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Seth’s 2018 Center for Cartoon Studies Commencement Speech

In 2001 Seth and I each had books out by the same publisher and we went on a promotional tour together. His book, Vernacular Drawings, was a collection of sketchbook drawings. I fell in love with these drawings, especially the ones that poetically captured the many small towns that dot the Canadian landscape.

2001 was also the year I moved to Vermont. The following year, when my second daughter was born and I needed a quiet place to work, I rented a small studio space in White River Junction. I was predisposed to falling in love with White River Junction: it was off the beaten track and, despite being a bit sad and worn, was exquisitely beautiful. In short, it felt like a Seth drawing.

In 2004, Michelle Ollie and I headed to the state in Montpelier, VT to lobby for some funding to renovate the Center for Cartoon Studies’ first building, the old Colodny department store. And we took with us a Seth drawing.

Though Seth’s work often depicts places that have seen better days, here it rendered a hopeful vision of the future. And when it came time to create CCS’s first brochure I couldn’t imagine any one else who could so perfectly convey the texture of White River Junction, the promise of cartooning, and the spirit that I hoped this institution would live up to.

Seth generously helped get CCS up and running and for that I’m so very grateful. It was an honor to have him back and address CCS’s graduating class.
—James Sturm

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To begin, I’d like to tell you that you have made the right decision in choosing to be cartoonists. This is very likely a sentence you will never hear again in your life. Don’t let that deter you.

Cartooning is a beautiful art form and you are among the first few generations of artists allowed to explore it with the freedom and pleasure that other artists have always been granted with their mediums. Take that to heart but take advantage of it, as well. It is a remarkable opportunity.

While it is true the legacy of our medium is scant, this also means you do not have the weight of centuries of tradition hanging over your head. Comics have only been considered worthy of serious attention for a decade or two. That’s nothing in the grand scheme of things. The field ahead has barely been tilled. Open ground. Ground that is still fresh, still brimming with possibilities. Still chances to stake your claim.

To be honest, I am quite envious of you. This school has given you an experience I could never have dreamed of when I started out. Back then, in the year 1980, it would never have occurred to me, after high school, to look for a college that focused on teaching comics. A ridiculous idea. Why would there be such a thing? I knew that comic books were considered pure junk. Almost the very bottom of the cultural trash heap. Perhaps pornography was considered lower. Perhaps.

I loved comics then, I really did, but I was ashamed of them too. When I applied to art school in Toronto, I was genuinely afraid to mention my ambitions to draw comics for fear I’d be rejected as some sort of an idiot. Even after I was accepted I was shy to talk about comics at school. The students around me were studying painting or sculpture or printmaking or photography. Accepted art forms. I was pretty sure that comic books would not be seen as a noble artistic pursuit. My teachers actually frowned on them and tried to make me “grow up”.

Fortunately, the lingering aesthetics of minimalism and abstract expressionism that they offered up instead were certainly not enticing enough to make me think twice. I only met one other comics enthusiast in art school. We spent an afternoon talking comics. Sadly, he was as unimpressed with the weak amateurish superhero comics I was drawing at the time as I was with his master creation—Marijuana Man. We never spoke again.

In retrospect, I regret that I didn’t get as much out of art school as I would’ve liked. But also in retrospect I realize the one important thing I did get out of it was my experience with the other students. I came from a very small, isolated Canadian town and just spending time with other creative people my own age was a revelation. Worlds of art and literature and film were opened up for me by these folks.

It was a turning point in my life for leading me down the path of real self-expression. Unfortunately, new worlds of comics were not opened up to me at art school. Unlike your selves, I had to learn it on the mean streets. Well, the mean streets being the dusty boxes at the back of the local comic shops.

I can only guess, of course, about your experiences here together but I am going to take a guess and venture they have just been as positive as mine were. Undoubtedly more so. The advantage you have on me is that the creative people around you are also other cartoonists. Sharing ideas. Pushing each other. Competing for attention. This is the stuff that allows the creative leaps that are hard to do alone. I didn’t have this experience ’til some years later, until I met two other cartoonists, Chester Brown and Joe Matt, a decade later. We inspired each other in the way that only happens between artists of the same stripe. We analyzed comics, critiqued each other, offered suggestions, were merciless but loved each other. I suspect that is the closest I ever got to what a school for cartoonists might offer. Consider yourself lucky. A lot of cartoonists never found anyone to share the battle.

What I am saying is that times have changed. This place is proof of it. I’m still surprised it exists. I think I may have been the very first guest to visit James Sturm when he came here to start this school. I can’t remember if I said it aloud when James described his plans, but I certainly thought it—“Good luck!”

Why was I so pessimistic? Well, I guess it was because just a few years earlier it looked like comics were done. Wrapping up for good.

I’m thinking of the year 1999, or 2000. I recall a dinner, back then. Chester and I in a Toronto greasy spoon, both lamenting the end of the road. The alternative comics publishing companies seemed to be teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Comic Shops were closing up. Even the mainstream comics were selling abysmally. I recall that we discussed plans to somehow buy a Xerox machine together. We wondered about our ill-considered career choice and what future we had left. We wondered who would be the next generation of “underground” cartoonists? We could barely name more than five possibilities.

Then somehow it all turned around. Even though I was there when it happened, when things changed, I’m still not entirely sure HOW it happened. Over the next decade or so, scores of talented new cartoonists appeared, regular people suddenly knew the words “graphic novel” and someone opened the door of the ivory tower to cartoonists. Today, I look around at TCAF or SPX and it seems like there are thousands of up and comers out there. I would not have predicted this but nothing pleases me more.

