Canadian comic artist Seth aka Gregory Gallant talks about the inaccuracy of memory, the burden of nostalgia and the fear of being forgotten. These days his long-awaited new »Palookaville« album is released.
Hi. Are you sitting in your working cellar?
I am. I’m sitting in the ugliest part of my house, which is this corner of my studio.
I’ve seen it in a little film and I was amazed.
The rest of the house is quite nice. I’ve put a lot of effort into it but down here this is the place where I can be very messy.
Your newest »Palookaville«-Story dives deep in the time of your adolescence. Is this a start for a bigger autobiographical comic?
It is going to run. This is like I’ve done the earlier stuff of childhood to so this is like I’m up to about, I don’t know, maybe 150 Pages at the moment and there’s probably another 150 pages to go. I think because I’m going to end it around the age of 30 I think I’m not going to bring it right up to like current time. I’m mostly because I don’t really want to write about the years that came right after around the age of 30. I’m not ready to write from 30 to 40.
I had a bad relationship? I was involved with someone for ten years but I feel it was a very negative period in my life. And to be honest I’m just kind of anxious. I don’t want to dwell on that time right now. I tried not to think too much about that.
What is so teasing about the past, the memories, this forgotten world?
Yeah, that’s a good question. It feels to me like memory is the most important thing in life. Especially as you get older. I mean, this is such a cliché, but as you get older, you think more and more about your Youth and it becomes in some ways realer than the time you’re living in now. And I don’t think it’s any accident. When I look around on the internet, there’s so much Nostalgia. And if you look up any old video on YouTube, most of the comments are of people wishing the good old times back. This is a natural. This is what happens to you as you get old. The fascinating thing about memory is that it’s so mundane. It’s an everyday experience. It is the essential, the interior experience of our thinking. It is like the river we swim in. It’s the current common thing we experience. It is so very strange, this very experience of being alive and knowing that you have this short period of existence, when you will be in reality and then you’ll be gone. It’s such a bizarre thing that I find it endlessly fascinating. I think about it all the time. As I’m getting older I think more and more about how it’s coming to an end. And we are the only creatures probably that have the ability to consider the experience. Memory is so important because it’s our only way of making sense of this experience we’ve been through. And the thing that’s fascinating about it is that it’s such an imprecise unreliable recording. The older, you start to realize that your own memories are probably inaccurate.
How does memory work and where does it go?
I really don’t know. I’m interested in memory but I’m certainly no expert on it. I haven’t read the neurological text’s on how it works. But I would say, as I’ve grown older, I’ve become less and less likely to believe, my memories are accurate. But that doesn’t matter. The accuracy of memories is unimportant because the memories themselves and the life story you’re making up is what’s interesting. I don’t think the life story is true. I don’t think there can be such a thing as a true life story. Especially because you rewrite your life constantly. If you talked to me when I was 20 years old and asked me about my childhood, I would have told you a different story than I’m telling you now and it’s not because the events have changed, although my memories have probably gotten worse, but it’s that I would have had a different agenda than. My interpretation of my childhood would have been quite different. And now 40 years later I have a different agenda about my childhood. So I’m reshaping what those memories mean. I probably had more access to a more accurate memory when I was 20. And now I don’t. The memories that I’ve got are the ones that have hung on to, for some reason. So, they’ve gotten slimmer and more perfect, I polish them up over the years. I often wonder like it’s just a fact that your memories fade away. In the current »Palookaville« issue, I’m talking about that affair I had with the boss’s wife. I did a comic about that when I was in my late twenties early thirties. I have not read that comic in a very, very long time, but I pulled it out, of course, to look it over and I was like: well, I don’t really remember half of this stuff because I don’t think about it ever and it’s faded away. So if I hadn’t done that comic story, a lot of those details would just be gone now and I wouldn’t think about them.
The funny thing with memory is that by reading your comics people just connect their own memory to a certain time. So everybody will reconnect something else.
I think that’s very true and I think it’s especially true in cartooning because there’s something about working with drawings and symbols, that allows people to very easily plug their own lives into the little drawings. It might be a little more difficult when you’re reading a memoir in a novel or prose book. Well that’s not necessarily true either. I read the first volume of Knausgårds »My Struggle« and I was just turning that into my own life. It’s a human tendency. We tend to do that.
In your new album it says, memories are just »bits and pieces« and you rebuild them piece by piece? You work a lot with small details, with objects, interiors, signs and so on. It’s like a monologue of things about time and it’s passing. What appeals you when it comes to things and their narrative impact? What do objects of people tell about people?
