June 2004

Bryan Miller

features

An Interview with Seth

Writer and artist Seth (born Gregory Gallant) has been an A-list talent in the literary comic book marketplace for a decade. His series Palookaville, which he both writes and draws, is a mainstay in independent comics. His stories, filled with lost, lonely characters searching for meaning, often reaching back into the past, are deeply affecting and almost indescribably weighty. (Imagine a Nicholas Ray film retroactively scored by Elliott Smith.) He’s also notable as a recurring character in his friend Joe Matt’s autobiographical series Peepshow, immortalized as calm and collected, suit-clad, chain-smoking book collector, a foil to Matt’s sloppy, neurotic alter ego.

Seth’s latest work is the in-progress series Clyde Fans, a collected volume of which has just been released by Drawn and Quarterly. Originally serialized in Palookaville, Clyde Fans tells the story of two brothers, Abe and Simon, who manufactured and sold fans for decades before progress and technology made their product obsolete. Abe is a born salesman, but his brother Simon is shy and reserved. Much of the story centers around their troubled relationship in which Abe dominates and humiliates his introverted brother. Clyde Fans is an exceptional work, every bit as good as Seth’s last graphic novel, the highly acclaimed (and intensely morose) It’s A Good Life If You Don’t Weaken. While working on Clyde Fans, Seth is also designing the much-anticipated Complete Peanuts collections (25 in total over the next 12 years) for Fantagraphics.

Bookslut recently caught up with Seth to discuss his recent work, the comic book marketplace, nostalgia and designing the compilations of America’s best-loved cartoonist.

In Clyde Fans Simon obsessively collects penny postcards. Not so dissimilarly, the protagonist of It’s A Good Life collects cartoons and books of cartoons. What draws you to the theme of collecting?

It is hard for me to even envision a character who doesn’t collect things. Collecting is such an integral part of my life that it seems natural that any character I write will collect. I have tried to keep this tendency in check when writing, but as time passes I am beginning to embrace the idea that all my characters might very well be collectors. The things people own and why they want to possess things say a lot about them as people. Also, searching for things is such a direct metaphor for searching for meaning... and that is just so clearly what most of my stories (most stories, in general, really) are about.

What is the mindset of the collector?

Collectors are interesting because they seek out things that no one cares about and find out the vital information regarding those items. They catalogue and interview related creators, manufacturers etc. They preserve important cultural items. Later, when these things are considered interesting or important -- the academics come along and benefit from the work of these outsider collectors. But people don’t like collectors because they can be a strange lot -- greedy, secretive, rude, socially awkward, etc. I have met more than my share of collectors who I found personally hateful. I don’t really care for collectors myself. Though clearly I am one of them.

People seem to collect for a variety of reasons. Some are accumulators (they just need lots of things), some are trying to get back their past (specifically childhood), some strongly need to possess things, etc. etc. I have all of these tendencies… but mostly I collect as a way of exploring the past. By buying the cultural items (especially books, movies and records) of the past you begin to get a deeper understanding of the times. There are so many surprises to be found. It’s a constant process -- there are so many layers of the past to dig through. But it is such a pleasurable experience. I just love the objects of the past and looking for them (and possessing them) brings me the most happiness in life. I like nothing better than looking through some dusty pile of magazines in an out of the way store… with the hope that something great is at the bottom of that unpromising pile.
Like other collectors I am also trying to recapture the feelings of childhood. A lot of my life of drawing and making things is simply an attempt to recreate the feeling of being a child and doing those same things. I don’t collect a lot of things from the era of my childhood -- but occasionally I will seek out some item (or totem) from my childhood. Recently I tracked down a wrist-radio on eBay that I owned as a child. Holding it in my hands again was a beautiful moment.

Your work often feels marked by a sort of longing for the past. Do you really think the world was so much better then? Do you consider yourself a particularly nostalgic person?

I have no illusions about the superiority of the past. People have always been miserable and life has always been difficult. However, I can honestly say that I don’t think much of this present time. Certainly, here in North America, things couldn’t be cheaper, uglier or more vulgar than they currently are (well, they could, and probably will be -- in the near future). I think that the early to middle 20th century was aesthetically more pleasing time period. While I personally have no desire to live through the Depression or World War II, I do think that culturally, the quality of many things was superior, especially design. Things were created for actual humans (with genuine care and effort). You cannot look at a popular medium-priced radio, or clock, from that period and compare it with the same popular, medium-priced, item from today and not come away convinced that things are just much shittier today.

The modern world is very ugly… and the pop culture is so mind-numbingly dumb that you have to make a conscious effort to shut it out. That’s why I’m considered a “nostalgia guy.” I just like things from the past better. I don’t want to live in 1932, but I sure wish some of the elements of that time had survived into this time. Though obviously, their fascination with “progress” is the worm in the apple that created this shitty culture we inhabit. It’s a complicated question. And believe me, no one is more confused about his feelings about the past and the present than I am. I find, as each year passes, my understanding, and feelings about the 20th century are more muddled. The only thing I can say with real certainty is: The mass culture of our current age makes me feel like I need a shower.

