In the September issue of The Walrus, Seth draws back the curtain on the “solitary pursuit” that is cartooning. In the process, he also manages to speak to how we experience our own daily routines, and what it’s like to be alone with ourselves. He was kind enough to respond by email to questions about memory, time, and, of course, cartooning. The second part to this Q&A will follow in a couple days.
Q: In your article “The Quiet Art of Cartooning,” you mention that when you’re drawing and inking your mind is often visiting the past in some manner, and that these reveries often find their way into your work. Do you think that all cartooning might somehow relate back to this sense of memory, or to the act of looking back? Is memory somehow connected with cartooning in a way that isn’t true of other art forms?
A: It is hard for me to generalize on other mediums but I do feel a unique connection between memory and cartooning.I started to formalize some thoughts about this when I was studying the life of Thoreau MacDonald (the son of Canadian painter J.E.H. MacDonald). Thoreau mentioned in an interview that he never drew his pen and ink drawings of the rural landscape while actually out in the field. Instead he would go for a walk and look about and then, when he came home later, he would sit down and draw the scenes from memory. Thoreau understood that he couldn’t capture the reality of the natural world in black and white ink drawings but he could replicate the memory of being there. This struck me. I recognized in it what I naturally felt about cartooning and memory. Memory is an odd thing. In your mind you don’t (or I should say, I don’t) have perfect photographic films of previous events. Instead I have fragmentary scenes that are often more felt than seen. I recall the sense of being somewhere—the visceral feeling of being in a childhood room, for example. The images themselves in such memories are Frankenstein constructions of what might have been in the room. You almost have to reassemble the room piece by piece when thinking of it. Feelers go out and supply the details. The mental images are somewhat akin to high contrast photographs—much of the detail is gone but the graphic moment is captured in the bold shapes. These memory pictures are almost reduced to symbols—the memory reconstructed in the way you might move around the little people in a Fisher-Price toy set: “Here I am in the backyard. The tree is just over here and the back of the house was brick and there’s Dad’s car in the carport and the sun is shining, etc., etc.” Perhaps you can’t draw a field of grass that truly replicates the real field but you can create these high contrast images (or iconified images) that replicate the memory of viewing such a field. It’s a symbol or a series of symbols. The viewer fills in the details of the drawings with their own memory. In this way, the memory drawings that Thoreau was doing seemed akin to the way I draw a comic story—piecing together the past with a series of picture symbols that replicate the feeling of things. Perhaps this sounds like an overly complicated explanation of what is a fairly basic process but it is the magic of the cartoon. Cartooning is not drawing—it’s more about moving shapes around on the page than it is about trying to replicate the seen world. Obviously, it is representational but as the above paragraph attempts to explain (not very well, sadly) the action of cartooning seems intricately woven with the processes of how the memory works. Does that make any sense?
Your comics are always attuned to the rhythm of days passing and time slipping by, and your strip, “Down the Stairs,” is no exception. Does the regular schedule of a cartoonist’s workday necessitate, for you, a regular rhythm in your comics, as it seems to do here?
A: Well, cartoon storytelling is all about rhythm (much like poetry). A cartoonist has to be concerned with time and rhythm. It’s part of the job. It is the underlying drive of why and how you stack those little boxes up on a page to make the story move. I often think the most difficult part of coming to understand cartooning is figuring out how to pace the story. The seemingly simple decisions about whether to use twnety-five panels on a page or five panels on a page actually turns out to be the most sophisticated area of the cartoonist’s art. Sometimes just using a simple basic six panel grid turns out to have the elegance that a big complicated layout cannot achieve. Sometimes you need that more complicated structure.
But to answer your question—yes, I am compulsively concerned with time—specifically the past, of course. Henry David Thoreau (yet another Thoreau) said: “Time is the stream in which I do my fishing.” This is the case here as well. Sitting at that drawing table each day I am always casting a line back into my past and pulling something in. It’s a bit much—always dwelling on the past. Sometimes I wonder if I don’t have a gene that inclines me this way. Other people don’t seem so possessed with this diversion. If I’m out walking about and I see something that catches my eye I immediately try to connect it with some similar event in my own past. It’s almost like an event has no flavour for me if I cannot put an overlay of the past on top of it. Sometimes I am aware that what I am doing right now will be the overlay content for some reminiscence in the future. It wears me out somewhat.
Not long ago I was walking around London, Ontario, feeling quite blue, and I was reminded of a similar time, a decade or more ago when I had walked the same route also feeling sad and nostalgic. I found myself feeling nostalgic for that earlier nostalgic walk. A snake eating its own tail.
And yes, I do feel the passage of days as a very potent experience. It seems to me that the process of the present becoming the past is possibly one of the most profound things we experience as living beings. It’s a constant feeling of loss. Perhaps that is why life has a predominant feeling of sadness about it. The writer Mary Webb once said (I paraphrase) “that the past is only the present made invisible”. That’s true—but by becoming invisible we cannot really see it or possess it any longer and that seems quite movingly sad to me. I know the past is still out there but I can’t get my hands on it.
