Melancholic mining of the past

Seth collects the life of George Sprott into one beautiful book

Seth is one of Canada’s most acclaimed cartoonists with works like Palooka-Ville and Wimbledon Green part of the modern cartoon cannon. His latest George Sprott is one of his best. It’s a biographical tale peeking into the life of its titular antihero — TV talk show host deadbeat dad Arctic explorer and unrepentant curmudgeon. The book is an expanded version of a series of strips that originally ran in The New York Times Magazine . “[Editor] Sheila Glaser offered the spot to me and I said ‘Yes’” says Seth. “I was very busy when she called and had sworn to myself that I would devote the next year to working on my book Clyde Fans but the offer was too tempting to turn down. I’m glad I didn’t or George Sprott probably never would have been drawn.”

The serialized nature of the work presented some challenges for Seth the worst of which he says was working on a strict deadline. “They asked me for three proposed ideas and George was definitely the thinnest. However after they expressed interest in it I had to resolve that situation — so I went out to a hotel with a typewriter and a pack of cigarettes and just hashed it out.” He then took the idea of the fragmentation resulting from a weekly publication schedule and built it into the book. “I wanted George to be a bit of a mystery to the reader. By breaking the narrative into a bunch of small pieces and allowing the reader to assemble it in their own minds I hoped to create a fuller picture of a human being by actually giving them less information.”

Like most of Seth’s works Sprott is a melancholic tale though its preoccupation with the big questions (death eternity) is buoyed by digressions on everything from the history of Canadian broadcasting to book publishing. “I think all my stories are kind of the same” says Seth who’s real name is Gregory Gallant and who currently lives with his wife and two cats in Guelph Ont. “I always want to write about older people looking back at their lives. To me this is the basic idea of a story. I don’t know why — it probably comes from having grown up with older parents who talked a lot about their pasts.” He says stories of romance and modern exploits don’t interest him. “I’m always drawn to the idea of looking back. I guess I feel that death and old age are what add ‘flavour’ to life. They hang around in the background of our thinking making everything sad sweet or tragic. It’s certainly not an original insight but I think it’s a true one.”

Additionally the collected version of George Sprott is bursting with different visual styles from newspaper strips to portraiture landscapes and even photos of cardboard models Seth created to show George’s favourite haunts. It’s a wonderful blend of his unique mix of ’50s flair commercial art and bouncy classic cartoon style. Seth says that in his early cartooning days stretching back to the ’80s he made a conscious effort to study certain cartoonists as a way of decoding their secrets. “At this point in my career the influences and styles that are evident in my work have been absorbed long ago” he says. “The newspaper strips or the magazine cartoonists that inform my drawing are so fully integrated that I no longer even think about them when I am working.”

Sprott also allows Seth to digress on one of his favourite topics: collecting. Along with cartoonist pals Chester Brown and Joe Matt he has been collecting classic strips and books for years. “I am a collector by nature — there’s no doubt about it” he says. “I go through phases of what I collect but the collecting is a constant. Looking for old things is my idea of fun — antique stores and junk shops are like museums of the mundane. I am always fascinated (and sometimes touched) to paw through the scattered remainders of other people’s lives. I am very aware that my own things will find their way to these spots as well.”

“As an artist you are tying to leave something permanent behind you — to explain how you felt when you were alive — but it’s a hopeless task” he adds. “At some point in the future all record of your existence will vanish. I’ve often thought it would be an interesting story to follow all the fragments of a person’s life into the future until that moment — 1000 years hence when the very last fragment proving they were here finally disappears.”