Navel-gazing with Seth

Canadian cartooning icon reminds us we’re not alone

And so we return to A World According to Seth.

With Palookaville No. 21 — the second issue of the decades-long series to enjoy hardcover publication — Canadian cartooning icon Seth presents like a Japanese woodblock artist variations on favoured themes: individual insignificance regret and the paradoxical comforts and torments of dreams imagination reflection and memory.

“If you don’t like ‘navel-gazers’ you wouldn’t much care for me” said the cartoonist’s autobiographical self early in the series which has been ongoing since 1991. This latest edition presents part four of the Clyde Fans storyline concerning two brothers’ crumbling electric fan business.

Yet it’s precisely by turning inward that Seth — the first cartoonist to win Canada’s prestigious Harbourfront Festival Prize — touches the quintessentially human. Short of developing telepathy we turn to such art to remind us that we’re not alone in our existential melancholia; hence we should perhaps be grateful for the artist’s slow methodical process that produces issues just every other year.

Returning again to the distinctly imagined fictional Canadian town of Dominion this latest chapter also showcases Seth’s development and delegation of stylistic approach over time. Besides the "Clyde Fans " serial the volume includes "Nothing Lasts " the first half of a coming-of-age memoir as well as never-before-made-public entries from Seth’s comic-strip diaries.

Seth’s primary narrative is not superficially the most eventful the climax involving no more than withdrawn bitter Simon finally telling brother Abe he’s an asshole. What the artist captures however is the unsung everyday drama of seemingly banal people for whom seemingly minor moments are in fact charged with the weight of tragedy — as they are for us all.

Another such simple yet laden moment is when Abe slooooowly faces his front door hoping his harassing ex-wife has departed. The progression is as precise as an expert gag strip the humour more bitter. Seth has compared comics’ rhythm to poetry but insofar as timing is integral it’s also comedy’s bedfellow.

Then there’s the artist’s diaries providing a window into his self-reflective process (mostly during a walk outdoors). Seth’s self-designed stamps preserve time and labour by allowing quick and recurrent rendering of stark minimal images: self-profiles streetscapes his house.

And while crude these vignettes remain beautiful records of ephemeral unexpected joy. Call no man happy before death said Aristotle — yet such moments reflect a life well lived and are thus rather instructive.

In another sense these diaries reflect the artist’s overall output within the last near-decade characterized not only by recurring subject matter but adherence even to preferred layouts with copious same-sized panels here utilized pronouncedly in "Nothing Lasts ."

While "Clyde Fans" features Seth at his sleekest and seemingly most perfectionist — a polished retro style he’s called “deco” — he’s pursued a simultaneous stream at least as far back as 2005’s Wimbledon Green developed from his sketchbook. This looser aesthetic also defines "Nothing Lasts " another sketchbook product that likewise illustrates the artist’s comparison of comics to graphic design with drawings becoming minimalist symbols to focus narrative.

The tale’s most striking moment however is a poignant merge of medium and theme on one page in which in the third row Seth’s interior monologue declares that “all we ever see is our own little narrow path ahead.” Only then do we realize the preceding panels together form a larger complete woodland scene.

Hence just as artist David Hockney is as much concerned with how we perceive visual art Seth addresses the very act of reading comics as well in the entire diaries section which requires one to turn the book 90 degrees to follow the progression. It’s the artist at his most sophisticated yet also accessible and affecting — and fully commanding his powers.

Palookaville No. 21 by Seth is published by Drawn & Quarterly (408 pp.).