Objects are fascinating. In some ways I’ve lost interest in drawing people and I just like to draw the objects now. I’m working on a new comic book where I’m kind of working on a section where they might not be any people in it at all. It might just be interior scenes and its fairly long. But why are objects fascinating? Well I’m a collector by nature. So I like the objects, they have great power. First of all, you invest them with emotional power. So certainly like as a child, I grew up with very old parents. They were more like grandparents. And the objects in our house were all very old relics of their life when they were younger and of my siblings lives when they were younger. My siblings were all much older. So they had moved out by the time. I was a small child. The house was full of old stuff and I was fascinated with this old stuff. It represented a different world than the world I was living in. It was mostly post-war stuff from the 50s. And I think that imprinted on me somehow. I can remember as a child I would always dig through boxes of old photographs. And my father had tons of old booklets and papers from when he was in the Air Force or when he was a boy scout leader. All this sort of stuff was lingering around. I think I started at that early age to imprint upon objects, that made me into a collector. When I got older, a lot of my collecting had to do with finding objects that are meant to give you back an experience. I think this is common with collectors. I mean, why do you buy an old comic book back? Just because you want to get back the experience of having it as a child. You quickly figure out as a collector that it doesn’t work. I buy things all the time because I just get in a mood. So I’ll look around on the computer and I’ll be like »Oh, I’m feeling blue today«. So I’ll buy some old toy or comic book, I used to have, to somehow make me feel better. But it doesn’t really work at all. But there is not only a great power in the objects and how you invest into them, but there’s something really fascinating about assembling objects. So like this house of mine is very, very curated. It feels a lot like a museum sometimes. And I think like what’s the point of putting all this stuff together, putting so much effort into everything when you’re just going to die and somebody’s just going to scatter it all again.
But I think there is a power about this weird reality you are in. Well there’s something really fascinating to about like restructuring this reality for a short time, I mean like we’re just little ants on a big dirt ball. But we built a box and we’re going to fill this box with things and put them in a certain order and like, live in among these things. There’s a there’s something weird magical power about it. It’s almost like setting up a magic spell of some kind. It doesn’t mean anything except what we decided. Every single thing in this house is some object that a human being created. It doesn’t have any true meaning, it only has me meanings to human beings. So we’ve created this bizarre endless series of languages that we live inside. Everything is assembled for something else. No other creature would understand what any of these symbols mean. Only we do. And we keep doing it. Over and over and over again. I mean, nothing human beings do more than make up symbols and objects. It’s like we don’t just have an umbrella, we have millions of types of umbrellas. It’s very, very odd and I suspect it’s some kind of cosmic accident. But whatever it is, it gives meaning to life. Meaning in life is all just made up by ideas as well. But these things are very potent. These ideas of creating a life story and curating your life are very potent activities to fill your time with. And for me it’s the number one thing I’m interested in.
You say creating a life story is one of the main aims of living. You create your life story by collecting and curating things. So what is your life story about?
Well, that’s a good question. What I’m trying to do in my work is to try and find a kind of a system to explain what’s going on inside my mind. The works are meant to do that. On a basic surface I have a very straightforward life story. I could just tell you the basic details, which are pretty boring. There’s a child and then I went to school and then I was a punk rocker and later on a nostalgic guy and so on. That’s pretty boring.
For me your movement from punk rocker to a nostalgic guy was kind of interesting.
That punk movement was kind of about nostalgia in a weird way too. If you look back, you’ll see that it was a reaction against the hippies. Suddenly they brought the 50s back again. Being a guy who grew up with old stuff when I first entered into the punk movement, the thing that excited me about it was it was modern. But as I’m getting older I think it’s like I slit very easily into the more retro fringe of it. And there was lots of retro fringe to that world: all that rockabilly music and that 50s aesthetics. And by the end of it I was just a different kind of hipster than when I was younger. And then eventually I got a little smarter and grew older and started to genuinely think about why I was interested in in this time period. But like any most youth oriented stuff, it was pretty superficial.
Sorry, let’s get back to what we were talking about before. What is your life story about?
Identity is created anyway. So I think you’re born with some personality and you may not have a lot of choice in that. But you can layer on or remove from that personality to some degree; you can refine. Whether you want to or not you build an identity. For me it’s been very important since I was teenager to start the idea of building my own identity consciously. I’ve always been very concerned with creating an image for myself and following through on living my own sort of aesthetic. That’s changed over time, but it’s always been a very consistent thing. I think that’s important because you have two choices with your identity. Either you create it or you let other people create it for you. And for me it’s more important to be the one who gets in charge of it. And like anything: once you do it, it becomes true. So there’s a great deal of truth in »fake it till you make it«. If you keep doing it at some point you’re not just faking it anymore. It’s like that’s just who you are.
That’s true. Just take your name. You started off as Gregory Gallant and now your Seth.
Yeah, to be honest, I kind of wish I had not done that. I like the name Gregory Gallant now, it’s a good name. When I was a teenager and drew my own comic books, I made-up my own comic book company and it was called Gallant Comics, which is a pretty great name. But when I was in my 20s, the nightclub and punkrock kid, I wanted a dramatic scary gothic kind of name. I heard the name Seth and badgered everyone into calling me Seth. And now it’s just way too late to go back. It’s too late for 30 years, so I just live with it. But I’m always thankful that Seth is like a real name. I could have picked something like »Monster Zero« or so. And then you’d be stuck with that horrible name. So at least it’s a real name and when I meet real regular people they just assume it’s my real name. So that’s fine.
That’s funny. But how came your love for old things and for your very classy style?