Q: “Down the Stairs” manages to be about cartooning, without ever getting to the point where you actually depict yourself at work. I might be misremembering, but I can recall very few instances in your work where you show the actual act of drawing, and yet so much of your work intimately concerns the art of cartooning. What appeals to you about this more abstract or distanced approach, where you can reflect upon comics without necessarily showing them being created? I’m thinking of your work in contrast with autobiographical strips by your peers like Chester Brown, Chris Ware, and Ivan Brunetti, here.
A: “Down the Stairs” was a single page from a longer work I was working on in my sketchbook. It was supposed to be about eighty pages long but stalled at about twenty. I got a bit bored with it but I may return to it at some point. Anyhow, I was leading up to showing a couple of small examples of what actually working at the table was all about. Still, truth be told, it strikes me as difficult to depict the actual process of cartooning as part of the story. Certainly it could be done but I’ve not given that much thought to actually doing it. It’s such a private act.
Do writers actually tell stories about writing? They certainly love to use writers as their main characters—but do they spend many pages describing them writing? Filmmakers certainly love to show films being made.
I know that when I am drawing or inking I am often running a kind of low level tutorial in my head, as if I was talking to a student, explaining why I am making each move of the brush. Why I am fixing up this line and why I am taking out that one. Etc., etc. It could be an interesting experiment to try and convert this process into the actual comics medium…but perhaps only to myself.
I guess I am more interested in the life that goes around the process rather than the process itself.
Q: “Down the Stairs” is a strip from your sketchbook, which seems to me a more personal or private method of creation than it is to prepare something knowing that it will be published.
A: Absolutely. The sketchbook is more about getting it down on paper. It’s freer and certainly less concerned with the slickness of the surface. If it stinks, no one need ever see it.
Q: How do you see works like George Sprott or Clyde Fans differing from your sketchbook comics? Would those works exist in the same form they do now if there were no venues in which they could have been published?
A: These works are planned for publication and that makes a great difference in their structure. For example, Clyde Fans is published in twenty-four-page chunks. That determines just how I will tell the story. George Sprott appeared a single page at a time—a huge influence on how I structured the story, broke it down and arranged the panels. Were these works to have been done in the sketchbook they would have been much different. George probably would have been told with a leisurely pace entirely at odds with the printed comic. I probably would have just started it and seen where it went. Having that New York Times structure meant I had to plan the thing very very carefully. It removed most of the meandering that appeals to me most as a storyteller. Now that I am turning George into a book I am adding back some of the meandering that was lost in the original publication. Clyde Fans is all about the meandering… but because it fits in that twenty-four-page comic book structure it is still much more tightly controlled than if I had made it a sketchbook story. Like Holden Caulfield, I like digression. Wimbledon Green was mostly drawn in the spirit of simply digressing and seeing what happened and whether or not it would end up as a story. If I had had no publishing venues for Clyde or Sprott then they might have ended up as mini comics (xeroxed and self published)—that would have changed them dramatically, I am sure. There is a reason you don’t see too many 200-page stories in minicomics. The form isn’t made for them.
Q: How do you change your approach when working on comics for magazines like The Walrus or Toro, or newspapers like the Times, as opposed to comics for your sketchbooks or your Palookaville comic book series?
A: Mostly structure, as discussed above. You have to accommodate your storytelling style to the smaller page size. Progressively as I grow older I find it more and more difficult to come up with a single page story. Most “ideas” I have seem to need about 100 pages to tell it properly. With Sprott I had to make each page have about thirty panels as opposed to the usual nine I use, simply to tell what had to be told. I think the beauty of life is in the details and it’s hard to get life onto the page with just a few panels. In Clyde Fans I am trying to tell the story in the space it needs. If I need eighty pages to show the character and his thinking process then I am going to use it. A magazine rarely gives you the same kind of freedom of pacing.
Content-wise, I am making little in the way of concession. There is no point in doing the work if it is going to be watered down. I had to deal with an editor at the Times and I was prepared to battle if need be…but the situation did not arise. They were great to deal with. I had a few tiffs over some language issues (I couldn’t use the word “fart,” for example) but nothing worth quitting over.
Toro was just the opposite. I told them from the start what to expect from me but after the second installment they began interfering with the story and how I wanted to tell it. I had to quit. It’s a shame—if that could have been worked out I would now be finished that story. Instead it died on the vine and is unlikely to ever be returned to now.
I have no problem with hacking out illustration work. I do it every day but with the comics I demand to be a dictator. An editor might be able to make my comics better…but they wouldn’t really be mine then, would they? I have to sink or swim based on my own ideas. For better or worse.
* * *
Next: reviews of the Doug Wright Award winners, and more Q&A with Seth.