonists that included his Canadian cohorts Chester Brown and Joe Matt. In the mid-'90s, Seth serialized arguably the peak work of the autobiographical-comics genre, It's A Good Life, If You Don't Weaken, a graphic novel about his crippling obsession with a forgotten New Yorker cartoonist. The book continues to sell well, landing on lists of essential comics, though Seth invited some unintended controversy when it came out that much of It's A Good Life's "autobiography" was actually fiction.
Since the late '90s, Seth has been eking out the impressionist graphic novel Clyde Fans, about the emotionally stunted relationship of salesman brothers Simon and Abraham. In addition, as the crossover successes of cartoonists like Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, and Craig Thompson has raised Seth's profile, he's responded with a flurry of new books, illustrating his father's memoir Bannock, Beans And Black Tea, assembling the sketchbook collection Vernacular Drawings, and designing the bestselling series The Complete Peanuts. Up next is Wimbledon Green, a dashed-off but highly involving adventure about a portly millionaire comic-book collector and his colorful rivals. Seth recently spoke with The A.V. Club about his work schedule, the state of the industry, and his persistent fascination with lost artifacts of the past.
The A.V. Club: Does anyone call you Gregory any more?
Seth: Everyone calls me Seth.
AVC: Even your wife?
S: Oh yeah. My wife had never known me as anything but Seth. Even my family. Everybody except maybe my father, who's getting a little old. I'm surprised he even remembers my name at all. [Laughs.] He still calls me Greg.
AVC: How long have you been Seth?
S: Since sometime in the early '80s, I guess. A long time.
AVC: Is it strange to just invent a name halfway through your life and then have everyone call you that name? It's not like it's a new identity, but—
S: Actually, it was pretty calculated to be a new identity at the time. It was part of a separation from who I was as a teenager, really. I came to the big city and I started to get involved in the punk scene and stuff, and I wanted to sort of brand myself. I made a pretty conscious effort to be a different type of person.
I think obviously there's a core of who you are, and as you get older, you become more aware of what behavior is immutable. For a long time, I felt there was a deep separation between the person I was as a teenager and the person I was in my 20s and early 30s . It's only maybe in the last 10 years that I've started to see more continuity between those periods. In the last couple of years, I've been looking a lot back at my childhood and teen years and sort of reconnecting. I felt a real alienation from my teen years for a long time. I was an unhappy teenager, and it was the last thing I wanted to think about.
AVC: Can we expect future comics set in that era?
S: I think so. Actually, I've been feeling a strong desire after Clyde Fans to do a story that captures the real complicated quality of what it feels like to be a teenager. I think that's one of the things lacking in what I'm doing right now, getting that feeling of what real life is about. I want to try and do a comic that has that degree of digression in it, where you really let yourself go and just talk and talk about some subject for hundreds of pages, kind of all over the place. It's very unformed in my mind right now, but I think that's sort of what I want to try and get at.
I don't think it will be very plot-heavy, to tell you the truth. I have an idea of the structure of it and how it's going to work. But more and more, I'm feeling like I want to capture what it feels like… what your experience in the world is like.
AVC: You were pegged as being part of the "autobiography" movement until It's A Good Life, If You Don't Weaken was revealed as a work of fiction, only modeled on your life. Some people felt betrayed by that revelation, but some seemed to respect the book more, believing that it's harder to tell a fictional story than just to relate something that happened to you.
S: Yeah, I've heard that before, it's true. But I don't actually believe that. I think it's just as difficult to tell a real story. Although when it comes down to it, I guess they're all kind of fictional stories, because of what you have to do to tell a story.
I'm always interested to hear the responses to It's A Good Life, because it certainly was never created to be a hoax, in the sense that I wanted the secret kept. I've gotten a lot of reactions from people regarding how they feel about it, when they find out it's not real. I'm always more happy to hear from the ones who feel better about it than the ones who feel betrayed.
AVC: Nostalgia is a major element in your work, and one of the appeals of nostalgia is that it lets people re-encounter foggy parts of their past. Sort of like the way the décor in an old movie may remind viewers of their grandmothers' houses, even if they can't even remember their grandmothers' houses all that well.
S: Yeah, I think that's kind of the key. These electronic media, because they save stuff, it allows you to go back and try and re-feel things. It's not really an experience of looking at them so much. It's like, you see this stuff and it gives you an opportunity to recreate feelings associated with these times. I'm really involved with that myself right now. I've been trying to collect TV that I might have been watching in the '70s, to re-spark the feeling of what my life was like at that point.
AVC: It's good to have a job that lets you do something you'd probably do anyway.
S: [Laughs.] Exactly.
AVC: That's interesting in relation to Clyde Fans, which started out more dialogue-driven and plot-heavy, but now really seems to be more about walking around in long-gone places. Was that always your intention?