It started of course with the parents, but I wouldn’t have realized that when I was young. They were just old and I just absorbed a lot of it. They talked about the past a lot. So you probably grew up in the 1980s when you were a child. Before the 80s the pop culture in America was a little different than later, because there were so many remnants of the old pop culture lingering around through the 60s and 70s. I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that television had so much time to fill and they needed to plug in junk that they could get cheaply. I grew up with the pop culture of the 30s, 40s and 50s very prominently, because I watch so much television as a child. And I didn’t think about it. To me it was just what was shown on television. All those old Hollywood movies, all that pop culture, all that stuff from the 30s, the music… that was just lingering in the back of my head. It wasn’t until the 1980s, when a little bit of time passed, that I started to think about that culture? And I think a lot of people my age did. That’s why there was so much interest in B-movies at that time, and a lot of a lot of retro stuff was going on. But anyway, I think in my late 20s and into my mid-30s is when I started to more consciously craft the identity that I have now. It had a lot to do with my outgrowing of youth culture, I was no longer interested in contemporary music at that point. I had a very good friend who listened to a lot of jazz, who kind of inspired me to start listening to blues and jazz. And I think through the 30s I really made a conscious effort to become someone who’s life was filled with the material of the 1930s and 40s. I got very interested in it. And if you talked to me in those years I would have been very strident about that this was the great time to have lived in. In this years I was very contemptuous of modern culture and very rejecting of pop culture in general. I was very snobby in those years. I only wanted to watch really great films and only wanted to read good novels and so on. I didn’t have any interest in pop culture at all. Superhero comic books were garbage and blah, blah blah. But like anything you mellow it’s all been stepping back from that over the years. If you talk to me I’d be more than happy to talk to you about Jack Kirby and Marvel Comics for an hour. That doesn’t bother me in the least. I don’t feel like every movie I see has to be great. And I don’t believe for a second anymore that the 1930s or the 40s where the greatest point of Pop Culture.
But the distance from your certain moment of life and the time you are interested in stays the same.
Somehow it does, to a big degree. This is the nature of the movement of time and how we view the past. There used to be this series of books called the Saturday book. They were annual books that came out, starting in the 1940s and they ran up until the mid-70s. So they came out once a year as a big hardcover book that was filled with nostalgia and collecting at the time. In the 1940s they were all about the Victorian era. And so they’re about music and cards and novels of that time. But by the 1970s they’re all about the 1920s. It’s obviously just a natural impulse that as people get older, they focus on shifts. Now I think about the 1970s all the time, because that was my childhood. I didn’t grow up in the 1940s and at some point I recognized that my ideas of the past were probably wrong. When I see young people talking about the 70s now, I realize, that they just don’t know, because they weren’t there.
Probably it is part of our life story to get closer to our own experience.
Well Nostalgia is incredibly powerful. You don’t even have to have had a good life to be nostalgic for your past. I can think of many times in my life which were I was very miserable and I still feel over like a kind of nostalgia for those time. But I’m sure that if I found myself back there in that moment, I’d be like: why in God’s name would I have ever wished to come back here?
You and your art work are connected to the term nostalgia. What does nostalgia mean to you?
I don’t like the term but I’ve gotten used to it. I have to, because there’s nothing ever written about me, that doesn’t mention »Nostalgia«. Because my work is constantly dealing with my interest in the past or my own past. It’s my main subject. But I guess I don’t like the word nostalgia because I do tend to think of it with a little bit of scorn. I tend to think of it as frivolous, essentially because it’s been so marketed. If you talk to someone about Nostalgia back in the 1960s or earlier they probably would have had a different idea of nostalgia than we do. We’ve really come modified it and made it into a product. I mean, they’re selling us nostalgia every single day. I was growing up in the first wave of the nostalgia culture. That’s when all the hippies started buying old stuff from the 20s and 30s and they were starting to market posters of W.C. Fields or Laurel and Hardy. And then that whole 50s thing came in the 70s, which is funny. Because I remember as a child, when I would think about the 50s, they seem really a long time ago. But they were literally 15 or something years ago. And when I think about the 70s now, that’s like 40 years ago. Way further back in time than the 50s were. But of course, they seem more recent to me than the 50s did then. But setting that aside the problem with nostalgia for me is that it is essentially a pejorative term. When you think about nostalgia, you think of people looking back on the past foolishly. You don’t think of it as a great and noble thing. There’s something infantile about it. Nostalgia people imagine a simpler time that never existed. I do that as well. But I try not to do that too much in my work. In my work I’m trying to deal with memory and the past. For instance, I wouldn’t say that »Clyde Fans« is about longing for a happier time in the past. The characters are miserable in every page. »George Sprott« is looking back on his own troubled past. All my works – even my own memoir I’m working on – is mostly about the breakdown of memory rather than the accuracy of it.
Your work will change the semantics of nostalgia. In your work nostalgia is not foolish at all. It’s a big reflection about what time passing and memory could mean.
That’s the thing I’m so fascinated with. You write about what you think about. And that’s what I’m thinking about most of the day. I’m concerned with how time and memory operates. And I assume most people are thinking the same thing. But it’s hard to say. I can remember even as a fifteen-year-old I was extremely interested in my own childhood. I was aware of the passing of time then. That always struck me, it’s such a powerful experience. I’m 60 years old now and it feels like that life has flown by, which is what every old person says. I heard an old man on the radio once talking and this is back when I was probably about 40. And he was talking about getting old and he said: you’re 20 years old and then you’re 30 years old and then you’re 40 years old and then you’re 50 years old and then you’re 80 years old. That struck me a scary because it’s probably true. The time is just suddenly over. It’s much slower when you’re younger. And this experience of time passing is so interesting. And like we were saying earlier: your only real way of dealing with it is memory.
Maybe it’s like a good book when you’re reading it. In the beginning you have more than 500 pages and it starts slow. But at a certain point it just runs away. So that’s life.
