REVIEWS

The Great Northern Brotherhood Of Canadian Cartoonists

The G.N.B. Double C, or The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists, is perhaps Seth’s strangest book to date. In terms of its spontaneity and sketchbook origin, it resembles Wimbledon Green, but it’s also like George Sprott in its resolute Canadianness and lack of plot. It’s mostly a work of fantasy as Seth takes the reader on a tour of the Dominion, Ontario branch of the G.N.B.C.C., a cartoonist’s organization slash lodge that previously existed only in Seth’s mind. Indeed, Dominion itself is another product of Seth’s imagination as the setting for several of his comics. Seth apologizes to Dylan Horrocks for inadvertently biting his concept of the Hicksville lighthouse library, containing all of the great comics that were never published. Somewhat like Horrocks, Seth creates his own alternate history (of Canadian cartooning here), but there’s an important emotional difference between Hickville and The G.N.B. Double C.

Unlike in Hicksville, where Horrocks uses the lighthouse library as a device representing all of the great comics that could have been (but were never published because of an apathetic industry), the fake cartoonists and comics Seth introduces in The G.N.B. Double C are frequently second-rate, uninspired, populist hacks and hackwork. Even in his own sketchbook fantasy, Seth can’t quite commit to Canada as a land of comics milk and honey. Instead, the G.N.B.C.C. houses work and memories that represents a warts-and-all approach to the history of comics. A number of these previously popped up in Wimbledon Green and are emblematic of a certain kind of popular comic, like the Inuit astronaut Kao-Kuk or the gumball machine character Jocko. There’s even a Fletcher Hanks-type cartoonist named Sol Gertzman who “drew” a bizarre character named Canada Jack, who was more mouthpiece for civic and philosophical issues than a superhero.

Seth does talk about the work of real cartoonist Doug Wright at length; this was his first such foray into publicizing the legacy of the Canadian cartoonist prior to the huge coffee table book and series of paperback reprints from D&Q. There are a few other Canadian cartoonists he discusses by name, like Jimmie Frise, Arch Dale, and Peter Whalley. The best parts of the book involve the most fanciful and unusual projects, like the icebound G.N.B.C.C. archive containing all sorts of rarities. Unlike the lodge, the archive has all of the good stuff: original art, rare comics (like a fake 18th century comic about a real general, done as a lampoon), and a fantasy setting for any comics researcher. One can imagine the late Bill Blackbeard having taken a trek up there and staying a season or two.

One of the more interesting side plots of this comic concerns the Journeyman award, the club’s highest honor. Awarded just once per decade, to the best cartoonist of that period, only nine such honors have been “dealt.” Some of the winners are invented, such as Isadore Lameque and a couple of others that I’ll discuss in a moment. Others, like Frise, Whalley, Wright, and Chester Brown are real and represent the cream of Canadian cartooning. Intriguingly, Seth never names who won the 2000-2010 award (Dave Sim? David Collier? Julie Doucet? Seth himself?) nor does he name the winner from 1940-1950.

The winners from 1970-1980 and 1980-1990 are Seth’s creations and deserve some mention. Henry Pefferlaw, winner in the first period, seems like an alter ego of sorts for Seth: a young, iconoclastic cartoonist who despised the status quo and who drew a strange work called The Great Machine that defies easy explanation. It’s a vaguely sci-fi-tinged work of formalism that feels like a momentary exploration of an area of work that Seth perhaps has thought about pursuing. (Indeed, many of the characters and stories in this book feel like spitballed and tossed-off ideas that sound better on a sketchbook page than fully explicated in a major work). The winner from 1980-1990, Sam Middlesex, is Pefferlaw’s opposite. He’s an older man who came to cartooning late in his life, after a career as a barber, and then churned out volume after volume about the solemn life of a Canadian family. This seems to be a kind of commentary on Seth’s own work, Clyde Fans in particular: “Narratively a bit staid. Even melodramatic in spots (though he stayed clear of soap opera )… he was no poet, yet he did manage to capture some sense of the profound.”

