Graphic Novel Friday: Interview with Cartoonist Seth
From September 2006 to March 2007, Eisner and Harvey Award-winning illustrator and writer Seth serialized his latest work, George Sprott: (1894-1975), in The New York Times Magazine. But once finished, he expanded the piece in every sense of the word. The final bound edition of George Sprott is an impressive, oversized piece of art that dwarfs most of its contemporaries on the shelves. It is so unique that it merited a spot in our Best Books of the Year…So Far feature as one of the Hidden Gems of the year.
While on tour to support George Sprott, Seth took time out of his schedule to discuss and delve deeply into his newest book, the solitary nature of his characters, and his work as a book designer on projects like the ongoing 25-volume Complete Peanuts Collection.
Amazon.com: George Sprott: (1894-1975) does not hide that it is a story of the main character's death. From the title alone, readers are well aware of George's lifespan, and the narrator addresses this in the opening pages. Yet, there is a lot of life covered in the telling of his death, through patchwork recollections of George from colleagues and family members. What led to your decision to structure your latest book this way?
Seth: The biggest factor in the organization of the story was the fact that it was originally going to be serialized in The New York Times Magazine. I knew that it would only appear once a week and I worried that a "continued next issue" approach would risk alienating the reader (they might not have caught the previous chapters or they might miss one, for example). It seemed to me that the best answer was to simply make each page of the story self contained and allow the reader to "add them all up" into one story if they bothered to follow the entire run of the strip.
This patchwork method of storytelling turned out to be a godsend when I decided to expand the story, because it made it very easy to insert new material into the story by simply placing it in between the existing pages. In fact, it allowed me to further fragment the story--which is what I wanted to do anyway, because I was trying to write a story where a lot of the value judgements ("Was George a good person?" "Was his death tragic?") were left to the reader to decide.
Amazon.com: The life of George is one of melancholy and longing, and the lonesome main character is a frequent subject for you. What is it about this type of personality that makes for such fertile storytelling in your work?
Seth: Two simple answers: 1. I write these kinds of stories because I am somewhat this type of character myself, and it seems natural to write characters who are like me. 2. I think the process of "looking back" is fascinating--giving a depth to a character--and is often the most natural thing to write about when you are using older people for characters. Personally, I am pretty consumed by the "feeling" of time and experience accumulating as you grow older. In my own life I have seen how this reflective action has taken on more and more of a central role in my thinking as the years go by.
Amazon.com: George is surrounded by such a great cast of characters at Channel 10, my favorite being Sir Grisly Gruesome. Was public access viewing a childhood pastime of yours? Why use this as the setting for much of George's story?
Seth: Most of the details about George's world come from my experiences of growing up around the Windsor/Detroit area. I watched a lot of television in those days and later, when the world of local TV and its celebrities started to fade away I realized how unique a "texture" all this material had had. Detroit, for example, had a huge local television scene with a wide variety of local hosts and performers and they impressed themselves onto my mind. The same can be said of Kitchener's TV scene.
The funny thing is that these local TV celebrities were the tip of a local iceberg. They represented a time when local cities had rich regional cultures: nightclubs, dance halls, comedy stages and popular restaurants, radio stations as well. That's why I made it a point in the Sprott book to focus attention on the individual buildings that made up such a rich part of George's life. These regional cultures don't feel as distinct to me any longer--to a big degree they have become homogenized.
Amazon.com: In the book, you included photographs of models of these buildings. I don't think I've seen this before in your work. Did you construct these models yourself? What's the story behind their inclusion in the finished product?
Seth: The buildings were indeed constructed by me. They are part of a long ongoing project called Dominion. This is an imaginary city of cardboard buildings that I have been assembling in my basement for years. Dominion has become the setting for many of my stories and George Sprott takes place there as well. I included the buildings because I thought it would be "neat" to see my models right next to the strips describing the locations. In some ways the cardboard buildings make the strip stories even LESS real--but that is okay with me. The whole point of George Sprott is to present a range of materials that fragment and disjoint the narrative.