There’s a great deal of truth to it. And I do think that getting old is important because otherwise you don’t want to go. You’ve got to have this experience of wearing down. It would be too tragic. If you make it to 80 you’re probably not ready to go but it’s on the horizon in a realistic way. That wouldn’t be when you’re younger.
Comic Artwork of Seth
»I have come to the conclusion that there are two kinds of people: the well screwed up and the badly screwed up«, is your alter ego in »It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken« saying. What kind of person are you?
I think I am a well screwed up person. When I was younger I might have thought I was the other way around. I’m a happy person. When I was younger I would have resisted that idea. I would have said that I’m a moody person or a melancholy person. But I don’t think that’s really true. I mean, I spend a lot of time dwelling on the past but I’m not unhappy about it. I always quote this Charles Schulz line about good grief. »What is good grief? Grief isn’t good. But good grief would mean a kind of grief that’s enjoyable. And I think that’s what melancholy is. Back with a kind of pleasant feeling. It’s bittersweet as they.« I feel that a lot, but in my daily life I’m a happy person. Things have worked out in my life really fine. Of course I have sad things in my life like everyone. But I feel like I’m not a person who has a grudge against anything. I’m a very social person. I have a happy life. I’m in love with my wife, and we’ve been married for like 22 years. And as long as I don’t get too horribly sick, it’ll be okay. So I had difficulties in my childhood and my parents caused me some problems. So I was screwed up, but I don’t think that I was screwed up in the bad way. So I feel I’m on the good side.
What makes you feel when you look at the world around you? What make modern times feel you like?
You know it’s funny: You define yourself in the environment you live in. So if I was back in 1940, I probably wouldn’t be that happy about it. Maybe I’d be like living in 1870 in my mind, I don’t know. I think there’s a certain kind of contrarianism. That is one of the reasons why my life is the way it is or at least that’s why it got that way. Why I started to define myself against modern culture. I don’t really care for modern culture very much, but I’ve adapted to it. Like I have a computer, but I keep it to minimal. I don’t have a device; I don’t carry an iPhone or anything. My wife does though. I tried to keep her from getting one, but it didn’t work. But the truth is: part of the thing I like about the past is that it is the past. I love old places. We often go to these old restaurants, these fine dining places, that have been around for a long time. They are very old-fashioned. And we often bemoan that there aren’t more of them, because most of them are long gone. But part of the appeal of them is that they’re old and that they’re of the past. It’s not the same as if they were brand new. There is a kind of a quality to seeking out the past that is sometimes more appealing than the thing itself. There’s a quality to the idea that things lingering, that is different than the aesthetic of the thing itself. I do think that part of my interest in the past is predicated on living in this time. But at the same time, I do find the recent time unpleasant. We go out a lot, my wife and I. We live in a medium-sized town and there’s not a lot of great places to go. The local bar that we go to is a sports bar. There’s televisions in every corner playing football. I can’t find in our town a beautiful 300-year-old pub or something. We are in Canada. We have no choice and I think to myself: this is horrible. I would like to be in a nice dim restaurant with wood and brass and quiet. When I go to Europe before I go I make a research for these kind of places. So I can have a place to go, to sit and read, where it’s quiet and lovely. That’s the experience you’d like to have. But I’m living in the modern world. Our town is ugly. There’s many developments going up around the city of horrible modern buildings. Maybe they’ll look better in 50 years, but right now, the aesthetic is hideous.
That’s the same in Berlin. Everything newly built has no aesthetic at all. It’s just functional. We are living in a time of functionality not of aesthetic. I’ve thought about one thing in the modern world which has to struck you is smoking. It’s nowhere allowed. How is that for a big smoker like you?
I used to be a passionate smoker, but I don’t smoke anymore. I quit about 10 years ago or something, but I loved it. For a while it felt like it was only me and Art Spiegelman who were still smoking. I felt I was abandoning him. Art is still a smoker and probably will until he dies. I basically gave up for the same reason like every other person, which is that this is going to kill me. So I better stopped after many, many years. I smoked an enormous amount, like three packs a day. I would have smoked in the shower. I was always smoking. It was a great activity if only, it wasn’t so dangerous. And I miss it, although like many ex-smokers when I smell cigarette smoke I don’t like it now. It gives me a bad feeling in my stomach.
Don’t ask me why, but when I think about a cinematographic adaption of your work I always think about Wes Anderson? Do you ever think about cinema?
I thought about it. I mean, I love film, but I’ll never be making a film. I’m 60 years old, it’s too late. But it would be interesting to be involved in someone making a version of my work. Wes Anderson is a good choice. But the funny thing is, I don’t really love Wes Anderson’s movies. But I love his Art Direction and how he constructs the movies. I watched »The French Dispatch« and I enjoyed it. I didn’t love it, but I enjoyed it. I was critical of certain elements, but when I got home, I thought, that this is a lot like what I’m trying to do in my new book. In the way he structured the story and focused on the set design in the objects. And I really appreciated his aesthetic. But I think I’m just not in love with his movies themselves. They’re too busy, too much stuff is going on. When I saw »Hotel Budapest« I loved the first 15, 20 minutes. But then they left the hotel and there was too much running around and chasing. I was like, just stay in the hotel. But in general, film is such a great medium. But even if a miracle happened, I don’t have time to learn how to make a movie. You need a lifetime to make a good movie.
So you are the writer on chase of a director.
