Originally published in The Comics Journal 193, February 1997.
Seth has been drawing comics professionally for a dozen years, but has been writing and drawing his own title, Palooka-Ville, for barely six years — since 1991. And he’s only turned out nine issues of the comic to date (six issues of which comprise his new graphic novel, It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken). But what Seth lacks in prolificacy he more than makes up for in the thoughtful and mature approach he brings to comics.
What is particularly exhilarating about Seth is the clearly perceivable trajectory of maturation throughout his short career. He started off drawing (but not writing) a quasi-work-for-hire assignment, Mr. X, which he took over from the Hernandez Brothers in 1985. He struggled through this, learning the ropes of the process of mastering his medium of storytelling until 1988. He spent the next three years studying comics and refining his technique and started publishing Palooka-VilIe in 1991. I’d read the first few issues when they were initially published and remember thinking, rather crankily, that they were unremittingly tedious; the New Yorker-ish drawing and I the glacial pace practically canceled each other out. In retrospect, they indeed look rudimentary efforts in which the content simply couldn’t sustain the leisurely pace Seth had set himself (and vice versa). Nonetheless, with the publication of It’s a Good Life, we can now see that he had discovered how to bend the language of comics to his needs, that he needed to refine his technique and find the right story — both of which he did. Every narrative cartoonist who has stood out from the pack and carved himself a place in comics history has done exactly this — from Carl Barks and Harvey Kurtzman to R. Crumb and Gilbert Shelton to the Hernandez Brothers and Chester Brown.
I don’t mean this as a left-handed compliment, however much it might sound like one, but in 10, 20, 30 years from now, I suspect we may look back at It’s a Good Life and view it as an inchoate work in relation to Seth’s subsequent efforts. Looking at it now, in February, 1997, it’s clearly the work of an artist who was in the process of mastering his medium so that he could say exactly what he wanted to say the way he wanted to say it (the second half of the book is considerably more adept than the first). If this interview is an accurate measure of Seth’s curiosity, intelligence, and devotion to unremittingly craft, that process is going to continue and I for one look forward to watching him continue to deepen content through a mastery of form.
This interview was conducted in two sessions in November 1996 and January 1997. It was edited by Gary Groth and copy-edited by Seth. All images ©Seth unless otherwise noted.
GARY GROTH: One thing that caught my attention is the catholicity of your taste in comics. You like a lot of people who I wouldn’t necessarily have thought you would appreciate, like Dick Sprang and Steve Ditko and Basil Wolverton. I was curious to know, since you’re part of the second generation of cartoonists — those cartoonists who are devoting themselves to personal expression as opposed to finding a craft level and pursuing it — how you see yourself in relation to a lot of the older cartoonists who didn’t devote themselves to personal expression so much as getting a job done? Do you find a connection between yourself and that generation?
SETH: Well there is a connection, definitely. And I think the connection comes along the lines of craft. If I had been talking to you, say, in the early-’80s, I probably wouldn’t have had that big of a connection to those guys. At that point, when I was young and excited about cartooning, I was looking at the Hernandez Brothers, say, or Crumb, or Pete Bagge, and I had a real clear distinction in my mind between alternative cartooning and mainstream cartooning. And whereas I probably still had some kind of affection for people like Kirby or Ditko, I wasn’t thinking about them much. I think as I’ve gotten older and become more confident with what I want to do with cartooning, I haven’t felt as strong a need to tie myself into a classification, and I started to be able to look at the whole range of cartooning, and appreciate the qualities that different cartoonists in different areas had, that aren’t necessarily analogous to the direction I’m heading in. If you look at somebody like C.C. Beck or Kirby, you can’t help but admire the amount of craft involved in their work. And to some degree there is personal expression going on, certainly, but it’s not like an artist’s concern. But you still end up getting really involved in the care that these top creators manage to put into this stuff, and that has filtered through somehow.
GROTH: Can you tell me what you mean by an “artist’s concern”?
SETH: I think when I use the term “artist’s concern,” I suppose what I’m thinking of mostly is really trying to use whatever medium you’re working in as a true personal expression, where the first prerogative of what you’re doing is for yourself, and there’s no client involved in any manner. I do a lot of illustration work, I’m working for clients, and there’s a real clear distinction in my mind between doing that and doing my comics. The illustration work is always of a lower quality, simply because of the fact that you’re dealing with somebody else’s concerns. But with just your own work, you’re freed up to really… Somehow or other, even in just the drawing alone, it becomes a superior product. I suppose an artist’s concern can be really a wide variety of things, but number one would be pure personal expression.