S: It's pretty much always been planned to be this way. That's what it's about, for sure. What I'm trying to do is deal with a couple of characters through a variety of approaches. Right now I've just finished an issue, and I've got one more to go until part three is finished. There'll be four issues in part three. And this whole section has been created to go inside of Simon, into his mind. Each part of the book is a chance to see these characters, but from different angles. Like the first part was a monologue, to see Abraham from the outside. You hear him talk, but you don't really have any access to his thoughts. And then the second one, I wanted to introduce Simon, but I wanted to have it viewed almost entirely from a cinematic point of view, so you don't really have access to him in either way. He barely speaks, and you don't have any of his interior life. Now I'm almost done with part three, which is almost entirely interior monologue, so you can pretty much count that it's truthful. When I get into part four, I finally get a chance to bring the characters together. And part five, I'm just going to keep to myself.
AVC: What's your target date for finishing?
S: I still think I've got at least two years ahead of me.
AVC: That quickly?
S: If things go well. I'm hoping to change my schedule in the next year so I can focus more on the comic. We'll see. I've said this before. But that's my plan. This year, I've been working so much on so many different projects, and I feel I need to restructure my life a bit.
AVC: Do you think your work is served well by serializing? Would it be possible to complete the entirety of Clyde Fans and then release it?
S: I don't think it would've happened, to tell you the truth. I think the serialization is a way to trick myself into getting the story done. I think with future projects, that may be the route they go. It may also be that I change the way I draw. Wimbledon Green is done in a much looser style, one that allowed me to do a whole story all at once. The artwork in Clyde Fans is pretty laborious, and tedious, actually. I don't think I could've sat down and done three or four hundred pages of that and then released it. I really needed the serialization to force myself to do it.
AVC: Wimbledon Green was created in your sketchbook, correct?
S: Exactly. That may be the future model, maybe for the book after Clyde Fans.
AVC: Did you know all along that you were working on a full-length story, or did you just start one day and see what happened?
S: I just started. I really didn't know what I was doing until I was about halfway through. And even then there was always a certain element of chance about it, because it wasn't done very preciously. If at the end I had thought it was terrible, I didn't have to publish it.
AVC: If it hadn't worked, would you have re-used the material in some other way?
S: If some of it was good, I might've found some way to pull it together. I've got another story in a similar vein that I've done about 60 pages of, and it's halted at the moment. I'm probably going to finish it up, but that's one that I'm not so sure about. I think I may publish it somewhere down the road, but it's not slated for any kind of immediate publishing. It could go either way.
AVC: Wimbledon Green goes through some pretty distinctive changes, starting off as a spoof of the collector's mentality, and then becoming almost like a Tintin adventure in the middle. Was that conscious?
S: It was very conscious. Actually, that sequence is not where it sat in the book originally. If you remove the adventure parts about The Green Ghost, that's pretty much what the original book was. And when I got to the end of that, which was probably about 80 pages or something, I just read it over and I thought, "There's something missing from this." So I did that big adventure section and just dropped it down into the middle. I felt like it added something to the book, giving it more life. It changed the tone.
AVC: The story sort of changes again at the end, becoming more in the vein of what you usually do: a pining for things that have been lost.
S: Yeah, that's kind of my default mode. [Laughs.] It comes out in anything I'm working on.
AVC: Do you ever wish it didn't? Or do you just accept that as who you are?
S: I think I accept it as who I am, more and more. It really makes up the majority of what my life is about. There's a couple things I can't imagine not writing about, and that's one of them. That just seems to be what I think about most of the time.
AVC: It's especially striking in the last section of the book, when Wimbledon Green is remembering that big barn full of old books for sale. Did you actually come across a barn like that?
S: Yeah, I actually did, on a cross-country trip to visit my father a few years ago.
AVC: It's almost dreamlike when it happens in the book, sort of like stories where somebody wandering through a familiar city turns a corner and finds a wondrous shop full of items that don't exist.
S: I've had those dreams all my life. As a child, it was always a dry riverbank where I found things. Usually comic books. [Laughs.] Those dreams seem to be connected to anxiety dreams, too, because often the things that I find, I have trouble getting them home. Or something goes wrong. They're not usually just purely pleasurable dreams for me.
AVC: When you wake up, you wonder where your stuff went.
S: Exactly. A very disappointing experience.
AVC: Along those same lines, the sections in Wimbledon Green having to do with the hero's favorite old comic, Fine & Dandy, have kind of a tenuous connection—in spirit, at least—to Kurt Busiek's Astro City.
S: That would be a complete coincidence. [Laughs.] I've never read any of it. Tell me why.
AVC: Busiek sets his Astro City stories on the fringes of old superhero stories. He's referencing big DC and Marvel story arcs, and adjusting the details so that they're part of his invented world. But he's not telling those old stories, he's just mentioning them in passing, which makes them more compelling. Sort of like how the idea of Jack Kirby is more romantic than actually sitting down and reading a bunch of old Jack Kirby comics.
S: I think I see what you mean.
AVC: When you describe the contents of those Fine & Dandy comics in Wimbledon Green, you make them sound much more magical and fun than they might be if they really existed.
S: Well, part of me was thinking of John Stanley when I was writing that section.
AVC: Little Lulu?
S: Yeah, which is one of the few things of that sort that I think does kind of stand up. But I do understand what you mean. I think it's because of our childhood connection to comic books. Like Jack Kirby, for example. You're right, the work doesn't stand up to reading as an adult, but if you read it at the right age, it was profound. And that feeling lingers, even though you can't return to it any more.