Exactly. And you got to find the right director. The hardest thing is to collaborate with people, to find a person you can really collaborate with. It’s tough. You meet people who are nice and smart or talented, but then you can’t work together. Or you meet people that you don’t respect enough. Then you feel that this is a waste of my time to be working with this person, if I don’t fully respect them. Or you find somebody who’s really great and you can push them around. But then they become just your assistant. So it’s tough.
It’s a pity that neither Chester Brown nor Joe Matt nor Art Spiegelman are going to be cineastes.
Well »Paying for it« of Chester Brown is going to be a film. But we’ll how they handle that. It’s a funny subject matter.
Joe Matt, Chester Brown and you are called the Toronto-Three. What means that friendship to you?
I love those guys but we don’t live in the same city anymore. So we don’t see each other as much. But how we got together is kind of the pre-internet nature of the world. Back in those days in the 80s and early 90s there were probably in all North America only 50 cartoonists at most, who were doing the kind of work that we were interested in. And this is true of all the cartoonist who were doing this kind of work: whatever City you lived in, if there was another one of those cartoonists, they were your friend. You didn’t pick them; it was kind of fate. I wouldn’t have picked Joe and Chester. They were just a pure accident. In many ways we’re very different people. But we had a goal in common. We got together even though I probably never would have been talking to these guys, if they weren’t cartoonists. We had totally different backgrounds, but we were all interested in the same kind of cartooning. Once we got together, we very quickly bonded. Our personalities are very different. So now as the years have gone by, it’s much more evident, how different we are from each other. I just saw Chester about a week ago and we spent the whole time talking about his conspiracy theory stuff, he’s interested in. Which I couldn’t be less interested in. I have no interest in that world. But he’s completely gone down the rabbit hole. But he’s always been that way. Back in the 80s he was talking to me about how Shakespeare hadn’t written his own plays. But that was fine. When he’s talking now about that the Covid is a hoax I’m less and less forgiving. But nevertheless, those two guys are good people. So even we have less and less in common as we get older, they are still old friends. And there’s nothing that changes that.
Let’s get back to your work. »Palookaville« – by the way, is it with hyphen or without hyphen?
It doesn’t really matter. I’ve changed it over the years. I think I don’t need to hyphen anymore though. I think I knew what we did though.
So in »Palookaville« you published the stories of »It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken« (issue 4-9) and »Clyde Fans« (issue 10-23) piece by piece. Does the perception of your stories change when they are put together from the »Palookaville« issues in a Comic Book like »Clyde Fans«?
I’m not sure. For me it was done purely for expedience. It was the only way to do it. Part of it had to do with the format. The format of a comic determines how you structure it. So back in the early days when I started out you had 24 pages to work with. So the first few comics I did were 24 pages long, that was the story. And then I was like, oh well maybe I can do a two-part story. Then you’d have two sets of 24 pages and you design it that each chapter ended up normal. But 24 pages determined a chapter. Then eventually I thought that’s not enough. So then you’d have one chapter would be three comics and then you had to figure it out. But now, none of that matters anymore. So when I work in hardcover, I could do 100 Pages of a story, but what I’m doing now is I’m using the book like a blog or a website. I’m just putting things together I’m working on. Somewhat randomly into a package and then later, they will be collected into a final form which I already have in my mind. I’m sure for the reader it makes a difference, because they see each of these individual sections as a complete work. But I have seen them as part of what I’m working on. The big book I’m working on right now, I’m not even going to serialize it, because I don’t want it to appear that way. I want people to read it all at once.
You mean your memoir with the objects?
Yes. This one is going to be like four to five hundred pages and I’m about 200 pages in right now. But so it’ll be a few more years until it comes out as a final book. But for this one I don’t want people to read it in little pieces. And even though it could be, it’s three sections. So even if I could do three 200-page sections, but I still don’t want to do that. I want that experience for people to have it all at once and put it all together in their minds at once. People read »Clyde Fans« for about 20 years. I knew nobody knew what was going on anymore. They didn’t remember anything. The experience was when new readers read it as a book.
The story of the Matchcard Brothers Abe and Simon in my mind boils down to the big question of which of the two brothers has actually been living in a fantasy world. The older brother Abe, who believed in the idea of a fair market, or the younger Simon, who clung to the past because he could not bear the present? What is reality and what’s tragedy?
That’s a good take on it, because I really don’t think either of the brothers has managed to succeed in creating a viable life system. Living in a fantasy is a good way of putting it. They have both constructed an artificial world around themselves to manage to survive, which most of us do. I didn’t want either of them to be a voice of reason. The sympathy is more geared towards Simon, because he’s the more fragile of the two, but I don’t really think of either of them as being the better or the more successful person. Somewhere somebody just said it’s a really depressing book because it’s just failure on every page. That’s pretty true. I wasn’t trying to make it depressing, but certainly it doesn’t lighten up anywhere in the book. You don’t have any moments of joy. I probably wouldn’t write such a grim book now. But that was how I was dealing with my own conception of reviewing my own life and how it operates, when I was working on that book. I wasn’t miserable, but that was my mood. The book I’m working on right now has a lot more levity in it. It’s lighter. I think it just reflects my own interior shift.
How come your fascination for people like George Sprott, Wimbledon Green, Kalo or the Matchcard Brothers; all people, who build up empires which get wrecked – by themselves or by the time passing by.