Toward the end, Seth unravels much of his false narrative. He tells the reader that there really isn’t a Mountie at the front of each clubhouse, and that cartoonists weren’t really revered by the greater Canadian public. Again, even in his own work of fantasy, Seth throws some cold water on his own dreams. Perhaps this is a reaction to some criticisms of his masterwork, It’s A Good Life If You Don’t Weaken, which was so emotionally powerful and involved a mystery so engaging that many people thought it was a work of pure autobiography. If so, Seth may want the reader to doubt everything he is saying in this book to shake off a similar critique. In any case, Seth here certainly appears unwilling to glorify mediocrity, even if it has social or cultural significance—even if they’re his own mediocre creations! I tend to favor this warts and all approach.

Perhaps the previous Seth work this most closely resembles is his Forty Cartoon Books of Interest, a small book of essays about frequently obscure and not always worthwhile collections of cartoons he’d come across in his lifelong hunt for unusual comics. There’s a tension in Seth’s work between being fascinated by comic-as-archival piece vs comic-as-art; there’s a sense that he feels he must be wary of overvaluing the former when it doesn’t measure up as the latter. That battle between nostalgic sentiment and discerning critical eye has always been at the heart of Seth’s work, even if he at times doubts he’s capable of making such a distinction in an objective manner. The G.N.B. Double C is a distillation of that conflict, and as such it’s his most personal work–even if the personally revealing details are oblique.

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13 Responses to The Great Northern Brotherhood Of Canadian Cartoonists

  1. patrick ford says:

    I loved the book. What occurred to me is Seth realizes he has many more ideas than he can ever bring to fully developed fruition. Many of these ideas involve genre work, areas that aren’t forefront, but continue to percolate up filtered through Seth’s current ground. There is also the commentary on Doug Wright which gets a similar treatment.
    Seth maybe has more ideas, and more things to say than he has time to flesh out completely, but some of the ideas appeal to him enough that he figured out a way to express them in a compressed form.
    If Seth were as prolific as Gilbert Hernandez maybe we’d see a whole series of genre books from him, but it’s nice he’s expressed these bits in a concrete form, even if we don’t get to read The Great Machine.

  2. Nick Wyche says:

    Even though Seth would undoubtedly never allow it, there’s a part of my brain that would be interested in seeing the comics ideas he presents in G.N.B.C.C. and WIMBELDON GREEN brought to life by other cartoonists. The fantasy of a 2 or 3 volume set of 100-Page Spectacular style floppy comics, or rather, Blue Ribbon Digest style books, printed on cheap paper with the old-school, 64 color separation style of coloring brings a smile to my face.

  3. Brett Von Schlosser says:

    after reading the GNBCC I had to wonder what Seth’s opinion on Yuichi Yokoyama is, since his description of “the great machine” sounds allot like a Yokoyama comic book. the description of “Isadore Lameque’s” comics made me imagine some kind of Voyageurs of the great lakes Corto Maltese kind of thing. I know I have the 40 cartoon books of interest somewhere on my shelf, in my recolection don’t think I ever head Seth have much to say about comics that aren’t either some old newspaper strips or comics by Chester Brown, Joe Matt,Charles Schultz, and John Stanley. sometimes certain cartoonists are so vocal in their specific areas of interest and expertise that I suspect they are intentionally blind and disinterested in other kinds of comics. but I would be totally mind blown if I found out that Seth actually has a huge fondness for something un-sethesq like Dragon Ball. GNBCCF felt almost like Seth was trying to shine some light on some areas of comics’s he’s interested in or maybe he has Ideas for comics that would be too much of a departure from the”Seth” brand that he’d maybe try producing them under a psudeonym,or in Mr.Gallant’s case, yet another pseudonym.

    • Frank Santoro says:

      Seth’s outspoken on all subjects – especially in person I’d say more than in print for obvious reasons. He was one of the big reasons I started writing about comics. His example – of having opinions on EVERYTHING it seemed – really kicked my ass.