Am I nostalgic? Can you feel nostalgic for an era you never lived in? I am interested in the time before I was born, but I feel the most nostalgia for the era of my own childhood. The 1960’s and early 70’s was the last vestige of that old world… elements of it were still hanging around everywhere. I didn’t think about it much as a child, but now I realize those old businesses and products and movies etc. that were lingering into the time of my childhood left a deep impression on me. All that stuff seems very sad to me. I’m not really a nostalgic type so much as a melancholic. I spend a lot of time alone, and most of it is spent in a fog of self-pitying melancholy. It sounds pathetic, but it is so true.

When you conceive a story, do you write it out in script format or sketch it out in panels? Is there a particular process when you begin plotting your work or does it differ?

Well, most of it goes on in my head and then there are various note-taking stages. But when the actual work of the comic book comes I usually write out the scenes I want to include in the issue and then type out whatever dialogue (or narration) is to be included. Then comes the real planning -- working out thumbnail breakdowns of the comic. This is where the real writing happens (in my opinion). In comics, so much of the story is told through the pacing of the story. For me, this process is where it comes together. After that, it’s just the laborious process of drawing and inking the comic book.

The first three segments of Clyde Fans, the ones dominated by Abe, are very chatty while those centered around Simon are wordless for long stretches. Did you find one more challenging to work with than the other?

When I am writing I am generally not thinking in terms of quiet or talkative. Instead I am making a distinction between “inside and outside.” In both the first and second parts of Clyde Fans the story is told from the outside. Generally, we don’t get inside the character’s heads -- instead we view everything from outside, voyeuristically. Viewing from the outside can be either quiet or talkative, depending on what you are viewing. The narrative approach of these two parts are different -- monologue versus cinematic (I suppose) but both share an outside viewpoint. In part three I move inside and we have Simon’s thoughts. There is a bit of the inside approach in part two, but not much.

I like both wordy and quiet comics, however, my characters tend to be explainers so I think I enjoy writing the wordier stuff more. I think I place a higher value on the quiet approach though, because it is always more interesting to hint at things then to explain them. Inevitably I end up doing both.

Do you often work with photos or other references?

I have tons of photo reference around the house and I certainly use it for background details, etc. Old catalogues come in very handy for drawing household items. I must say though, as I get older I find that I have absorbed a great deal of this visual information into my brain and often I can just make the background stuff up out of my head pretty easily now. But, if you want to freshen up your drawings it really helps to study some new photos. It helps refresh your compositions and make your “details” more interesting. I almost never use any reference for figures any longer (although I may flip through books, etc. for character types if I am drawing a crowd scene).

I once read an interview with Chester Brown in which he said you think so many indy comics centered around autobiographical stories because the rest of the medium was intensely focused on fantasy and autobio is as far removed from that as possible. Has autobiographical work become a kind of cliché of its own in the indy comics world, as dominant in more literary comics as fantasy/sci-fi in mainstream books?

Not really. There is a fair amount of autobio in comics but honestly not that much. If you’re not writing genre fiction I think it is a pretty natural response to use yourself as the main character (writers certainly do it all the time). We are just so used to genre-conventions in our media that we tend to find autobio more of a sore thumb. The current trend of “diary comics” seems more of a genre because it seems to have a form of some sort (the 4 panel strip form) and that can create a group of simple, unwritten, rules on how to make these comics. I haven’t seen that much of this stuff first hand so I may be off-base here. I still think fiction is the primary force in underground comics. I also think cartoonists, in general, are becoming less uptight about all the genre stuff. We’ve created more distance between what we are doing and what the mainstream guys are up to (certainly a lot more than back in the 80’s) and so we are less concerned about reacting against it. Dan Clowes is using a super hero in his next comic -- I think that is a sign that we don’t really feel any reaction against that stuff anymore. A superhero is just another symbol to be used now. Ten years ago it was a more charged issue.

Do you plan to return to more directly autobiographical work at some point in the near (or far) future, or are you no longer interested in that sub-genre?

I do autobio strips in my sketchbook. It seems a natural form. I will publish some of that stuff eventually. I have no real plans for more “finished work” in the auto-bio form, but who knows. I haven’t ruled it out.

Peter Bagge’s Hate used to sell in high volume a decade or so ago, relatively speaking, and now nobody does those kinds of numbers. At the same time sales have diminished, the profile of literary comics have been raised. Is the market for literary comics like yours getting better or worse?

The comic book market is certainly in decline (or so it seems to me) and the book market seems to be in the ascendancy. For myself things are just getting better and better. I feel that "graphic novels” are coming of age. Who knows though, things are always going up and down. I’m dedicated to doing my work no matter what the situation, but I obviously prefer things to be good.

Is the bookstore market really a viable outlet for graphic novels on any large scale? For that matter, is the direct market a viable outlet for such work?