It’s probably all the same story. When you’re young, you think you’re going to write all kinds of different books. But when you get older you realize it’s just the same story over and over again. And you don’t get to pick the story for some reason. The book I’m working on right now is that same story again to. I didn’t think it was when I started it. I was very excited about it at the beginning. I thought like »Wow, nobody’s done a book like this. This is like one of one in a billion…« But of course as I started working on it I thought: »Wait a minute, it’s kind of like »Wimbledon Green« or »George Sprott«.« That’s an important process in creating work as you trick yourself thinking, it’s a new idea when it’s the same stuff again.
But how come my fascination? I think I’m writing the same story because I’m writing my parents story over and over again. It’s this connection to those old people, I spent so much time with in my youth. They were complicated people and everything I’m doing is kind of them in disguise. Of course I’m in there too. Perhaps this is an allusion too: it’s just a form of narcissism where you’re talking about yourself over and over again. Because that’s my main topic. My interest in objects is about the power I’m investing in them. My interest in my parents is my relationship with them. I may not be interested in other people the way some writers are. Some writers have an intense curiosity about other people. And other writers, are just writing about themselves, that’s all they’re really interested in. And I’m in that camp of just writing about myself. It’s not that I don’t like people. People are nice, but I am not a social person in the sense that I crave other people’s company, but I am a social person that I don’t mind talking to people. I’m so much interested in the interior life. The danger of the interior life is loneliness. So that’s the thing you got to be careful of. I’m not lonely. I’m very happy. I have my wife. She handles all the problems of me feeling lonely. If she were to die, I’d be in trouble. Because once loneliness creeps in, then everything changes. Then suddenly this interior life becomes very disagreeable.
Is that something you survive with your parents? Do they felt lonely at a certain point?
They were very lonely people. Both of their lives were kind of tragic. They had a terrible marriage and they were really unhappy people. My entire childhood was watching two people, who couldn’t stand to be with each other, negotiating their life together. I liked them both although certainly I would put more blame on my father than I would on my mother. I was much angrier with him when I was younger. That might be why so many of my male characters are a kind of aggressive hypocrites. Although I have much more sympathy for him. George Sprott is kind of a reprehensible character and I think I presented him with sympathy. I don’t let him off the hook, but you see, who he is with his own weaknesses. I feel like I’m trying to deal with how you come to terms with yourself? As you get older, one of the common things you experience is regret for your own actions. And I think I’m trying to deal with some of that in my Memoir that I’m working on now. And I will get more of that as I get into my 20s. Because that’s the period where I have the most regrets in my life. Where I feel I treated people badly. I think about that a lot and that I can’t really correct the errors of the past. You can apologize and I’ve done a lot of apologizing, but that doesn’t change things. It does not change the past and make you a better person. Maybe it makes you a better person than the person who didn’t apologize. But it doesn’t move the selfish or cruel things you did in the past. Those things exist through a reality and dealing with them is part of writing the life story too.
When you say that, you’re always writing the same story about your parents. I was thinking. So, in this moment, I would think about the, the female characters in your work. And then I thought, okay, they’re not so much female characters in your work, it’s mostly men.
There’s always a mother in the story. I don’t write books about women, I don’t even write books for women, because it’s books about men. And the women in them are written from a man’s point of view. But the three roles of women, that always appear in my books are a mother, a mistress – most times a woman from the past – and a caregiver. But they’re not active female characters, they’re in relationship to the male characters I’m writing about. I’ve seen a couple of comments where people say, that there are no women in my stories. That’s true. I can’t even imagine writing a book about a woman. It would just be a book about a man where I drew a woman as the main character, to pretend, it is a book about a woman. That’s not likely to happen.
While hearing you’re talking about this I thought about »Beaches« from one of the first »Palookaville« issues. Chris Oliveros said that you were not so happy with it, but that’s in my mind a story of female characters.
I think it’s about a mistress. It’s the boys experience. When I thinking about it now while I’m reworking that material for the memoir I’m aware that I never thought about her position. Now when I’m 60 years old I think: I was a 17-year-old boy and she was probably 30. She probably foolishly made the mistake of sleeping with this 17-year-old boy, who then thought that he is in love with this woman. Now I’m thinking: oh, that poor woman. She slept with this 17 year old boy and he was suddenly trying to get in touch with her all the time. She was probably like: What have I done? I’m a married woman. I’ve got a child. And she was having an affair with another guy at the same time. This was probably a foolish complication she’d created in her own life. I’m guessing, but I had to get this old to really spent some time thinking about what was she thinking? I never gave much thought to her position in the story at all. Like I say it in the new section of »Palookaville«: When you’re writing your own story, everybody else is just a walk-on part. You’re the story. You might draft somebody in because they’re interesting, but the truth is, they’re interesting in relationship to you.
Coming back to your new album. Me as well I read it like a blog with the photos and the sketches and all that stuff. You made a film »The Short Apology of Albert Batch« with Luc Chamberland. And you write that the film is after »Wimbledon Green« and »The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists« a sort of the conclusion of a Canadian-Cartooning Trilogy. How that. What is this film about?
