In the studio, nothing changes; in fact, in here, the outside world barely exists.
This is how Seth, a well-known Canadian cartoonist, responds when I get in touch with him to ask how he’s been coping with the COVID-19 lockdown. It’s not that the artist never leaves the workspace in his home, Inkwell’s End. On weekends, he and his wife would often frequent vintage restaurants and bars in and around Guelph, Ontario; now they worry about the prospects of these businesses. But for decades, Seth has been assiduously creating his own reality in the studio. So when the order came to shelter in place, he recounts, he simply carried on doing “what I always do—just more of it.”
Seth (born Gregory Gallant, in 1962) has earned international renown for his wistful, philosophical comic book Palookaville, which has been published by Drawn & Quarterly since 1991; for his New Yorker illustrations and his work on Lemony Snicket’s All the Wrong Questions children’s mystery series; and also for his picture novellas. These include It’s a Good Life, if You Don’t Weaken (1996), which is often described as one of the finest graphic novels, and last year’s monumental, widely acclaimed, often wordless Clyde Fans.
Working in an atmospheric pen-and-ink style inspired by cartoons from the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s (such as those by Peter Arno and Charles Addams), Seth’s comics have explored, in precise, exquisite detail, an alternate reality of his own creation. His protagonists, sporting fedoras and overcoats, traverse city streets and wide-open Ontario landscapes, restlessly searching for elusive traces of early-20th-century visual ephemera: novelty postcards, gag cartoons, newspaper ads, storefront signage, dolls and toys. For his semiautobiographical characters, and for Seth himself, the past, to paraphrase cyberpunk author William Gibson’s pronunciamento about the future, is here—it’s just not evenly distributed.
Why the unusual nom de plume? In the early ’80s, when he first moved to Toronto from the sticks, he recalls, “I’d quickly become a rather elaborately outfitted punk type, and I was looking for a new name.” Choosing one that seemed vaguely sinister and old-timey, Gregory Gallant became Seth. Though he likes his birth name, he laments, “It is far too late to go back now.”
Late last year, visitors to the exhibition Seth: A Life, All Play, at the Art Gallery of Guelph were treated to a breathtaking panoply of the artist’s output: not only original artwork for his comics but also sketchbooks, rubber-stamped journals, prints, massive scrapbooks, puppets and knitted figures, even a porcelain “cenotaph” in the form of an Art Deco hotel lobby. This gallery-goer was particularly smitten by a sprawling display of jaunty model buildings—fashioned of cardboard harvested from FedEx boxes and painted mostly in shades of grey—collectively titled Dominion. It’s common, these days, to describe imaginative storytellers as “world builders”; Seth has actually built one.
At the turn of the millennium, he started the cardboard city project with no overall goal. “I was planning a graphic novel that had five different stories set in the same city—Dominion,” he explained via email. Instead of writing a top-down history of the city, he worked in a bottom-up fashion by concocting imaginary businesses, with the notion that his inventions “would start to build a world of their own and eventually a complex history would develop.” To help himself envision the story behind each business—Sugie’s bait shop, say, not to mention Northern Fried Chicken, the Crown barbershop, and the Keyhole peep show, to name just a few particularly charming examples—Seth constructed cardboard models. Not until he’d made 20 of them did he set himself the target of making 100 . . . a goal that he wouldn’t reach until 2018. He ended up abandoning the graphic novel, but Dominion is now fully realized—though still developing.
There’s something vertiginous about visiting Seth’s model city. To peer down its implied avenues, boulevards, and back alleys is akin to donning a pair of virtual reality goggles: Suddenly, we become one of Seth’s characters—a flaneur, perhaps—idly bopping along and delighting ourselves with the city’s faded signage and vernacular architectural details. A movie theater advertises “the best in talking pictures,” the Crown barbershop is topped by a winking gent sporting a crown, the Keyhole’s logo is keyhole shaped and features a googly eye. An outdoor ad featuring a top-hatted stick of hard candy reads, “DANDY ANDY says: Eat HANDY CANDY.” On the roof of the bait shop, we spot a water tank apparently fashioned from a golf ball.
Dominion is a populated yet desolate town—all the better to roam freely in. Seth’s comics, which often feature dozens of wordless panels, are appealing and evocative precisely because we can wander idly within them. Seth’s characters don’t achieve objectives; neither do his readers. It’s a ruminative, even cunctative experience.
I met up with Seth, after the University of Toronto philosopher Mark Kingwell and I had visited the exhibit—the three of us have collaborated on a few book projects, including 2008’s The Idler’s Glossary—and heads turned as we strolled through Guelph. Still elaborately outfitted, though now in a sharp vintage suit and fedora, Seth is everywhere surrounded by an atmosphere of his own—like a winsome version of Al Capp’s cloud-followed character, Joe Btfsplk. (In It’s a Good Life, if You Don’t Weaken, loutish teens call the author’s autobiographical protagonist “Dick Tracy,” which at least demonstrates a knowledge of old comic strips on their part.) We discussed his creative process, which he describes as a form of imaginative play.
“I am still trying to approach my work with the same intentions I had as a child,” Seth explains. He hastens to add that he is not a Peter Pan type; he hasn’t failed to grow up. But instead of focusing on the end goal of the work—a graphic novel, for example—he engages in what he calls “disciplined daydreaming.” This state of mind allows him to enter into the work in progress in a childlike, though not childish, imaginative fashion. “Making work in this way builds its own momentum,” he says. As with Dominion, which began not with a masterplan but with a few invented businesses, Seth’s prodigious output grows organically from his ruminative, mindful, playful but focused process.
“I’m not a child drawing for pure pleasure or a nerdy teen escaping into fantasy,” Seth tells me. “Of course I’m always aware that I’m in a studio making work that will probably end up published or displayed.” However, in order to free his imagination to drift, flaneur-like, wheresoever it wishes, he tells himself that whatever he’s working on may not make its way into the world. This was certainly true of Dominion—who would ever have imagined that a cardboard city, built in a basement, would wind up on display in a museum?
What’s next for Dominion? He hasn’t added any buildings to the city recently, he says, nor has he suddenly written a plague into its annals. Although he expects that, in a year or so, what’s happening now will filter into his work, he remains committed to letting the city’s story slowly percolate upward. “My original plan of how a history would develop has worked out rather nicely after all,” Seth reflects. “I have a pretty rich sense of the city in my mind now. Although it was so little planned, making up this imaginary city might just end up being my life’s work.”