Nothing seems overly viable. Thanks god for publishers like Fantagraphics and Drawn and Quarterly. It is always a struggle to make ends meet when you are publishing work that is outside of the popular trends. I don’t know how I would carry on without Chris Oliveros -- just knowing that he is there ready to publish my work and willing to help in any way to make the process perfect just makes life worth living. He is a saint.

Disregarding the obvious answer of marketability, what advantages does the graphic novelist have over the prose novelist and vice versa?

Comics and prose have some things in common but not as much as people think. In fact, instead of comics being a combination of drawings and literature, or film and literature, I think that comics are closer to a combination of poetry and design. The drawings in comics ideally should be used as design elements. There are not there simply to be pretty -- no, when used well the drawings act as symbols to direct the eyes and the emotions (in a way, they are language symbols much like the letters of the alphabet). Clearly, the drawings are trying to be attractive and to create evocative images -- but also clearly, they are being placed on the page as elements in an overall design that leads you (the reader) through the comic. As for the poetry element -- well, comic writing is all about rhythm. You are not writing poetry in the traditional sense, but the way the writing is broken down in the panels and then how it is run through a page -- the way it is paced in general -- it is just all about how it sounds in the mind. The brevity, the rhythm, the breaks for silence. These are elements that probably have more to do with free verse then they do with the traditional novel. Not that novelists aren’t concerned with the sound of their work, but it is not so clearly linked to pacing in the way that writing and designing a comic page is.

So, end of digression. Prose and comics are quite different. The ends though are the same -- telling a story. The strength of prose is in the description (which in comics is generally handled in the drawing) and in the ability to do a very sustained inner dialogue. It is nice in a novel to carefully describe a room, for example, and have the ability to go on for pages about it, drawing the reader’s eye to certain objects and lingering on them. In comics, this is usually drawn and therefore can be a bit obvious if you take the effort to point out descriptive details by focusing directly on them. I use this obvious ploy myself, all the time. You are often limited in your ability to capture the richness of the detail of real life (limited by your drawing and the simplicity of cartoon style) which a novelist can describe in minute detail. Conversely, description as drawing is one of the great strengths of comics, freeing the writer from dealing with the use of words for description’s sake, allowing the reader to take in setting, etc, in a less direct manner. It’s a matter of opinion -- sometimes a strength, sometimes a weakness.

You can certainly do a sustained inner narrative in comics, but it is hard work. In a novel, we can just slip entirely into the inner world for scores of pages, but in comics, since you are constantly drawing the outer world it can be a real chore to keep the visuals exciting when you are drawing 40 pages of a person having an inner monologue. One of the tasks I am well acquainted with in my Clyde Fans book. Undoubtedly, there are lots of pros and cons for both mediums, but these are the two differences that pop into my head.

How intensive is your work on the Fantagraphics collection of The Complete Peanuts?

The most intensive time was the designing of the first book. All twenty five of the books will follow a fairly rigid design sense, so most of the work was done in the initial stages. However, each book probably takes about a months work -- which is plenty when you are doing two of them a year (and you have soooo much other work to do to!). Essentially, each book will look like the others in the series, but elements like covers and titles pages, end papers must be updated for each volume. Also, certain elements will change for every decade of the strip.

The biggest element of work for each book is a series of double page strips I have been doing which are reconstructed landscape drawings made up out of Schulz’s drawings but cut apart and recomposed into new scenes. These are challenging and pleasurable to do. It is a bit like drawing with Schulz’s hands.

Designing a book is something most people probably don’t give much thought beyond what the cover looks like.

True, most people don’t think much about book design… a shame really. A well designed book is one of the most perfectly beautiful things in the world. The arrangement of cover to endpapers to title page, etc. is such a marvelous set of elements to play with. When done well they are a terrific mobile of things in balance. I love a well designed book.

My wife, Tania, gave me the perfect metaphor for my role in the Peanuts books. I am like a jeweler. Schulz’s strips are the gems, but it is my job to create a beautiful setting for them. Hopefully a setting that makes them even more beautiful, yet doesn’t overpower the gems with its own garishness or self importance. That is what I’m trying to do -- give Schulz’s work the dignity and sophistication it deserves. Whether I have succeeded or not depends entirely upon the readers response. Probably no response at all is the best sign that I have succeeded.

I’ve tried hard to steer away for the cheerful pop designs that have almost always hindered Schulz’s books in the past. I want the reader, when they see the book, to realize that this is an adult item, something meaningful. God knows the strip is subtle and rich enough -- people need to be reminded of that.

What exactly is your process and to what degree are you trying to channel Schultz? Do you feel pressure to, in some way, please Schultz?

I felt no pressure to please Schulz. My obligation was to the strip. The strip deserves a proper presentation and I’ve tried to give it one. If it fails, it’s entirely my fault. The strip clearly needs no window dressing, just it’s own dignity. Schulz himself, obviously, wasn’t that interested in the design of his books while he was alive -- most of his books look pretty tossed together by the various companies that reprinted them. I’d like to think Sparky would have been happy with our books, but probably he wouldn’t have cared all that much. I’m trying (within reason) to create the Peanuts books I would like to own myself.