It’s a little puppet film about this Cartoonist named Albert Batch. He actually appears in »The Great Northern Brotherhood«, he’s discussed briefly there too. I think of that as a little closed world of characters I made up at that time, when I was very interested in the history of Canadian Cartooning and very interested in an imagined history of it. Much of this was done off the cuff. This wasn’t work I consider as major work. Most of it was done for fun in my Sketchbook. The puppet show was just an indulgence, I’m not a puppeteer. It’s just one of the many things that I fiddle around with. The story and the puppet show came together very haphazardly. In this time, I was interested in cartooning, but then I lost interest in that subject matter. You go through phases of interests. People only know you from things years ago. When you’ publish things, you are always years behind. My public identity is I’m a guy who’s really interested in old cartooning, because I’ve done so much stuff connected to it. »Good life« is about old cartooning, I did a little book called »40 cartoon books of interest« where I talk about my collection. I did all these books; we were just talking about. So people think I’m super interested in the old world of cartooning. But the thing is, I’m not interested in it at all anymore. It’s an exaggeration, but there was a time it was such an interest. But now I’m not paying attention to it anymore. I’m not collecting old cartoons in the way I used to. I’m not buying all those reprint volumes of »Popeye« and so on. I spend almost all my time reading novels. When I occasionally meet fans, they talked to me about old Comics. I feel they’re talking to the version of myself ten years ago. If you have any kind of a public persona, it gets dated. But you change, you need to do new work to come out and so you re-establish a new identity all the time. I’m not working that fast.
You are as well the designer of the John Stanley Library, the work of Doug Wright and Charles M. Schulz »Peanuts«. What do these artists and there works mean to you? How did their work influence your style and humour?
A lot of that stuff was as well probably 10 years ago. But every phase you go through is a growing period. Why are we interested in things? We’re interested in them in a very selfish way because they define us. I might be able to learn from it. There was a time I was very interested in Edward Hopper. Today I don’t think about Edward Hopper anymore. If somebody asked me, who are your favourite artists, Hopper wouldn’t immediately leap to my mind, because you’re constantly working through a system of evolution. As artist you always look for something new and you find yourself learning from other people. About 20 years ago I got very interested in this Canadian artist named Thoreau MacDonald, who drew these very small pen and ink drawings of the landscape. That was really influential on me. I don’t really look at McDonald anymore, but that was a very important phase, that moved me from being interested in Robert Crumb to Thoreau McDonald to something else. And in these phases, you abandoned the earlier excitement, but you retain what you learned from it. Eventually you forget where you learned this stuff from and it just becomes a part of what you do. But sometimes you’ll look on some old work and you’ll see like the influence of somebody. That’s part of the artistic process. You keep absorbing, keep stealing things and you incorporate it into your work. Eventually it leads you somewhere where all the stealing gets lost, gets mixed together and become something new.
I’ve noticed several »Keep On Truckin« citations in your work.
I love Crumb, but he is totally on the outs now. He is very politically incorrect. But he’s one of the few artists that I would get up on stage and defend if I had to.
How did you develop your recognizable style, these combination of round strokes and dull colours, rhythm and space?
As we were just talking about. I’m not sure I could clearly delineate it. I know the straightforward choices. If I went through the artists, I was interested in that would lead you through the past. So we start with Charles M. Schulz, who was very important. The rhythm Charles M. Schulz worked with was really influential in teaching me something as a child. It’s his ability to have quietness in the strip. But I wasn’t thinking about that, when I was 15 years old and copying Jack Kirby. And now I still think of him as being a huge influence, but you’d be hard-pressed to find any Jack Kirby in my drawings. People would be surprised if I say, Jack Kirby is one of my main influences. Later I discovered Hergé, another important influence and Yves Chaland, from whom I was learning about how to use the brush. I was studying Hergés pacing and how he used landscape in the work. Then I got really involved with the New Yorker cartoonists and their aesthetic of the brushwork and the grey washes and how they set up the composition within a gag cartoon. I could just keep on going through. Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, Chester Brown, Robert Crumb and to artists like Edward Hoppy and so on. I could list over 100 people probably. Somewhere in their work there’s something you learn. When I was 20 years old I asked myself how to pick an own drawing style. I can remember sitting down and I was drawing a strip in an Edward Gorey style and then I tried something that was more like in a Gilbert Hernandez style.
The »Beaches« story is very Hernandez Style.
Yeah, I could see. I was a huge fan of the Hernandez Brothers. But the funny thing is: you think you’re going to pick a style and that your style will be how you draw. But it doesn’t work that way. It’s the style who picks you. It just happens. And at some point you can’t get rid of it even. You can change it, but it’s a slow process of changing it. It gets into your hand somehow. And that’s how you draw.
How come how come that blue is your favorite color?
It’s not much of a story. In the early days of comics, when I work with Chris Oliveros, we couldn’t afford any colour. I asked can I have a grey tone? He’s like, yeah, we can have a grey tone. Well, I used a grey tone for a few issues and then he said, you can have a colour. And I just picked blue. Blue seemed like a melancholy colour. I used it for many years. Even though I work in other colours blue is my favourite colour. Blue is the most common colour I work.
When I read your short stories the colour palette was really irritating for me it was almost shocking.
I have been getting brighter over the years. I’ve been doing a lot of covers for paperbacks and they’ve been getting brighter and brighter. I’ve moved away to some degree from those very muddy colours that I always used to work with.
Since you get into comics the art form got a strange cultural boost. First it seemed that it will die completely, comic stores where closing and so on. But then something happened. Can you explain what happened?