Amazon.com: George Sprott is an achievement in book packaging. It's far larger than I expected, with high quality paper stock, pages with full bleeds, not to mention a fold-out section, and embossed front and back covers. Can you walk readers through the design process on a project like this, and why you chose to give George Sprott the deluxe treatment? [See size comparison at left. --ed]
Seth: The reason George Sprott is such a big book is that it's the only work I have done that really demands to be printed at a larger size. The individual pages have a lot of information on them and I didn't want them to be small and hard to read. Once it was established the book was going to be big, then it was important to use the space properly. That's one of the reasons for the large double-page spreads--those landscapes were included to take advantage of the huge size of the open book; something to give you a sense of space--something expansive. It was important--because the individual chapter pages are so dense--to break the rhythm of the book. All those individual pages make a lot of starting and stopping in the reading process. I needed to change that constant staccato rhythm by having some long notes in there. The three page stories are there for the same reason--to break things up.
The book has a lot of bells and whistles to it--but truthfully I was just trying to create a very pretty but fully integrated piece of art. I worked hard to make it as beautiful as I could. I like a pretty book.
Amazon.com: I'd love to hear more about the fold-out section. The six-page fold-out dream was a treat. How did you construct this sequence and was the fold-out always your plan?
Seth: The gatefold pages are my favourite part of the book. I chose to do this for the simple reason that you never really get inside George's head anywhere in the story. The story is always told from the outside perspective. I used the gatefolds to literally "go inside" George when you fold them out.
I will say that the gatefold section is not really a dream sequence. It's more of an interior landscape for George. Not necessarily at the time of his death but it could certainly be read that way. I constructed this sequence by simply roughing out a large random amount of free association strips about George (and from his point of view) and then editing it down repeatedly until the strips started to have a resonance with each other and connections were made that I didn't realize when writing them. I don't necessarily expect the reader to fully understand this section--they are free to form their own associations.
Seth: Certainly hand-done display lettering is a dying art in the modern world--however cartoonists still continue to produce a lot of it. It's one of the basic skills in a cartoonist's bag. Personally I cannot imagine doing comics and not being concerned with the lettering--a computer will never replace the hand there. Nothing looks so good with a cartoonist's drawing as a nice piece of hand-done display lettering.
Amazon.com: Can you talk at all about the design process for the Fantagraphics' Complete Peanuts collections? It seems like an impressive commitment: 25 books over 12+ years. How were you approached for the project, and, in turn, what is your approach for the design of each book?
Seth: The Peanuts books were designed to exist as a 25 volume set and because of that there is really very little new design thinking from volume to volume. I simply continue to refine and adapt the design that I came up with for the very first volume. However, that doesn't mean I don't put real care into each volume. The series was meant to be a setting for the jewel that is Schulz's masterpiece. I wanted to make sure that Schulz's work was treated with the utmost seriousness and dignity. Some might say my designs are humourless for the series and therefore inappropriate--but I think that's overstating it. They may be sedate and muted but Schulz has had 50 years of pop-y, bright "funny" book designs and I thought it was time to give the man something different. I stand by my choices.
The project came about in the most mundane of manner. I told [Fantagraphics' co-founder] Gary Groth that if they ever published a Complete Peanuts I wanted to design it. He got the rights and called me up. There you go. To add a bit of detail, I had to go down and present a design to Jeannie Schulz and get her approval. I was nervous about it but when I got there I could see in her eyes that she legitimately believed her husband had been a genius. I knew then that everything would work out fine.
Amazon.com: In your previous book, Wimbledon Green, a genuine love for comics came through the story of all these lonesome collectors. Are you an active collector, reader, or both? If so, are there any creators or titles that you actively follow?
Seth: I am a collector. That's a given. I collect a LOT of stuff. I guess my big thing for the last ten years or so would be Canadian cartoonists of the past. That's a real passion. I've collected a wide variety of cartoonist's work for ages though. I love old cartooning. And, of course, I certainly read contemporary comics. I follow Chris Ware's work, Chester Brown, Dan Clowes, [Ben] Katchor, [Adrian] Tomine, etc., etc. I'm hesitant to create a very extensive list for the simple reason that I will leave out a lot of marvelous current creators. What I like is ambition. I'm not drawn to genre fiction and read really nothing of that sort in comics. I hate it when people tell me I should check out some crime comic or superhero thing. I have zero interest in that material. Sorry, Wimbledon.
p.s. For more on George Sprott, see also the Omni spotlight back in April.