Cartoonists like yourself, talented, hardworking, committed to the art form—you guarantee that the medium we love will remain vital, healthy and will live on long after I am considered yesterday’s news. There is something strangely gratifying about growing old as a cartoonist. Eventually you see your own place in the timeline. What came before you and who follows after. This is not a sad thing—instead it is an affirmation.

All right. I’ve spoke optimistically of the brightness of the future. Now the other side. The side you already know. Cartooning is a hard game. You have to make your own rules to survive. Figure out ways to make a living. Compromises are often made but you must be sure that they are minor compromises. Never compromise on the big thing. Your real work.

That has to remain outside the realm of compromise. Yes, take on that dispiriting illustration job about mutual funds. Yes, draw that terrible logo for your friend’s uncle. Do what it takes. But don’t sell out the real work. Find a way to do that somehow. It’s important to make a living but ultimately, it is also important to slowly watch the real work pile up, piece by piece.

Don’t worry about how fast or slow it is piling up. Just keep building the pile. Think of it as a body of work. Think in terms of a lifetime’s commitment. Back in the day, the other cartoonists I knew, we always spoke about our peers in terms of who was in for the long haul. That’s how you knew who was who. If you are in it for the long haul you’ll find a way. I can’t tell you how. I don’t know myself. I’m still working on my own compromises and schemes. The funny thing—every year you’ll wonder how you made it this far…but you’ll also feel pride that you cut your own path.

It is a cliché—but the work is it’s own reward. It is the only reward you can give yourself. YOUR WORK. Think of that in Bold Caps! Every time you create something, little or big, you’ve added it to the world. No one else can do that. Use that fact to convince yourself that you know BEST. Stick to it. As time passes you will realize that this process is the core of the creative life. The satisfaction that work brings.

Yes, it is important to get positive attention and feedback, important to be respected by your peers, important to have doors open for you so you can get your work into the world. But there must be some calculation made to balance ego and career with the deeper needs and satisfactions that come with the work itself. This is at the very heart of the cartoonist’s life.

Often it is a solitary experience. Just you alone with the art form on a day-to-day basis. You know, in many ways our medium is a small medium. Just a handful of devices at our command. A few boxes, some balloons, a ham-fisted language of symbols handed down to us. Perhaps no different than any of the other mediums though. Maybe, at the core, all art forms are the same—simple, pure.

But there is quietness at the heart of our form. The still and frozen world of the comics’ page. There is great beauty there. Enough to humble any practitioner who comes to work with it. I feel that quietness whenever I sit before the page, brush in hand. That is why I tell you that you’ve made the right choice to be a cartoonist. Every day I get up and eagerly go down the stairs to my studio. I sit there in that dark basement and wrestle with myself and with my work.

But you know, it’s not actually much of a struggle in the grand ivory tower sense. It’s more like play. Comics may now have been welcomed into the art world but that has not lessened the inherent guilty pleasure built into the medium itself—that it was an art form invented for fun and novelty. Nor does that lessen the joyful blend of drawing, writing and designing that come together to make it live.

They say that on your deathbed you’ll never wish you had spent more time at the office, but believe me, on a cartoonist’s deathbed, you will wish you’d spend more time in the studio.

So, I’ll end this here. I’ll end with a thought I have often expressed when talking to cartoonists younger than myself. A little advice. Our roots are deeply planted in the fields of commercial art. Of deadlines and editors and sales figures. Our history is a history of professionalism. The best cartoonists were always consummate professionals. These greats—study them. Learn from their lifetimes of skill and talent and craft. But don’t think of yourself as a professional. Set that thing aside. That’s a hold over from those days. From the days of the freelancer. You’re free of that restriction. You can make your own rules.

Think of yourself as the real thing——first and foremost—be an artist.

Congratulations to you all and I wish for you the pleasure and satisfaction that I have often felt as an artist myself. Best of luck.

© 2018 Seth


2 Responses to Seth’s 2018 Center for Cartoon Studies Commencement Speech

  1. Mark Tague says:

    The man is eloquent. I attended a talk by Seth about 4 or 5 years ago at The MoCCA Festival in New York. His talk, like his art, was concise, precise, professional and enlightening. The advice he has given to theCCS graduating class is realistic, challenging, optimistic, and practical. Great job, Seth.

  2. Robin says:

    This is wonderful. I’m not a cartoonist and can’t draw a lick, but am a musician that had aspiring dreams in the past, and now simply make beautiful music because I want to and can. While Seth was talking specifically about comics and cartooning, I think there is a message here to all artists (visual, sonic, other). The unique message to cartoonists about the relative newness of the field can even extend to other art forms: hip hop, for example, is younger than comics, and arguably became taken seriously about the same time; even certain cultural traditions that are very old have only begun to be taken seriously by the more established cultural elites in recent decades. The final message about recognizing and appreciating the traditional roots of cartooning (professionalism, deadlines) while also not being hindered by it, that is a new perspective for me as well. I perform traditional music and dance from Korea and Peru (don’t ask…), and the constraints on how the art forms were performed or positioned in the past are deeply entwined with how they take shape today. But it is certainly possible to recognize those constraints, while also not being held to them.

    Sorry for the self-indulged digression there. Thanks for sharing.

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