I find that an interesting experience with a lot of those great old comics, that they were great at a certain age, but they operate more as metaphors in your later life. Reading Osamu Tezuka's Phoenix is one of those experiences where I think, like, "Oh, if only I'd had this book when I was 14." Because even though I enjoy it, it's not the enjoyment that I could be getting out of it. There's like a profundity to it that would be the perfect profundity for a 14-year-old. It's just sort of an enjoyable experience for a 40-year-old. I think that's one of the great appeals of comics for me, when I think of them, to remember that experience. I tried to capture a bit of that in Wimbledon Green, of just how profound and meaningful these comic books can seem.
AVC: When you're 14 and only have a small comics collection, you can read the same issues over and over, but decades later, you can have many, many stacks of comics and blow through each one in 10 minutes or less, and never look at them again.
S: Yeah, you can't recreate that experience. I don't think it's a coincidence that comic books appeal so strongly to children. Not that it negates any of their power for adults, but there is something about comics that makes them a perfect storytelling system for children.
AVC: Lately there's been a revival of interest in the kind of comics you like: Dark Horse's Little Lulu reprints, Drawn & Quarterly's Gasoline Alley series, that huge New Yorker cartoon anthology from last year, and of course the Peanuts collections that you're working on.
S: Yep, there does seem to be. It may be the aging demographic of comics readership. It might be a resurgence of interest in alternative pop-culture forms for the mainstream audience. I don't know what it is exactly, but right now you seem to be able to sell at least enough to make these books feasible economically, which makes me happy.
AVC: How has the revival of interest in comics affected your career?
S: It's certainly never been better for me, and this seems to be true of my peers, in whatever the hell it's called that we do. [Laughs.] I know that in the last few years, I've felt an absolute rising of interest from the media and the general public. I've been amazed at the amount of attention I'll get for something like Wimbledon Green, which was a project done entirely as a fun exercise, with no commercial designs. They're excerpting a couple of pages in The New Yorker—which seems crazy to me—and here in Toronto, our national newspaper's going to be running like five days of excerpts from it. This is the kind of thing that just didn't seem possible 10 years ago. I'm really quite amazed at the progress. Maybe it's just Flavor Of The Month. But it certainly is surprising.
AVC: Actually, it seems to be more of a long-haul interest this time than it was in the mid-'80s, when there was the post-Maus boom in comics for adults. Now it's almost a given that work like yours, Chester Brown's, Dan Clowes', and Chris Ware's will be reviewed in mainstream media outlets, and treated as important.
S: I hope so, but you never want to get too confident, because when you're in the heart of something, you always have the illusion that it will continue. I think when people get attention, they tend to believe that they deserve the attention. This is why Hollywood stars are always so shocked when their careers dry up. They had a feeling that they could spend all their money and make all the wrong choices, and then a couple of years later, they're 25 and no one's interested any more. There's a danger in thinking that any attention you're getting is earned. I never get too enthusiastic about the idea that it will carry on. I'd like to hope so. It certainly makes my life easier, I know that.
AVC: Does it inspire you to strike while the iron is hot? Clyde Fans may take a decade to complete, but you've also put out three other books in the last couple of years.
S: I'm inspired, but not really so much by the attention. I have a strong sense that I've got to work hard right now, but that has more to do with the fact that I'm getting older. I feel like I'm in my creative years right now. You look at most artists, the arc of their career, there's a definite decline at the end. And that decline could set in at any time. In your 50s, or your 60s and 70s if you're lucky. Time goes by fast, and you've got to be busy all the time. I feel like a woman whose biological clock is ticking. [Laughs.] I feel like maybe I've got 20 productive years left, so I've really got to work. I've got a lot of projects in mind, and I know it's just not possible to do most of them. I've got to focus. I want Clyde Fans done, and the next book after that, and I've got another one planned after that, too. That's a lot of work. Not to mention a variety of other things, like sketchbook series and stuff like that.
AVC: How do you balance your workload? Do you have to spend more time on illustration work, to pay the bills?
S: Traditionally, yes, but things are starting to even out more. I don't do as much of the sort of thing that was my bread and butter in the past, which was illustrating magazine articles. Now they're actually coming to me for my work. Ten years ago, I used to get offers to do strips, but I always turned them down because they had nothing to with me. It was just a matter of me being a cartoonist and them saying, "Can you do a strip about mutual funds?" [Laughs.] Now it's more likely that a magazine will call me and say, "You know, we're thinking we might like to run some work by you. Would you be interested in doing a two-page strip?" Something like that.
I'm also doing book designs now, which is actually a lot more work than illustration, but more satisfying in the long run. I just finished designing this book on Christmas for an author here in Canada. That was really quite an undertaking. I must've worked two solid months on it. But in the end, I'll be much happier to own that book than if I'd done 10 business articles for the same money or more. Which would've been a lot less work.
I used to really feel that I was being held down by a lot of work that I didn't want to do, but that had to be done. Now I feel like I might not be working on my key work as much as I should, but I'm still doing work where I feel like if I put out an art book in a few years, I wouldn't be embarrassed to put it in there.