GROTH: What I would call an “artistic conscience,” among the first generation of cartoonists, was always being mitigated by all kinds of essentially commercial demands.
SETH: Yeah. When you read Gil Kane’s interview, you see that the artists’ concerns have been delegated down to developing their craft, to becoming the best draughtsman among the bunch, or the number one stylist or something. And what they’re actually saying with the work gets completely lost or subordinated, and they stop thinking about it entirely. They think, “Am I doing a good job?” They might be thinking, “Is this a superior product?” But most of them don’t seem to get down to that point of being concerned with what they’re trying to communicate to their audience.
GROTH: Yeah. Kirby would probably be the best example of someone who was pushing to express himself, but who had to bury that expression beneath all these layers of genre and corporate dictates and so on, and you really wonder what such artists would have done if they didn’t have those burdens. Of course, it’s quite possible they needed those boundaries in a way.
SETH: Kirby is the classic example. You wonder if Kirby had had the sort of economic control that Hergé had had, say, what kind of a universe would he have constructed of his work? The funny thing about Kirby is, I was just reading a bunch of Kamandis the other day, and I was thinking, “Kirby is such a strange character, really, because he’s kind of like a naive artist in some ways.” Whatever was going on in the culture would just filter right through him and come out as a comic-book story. [Groth laughs.] You’re reading along, and it’s obvious that Kamandi is The Planet of the Apes, and then at the same time, Watergate must have been going on because you’ve got all this stuff coming in about these ape people in the future and their religion being based on the Watergate situation, and it’s just hilarious because you can really feel he’s just a conduit for this stuff. Much like the folk painters in the back country: they’ll have Elvis and he’ll be standing next to Abraham Lincoln or something. [Groth laughs.] Somehow they’re fascinated by the subject matter and it manages to squeeze its way into the work.
GROTH: I guess at a certain point it’s impossible not to because we live in the age where everything is so saturated with what’s going on around us and the media that filters it through us. And I guess it depends on how you juggle those elements, whether or not they become meaningful or not, or whether they just become part of this meaningless pop culture tapestry.
SETH: Yeah. I’m wondering if I’m being a little hard on these older artists, because some of them obviously were making an effort to get their philosophies through. You think of somebody like Ditko. Even within the structure of something like Spider-Man you can feel his efforts to get that Randian stuff out. But I suppose being hampered by the company, it’s still like a game they’re playing; they have to squeeze in what they can within the parameters of what’s allowed.
GROTH: Of course Ditko is an interesting example because I probably prefer his Spider-Man or Dr. Strange to any of his didactically repetitious Randian tracts [laughs].
SETH: Yeah, I’ll agree! They’re certainly more fan to read. You’ve got to wonder though if that has to do with a growing ideology in him or a growing sledgehammer approach. If he had been allowed to do what he wanted, would he have been doing that from Day One? I’m not sure if he had been doing Mr. A at the same age that he was doing Spider-Man if it might not been a bit more readable.
GROTH: One of those unanswerable questions.
SETH: It’s obvious that he really had his own approach to the comics. Both the drawing and the writing.
ODD MAN OUT
GROTH: How do you feel being a cartoonist who has the liberty to engage in serious artistic expression ? Do you feel like an aberration? You mentioned that you always felt like an odd man out.
SETH: Yeah, I think that has a lot to do with why there are serious cartoonists. I think the marginalization is a big part of it. Part of the fact that comics have so little value in the mainstream society probably does attract a certain type that is not even going to consider going into film, for example. Film has such a high profile that it seems beyond reach, for one thing. It probably does attract a type that’s more concerned with getting that big product out there. The smallness of comics allows a certain type, I think, to consider it as a potential career or something. For myself, I can’t really say I ever made any real clear decision about it. It seemed to have just been a natural evolution. I was talking to some people about this recently — I did this little interview for a local television station — and I was talking about certain literary interests and the interviewer asked, “Why are you even considering doing this stuff as a comic book if that’s what you’re interested in?” I had kind of forgotten that comic books are not thought of as a place to do anything serious. I had just gotten used to the idea over the years, as I became more interested in trying to write something better. So it’s just natural that I would think of doing it as a comic since I always wanted to be a cartoonist. There wasn’t a point where I thought that my cartooning should be more serious. It just sort of evolved from wanting to draw superheroes when I was a teenager, to eventually becoming more ambitious bit by bit, without re-evaluating whether the medium could take it or not. I think that probably is true of most alternative cartoonists in that, as their tastes broaden as they get older, they’ve already been trapped into being cartoonists by the stuff they loved when they were kids.