  4. patrick ford says:

    As usual Frank hits the bullseye. Along with Frank and Steve Bissette, Seth was practically the only comic book pro who bothered to comment on the recent Mouse vs Man indignity. Apparently the industry has turned into Art Young’s fearful “nation of creepers.”
    As much as I like the to the point FU MMMS summation from Frank, and Bissette’s extensive examinations, it was Seth who had the absolute best comment.

    In part.

    “The corporate lie about Kirby’s role in the creation of all those characters is abhorrent. It’s a bold faced lie. Everyone knows it’s a lie. No one is fooled. Everyone lying for the company should be ashamed. Stan Lee should be ashamed. What the Marvel corporation is doing might be legal but it certainly isn’t right…”

    Seth,
    August 9, 2011

  5. Sean Rogers says:

    The character of Henry Pefferlaw is also of note because he allows Seth to comment, however tangentially, on the work [and cartooning life] of Martin Vaughn-James. Pefferlaw’s The Great Machine resembles Vaughn-James’s The Cage:
    http://www.indyworld.com/indy/summer_2004/isabelinho_cage/

    So the book is at once a history, a fantasy, and a roman a clef!

    • Brett Von Schlosser says:

      wow, I’ve never heard of Martin Vaughn-James or The Cage, it looks like the library has some anthology called “Ground works : avant-garde for thee” with a piece by him in it. I’ll have to check it out.

    • Matthewwave says:

      That’s what I thought! Or, sorta. I knew I’d read online about that “arty, comics-but-not-exactly-comics “graphic novelist” of — would it be the seventies? — but I couldn’t remember the names of the guy or his works! And I certainly couldn’t remember if the guy I was remembering was Canadian (or had lived/published in Canada), but The Great Machine made me instantly flash back to my admittedly vague memories of what I’d read of (what turn out to be) The Cage and Vaughn-James’s other titles online.

      Thanx very much, Sean, for clearing that up for me!

      Vaughn-James’s stuff is, I believe, very hard to come by — I’m so intrigued by what I’ve seen and I’d love it if someone (maybe D&Q, hint-hint?) would do nice reprint editions…

      Matthew

  6. Alek Trencz says:

    Regarding what Brett Von Schlosser sez up there,
    A few months ago I read Seth saying he had taken to collecting horror comics.
    I was so surprised that I thought he might have been joking. I hope not, though, and I’d love it if he responded to his finds in some public way, partly because I just can’t imagine what his take on them might be. Also, because it would obviously just be totally great, whether it was in essay or strip form.
    Is it possible that some quiet, dignified, soberly maudlin space could be found within the pages of Menace, The Thing or Weird Terrors? Or do still waters run deep? Does a salivating, lupine, cannibal heart beat within that upright, well-behaved gentleman?
    But really, I’m sure his appreciation for the art-form is a lot wider and deeper than his duties to the role of “Seth” will permit.
    Anyway, all that lurid, festering sadism might put stains on his nice worsted long-coat, and there are far greyer fish to fry.

  7. Alek Trencz says:

    Apparently I have an image in my head of Seth which is entirely based on characters from his stories.
    He might well be a squat, klaxon-voiced biker with spider tattoos on his neck and a four-foot silver afro, as far as I know.

    • Yakov Hadash says:

      I met him at MOCCA a few years ago. He looks pretty much exactly what you were picturing in your head. It was a sweltering hot space, everyone wearing shorts and shvitzing all over the place, and he was wearing a vintage suit with his hair slicked back. He was very personable, too.

  8. Mxyzptlk says:

    A lot of Martin Vaughn-James here:
    http://ubu.com/vp/index.html
    (It’s alphabetical, just scroll down.)

    The full “The Cage” will be up soon.

  9. BVS says:

    further mystery. I just learned of Hugo Pratt’s Jesuit Joe, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesuit_Joe sounds pretty much like the fictional comics of Isadore Lameque.

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