I can’t explain what happened. I remember when it happened. Things were getting quite bad in the late 90s and Chris Oliveros was talking to us, that Drawn & Quarterly might go out of business. Fantagraphics was doing very badly then and they started their pornography comics to save themselves. I literally was thinking; this is going to be over soon. I remember talking with Chester Brown around this time about going back to Xerox printing. We were prepared for it. We were like: well that’s life. I wasn’t making much money from Comics anyway. I was already making most of my money as an illustrator but it seemed really grim. In the late 80s and early 90s was a real excitement about Underground Comics that it was going to work. It wasn’t paying off in big numbers, but then it started to dwindle. And around the year 1999 or 2000 suddenly it changed. It was right around the Crumb-Film came out. The film got a lot of attention. But it is strange that right around that time the graphic novel started to take off. And within a couple of years’ things really changed and comics sort of entered into the mainstream culturally.
Maybe there’s a connection between Cinema and Comics. Because here in Germany there was a wave of animated films. Hayao Miyazaki won a major price at the Berlin film festival and so on. Maybe that was a window of opportunity.
It may have been like the culmination of a very slow invasion. After »Mouse« came out it was like a slow rise of perception of the graphic novel in North America. It was slow though. I remember when »Mouse« came out it got a lot of attention. During that period things were coming out once every few years, they got a little bit of public attention. Bit by bit there was a little bit more attention being paid. Right after the year 2000 the main thing I noticed was the media started covering comics. There where articles on the New York Times, in real magazines, were it was not usual. There was a real discussion of the work as serious art. Now I would say we’ve lost some ground. Comics are more ubiquitous than they’ve ever been. But they’re also junkier. There was a short period where it felt they were getting a lot of attention, because comics were real medium. Now there’s a lot of young adult stuff, tons of companies putting out graphic novels, but it’s all junk. There’s a lot of junk. So maybe it’s just gone back being a popular medium. But for some people like myself it’s better than it used to be.
A part of your work is dedicated to other comic artists and their drawings. It is as if you work against their oblivion. Are you afraid being forgotten one day? Or that your work will be vanish?
Yeah, I am. Although I’m realistic about it. I will be forgotten. Everybody will be forgotten, but beyond that, even artists and writers and stuff, 99 % of us will be forgotten. Think about who’s remembered from the past. It’s a very small number of people. I’d say that in a hundred years I would be very happy if there’s some oddball like me who’s interested in my work. But I don’t expect to be a famous person in a hundred years. But I will tell you one thing. All artists lie to themselves about this, because everybody likes to think that it’s after they’re dead, they will become more important. It’s like the only job in the world where you might be more successful when you’re dead. So I have fantasies like: After my dead they’ll realize how important I was. The chances are slim, because there’s so much stuff being produced these days. It’s an enormous output, much higher than in the past. And to stay culturally really important, that’s very demanding. There’s the top level of important like Shakespeare kind of important. That’s very, very rare. There’s a lower level of importance, somebody like Henry James, a very well-known respected author. He will probably be known for hundred more years although there won’t be many people reading Henry James. Any more than there are people reading the plays of Francis Bacon. It’s to old now. We just know the name. It might be better with painters, because it takes less investment to look at El Greco. But El Greco is not hot at the moment. His art is still worth plenty of money but everything has its moment. Even Madonna, an enormous figure in her time – nobody’s going to care about Madonna in 100 years. The most famous singer of the late 19th century was Jenny Lind. Who talks about Jenny Lind today? She was an enormously important. Or Sarah Bernhardt, the most important actress of her time. People would have kissed her feet in the street. But nobody cares about those people anymore. So fame is very ephemeral. Even though the idea of posterity is very appealing to an artist, you have to be realistic. You probably won’t be remembered. So I’m working for now. This is not for posterity.
Maybe your work will be remembered. I remember the last picture of »Wimbledon Green«. The shadow of your hero is bigger than his proper body. Maybe that’s the destiny of any artist, that the artwork is bigger than himself?
That’s probably true. The reality of a person is much less interesting than the artwork. The artwork is a creation and there’s something very powerful about it. There’s a good reason not to meet the artists. You want to keep the thing they made. For instance, Charles M. Schulz. I worked on the collecting of his work for twelve years of my life and I’m grateful that nothing ever ruined that. Meeting people is pretty dicey. It’s very easy to have it all ruined.
If you could choose somebody who would draw Comic book about your life and work. Who would it be?
Hmm, that’s a good question.
You could choose yourself if you prefer.
Well I would choose myself of course. But if I had to choose another person that’s really tricky. I wouldn’t trust other cartoonists. It’s like Chester Browns take on me would be very tricky. I wouldn’t appreciate it. Who would I want to do something like that, huh? I don’t have a good answer. All the cartoonist I’m thinking of, whose work I really like. I’m not sure I would want their attention focused on me. I can’t think of a single person I would trust. I’ve never even thought about it. A cartoonist is very different thing to me than a writer. If somebody came to me and said, I wanted to write a biography of you, I probably wouldn’t be interested in doing it. But I wouldn’t be that concerned either. If it would be a bad biography, I just be like whatever. But a bad comic strikes me personal. Even some of my favourite cartoonists like Chris Ware or Ben Katchor couldn’t do a good comic about me. At least not one that I’d like.
It’s always odd how someone else would view you. But it would particularly bother me how another cartoonist views me. If somebody said they want to make a film and cast someone else who will play me, I’d be perfectly fine with that. I don’t think I’d be keen on somebody drawing me.
The thank you very much for your time. It was a pleasure.