GROTH: That’s an interesting point. It does look like you evolved into seriousness. If you look at your career, you started with the Mr. X stuff which probably wouldn’t qualify as a serious creative effort in the sense that I mean it.
SETH: No. Although I think even at that point, I kind of knew that I wanted to do more than that. I didn’t fully know, because I can remember when I started on Mr. X I was genuinely excited about what the Hernandez brothers had done on it. But even then I could sort of realize this wasn’t their best work. So I wouldn’t say I was completely clued in. But certainly by the time I had done a couple of issues, I could feel this nagging feeling like, maybe I had gotten myself into a situation where no one would ever take me seriously. In the long run, I’m very thankful that I didn’t put out a comic book of my own at that time — because it would probably be something I’d be really embarrassed about now.
GROTH: One thing that the second generation of cartoonists, starting with Crumb, had, that the first generation really never had as far as I can tell, is a mature conception of what constitutes seriousness. If you look closely at the passions and interests of earlier artists, they’re simply not serious by any stretch, or they’re so flawed as to be fatuous. I’m not trying to attack that entire generation of cartoonists, but one thing that the second generation brought to the medium was a coherent conception of what constitutes seriousness — which doesn’t always necessarily make for good work, but it’s hard to think that much work could be good without that consideration, either.
SETH: Well, it seemed to be the next step, I felt, in cartooning. You had a period, like with underground cartoonists, where they went through the whole taboo-breaking phase, and also attempting to show that comics could cover a wide range of material. But nobody really had any concrete literary aspirations. I think it took a little while, even in the first part of the early-’80s, for cartoonists to come around to the idea that perhaps longer stories and more challenging content was acceptable. But it seems like it’s the next step. As comics move forward, that’s really the areas that can be pursued; not coming up with new gimmicks or clever characters, or not finding flashier ways to tell the story so much, as to try and actually infuse it with some content.
GROTH: That generally sounds like a pretty accurate historical assessment.
SETH: Although I’m a little worried at the moment. I really felt a couple of years ago that this was obvious to everyone working in the alternative market. But I’ve felt in the last couple of years that there’s a bit of a swing back with the next generation of cartoonists towards this concept of, “Fuck that boring shit! Comics are supposed to be fun!” Sort of a return to this idea that you don’t want to get overly pretentious. Maybe it’s a bit of a reaction to all of this autobiography.
GROTH: Could you name names? Who are you referring to?
SETH: I guess I’m thinking mostly of the minicomics movement. But I suppose I could certainly throw Terry LaBan in there as one example. He’s sort of an older guy who I feel has made a rather contrived decision to move back to an underground sensibility. But in the minicomics movement, or in the younger guys, I’m not sure if I can put a finger on it, but I guess I could point a finger to Jeff Levine and his discussions in Destroy All Comics. But I don’t know if personally I could say Jeff wants to do that with his own work. There does seem a climate of that attitude prevalent in the minicomics community and, perhaps this is unfair, but I seemed to sense it in Jeff’s magazine. But Terry LaBan: I thought that was a mistake on his part, if I can be that presumptuous, because I know he wasn’t getting the sales with Unsupervised Existence, but I thought he was heading in a good direction. And I enjoyed that more than I enjoy Cud.
THE PEANUTS WORLD
GROTH: I know that Charles Schulz was a big influence on your cartooning aspirations. When did you start reading him?
SETH: Oh, Charles Schulz, yeah. Well that goes back to the very beginning. Schulz would probably be my very first interest in cartooning.
GROTH: How young would you have been?
SETH: As young as I can remember. As young as I can recall I can remember being interested in the Peanuts world. Not so specifically Charles Schulz. I’m not sure if it came through the TV specials first or through the daily strips. But it’s a pretty formative influence. I can remember sometime in grade six or seven, I was doing my own Peanuts strips at that time. And getting my Dad to mimeograph them. And making little booklets and passing them out at school and stuff. It was always a big influence. Probably through my teen years it was a submerged influence. I still read the collections, and the new strips, but I didn’t think about it in the same sense any more. But in the long run I’ve returned to it again. I think at some point — this is off on a tangent — but I think that artists have some sort of drawing style that they just naturally gravitate towards, and for me it’s always been a very cartoony kind of approach. And during my teen years I fought against that to try and draw in that sort or superhero style. I kind of lost touch with that cartoony approach. It wasn’t until art school when other people recognized that my artwork was still cartoony, no matter how hard I’d tried to rid it of that quality, that I started to make that full circle return to appreciating that kind of simple cartooning again. And that’s when I started openly looking at Schulz again more consciously.
GROTH: Can you tell me what it was about Schulz’s work that you think had such a profound effect on you?
SETH: I think that a lot of the appeal of Peanuts is that the work really does have, to use your words, a profound quality. He’s managed to capture, with these really simple characters and very few continuities, some sort of deep feeling for the human condition. I don’t want to make it sound too grandiose or anything, I mean you read Peanuts and you laugh, but there is something underlying it all that’s much deeper than almost any other gag strip that’s ever come along. And somehow he’s managed to tread on some very dicey areas and put it across so subtly that it raises him above the other cartoonists. The way faith, for example, enters into the strips, occasionally heavy-handed, but so often it’s handled so naturally and so well that it just adds a layer to the work without being self-conscious. It probably has to do with the fact that I have a feeling that Schulz somehow or other has the ability to put his own personality into those characters. It’s almost impossible for me to express how meaningful those Peanuts characters are to me. I’ve read and re-read those strips hundreds of times — in fact, I’m so familiar with those strips that Joe Matt and I used to play this phone game. We’d pull out a Peanuts collection, and then one of us would read out the first panel of a strip… and the other one would have to remember the rest of the strip. We were pretty good at it, too.
That familiarity with Peanuts—I’m sure that with almost everything I do with comics, Peanuts is in there somewhere.
A DIFFERENT THING ENTIRELY
GROTH: Could you trace your interest in comics from whatever it was when you were enamored of Kirby to the kind of seriousness you’re trying to apply to them now? Not only your interest in comics, but the changes in your life that moved you from what may have been a dilettante-ish interest in comics to a deep and abiding interest in the form.
SETH: That’s a long question… [Groth laughs.] Well, to begin with, of course my first interest in cartooning probably just came from the kind of interest that anyone has with it at a young age, through newspaper strips and such, where you’re amused by them. As I’ve noted, I always had a long-standing interest in Peanuts. I think perhaps the fact that, from a very early age I enjoyed drawing. That probably attracts you to comics quicker than the average person. It makes it a bit more of a personal connection because you see this stuff and in some way you relate to the medium, because they’re simpler drawings. And as a kid, maybe you can’t emulate it, but it’s something that you can easily practice on your own.
Then of course, you move into the comic books. The comic books I consider to be a different thing entirely. Because whereas I was certainly drawn to the comics to some degree because of wanting to draw as a child, I think the real thing that sucks you into those mainstream comic books is the adventure and the power fantasy. I read comics at the typical young age, and for some reason I didn’t give them too much thought until two specific incidents: One of them was discovering some of Kirby’s early X-Men when I was about 8. They had a real potent appeal to me for some reason, on a not-easily described level. I was just drawn to them in the way that you’re drawn to certain iconic things as a child. I couldn’t have boiled it down to the stories being particularly good or that they were drawn better than other comics. I wasn’t thinking about it like that. I was just attracted to those X-Men in a way I hadn’t been to comics I’d previously read. The other thing was that I was watching a lot of that Spider-Man TV show at this point, and that sort of sparked an interest along that power fantasy level again, to start seeking out comic books.
So these two things together kind of got me buying comics. And Marvel comic books [in particular] because of both of those connections. Once I got on to that… Those comic books act like a drug practically. It probably took me about six months to go from buying a couple of comic books a week, to buying every single comic book Marvel put out. And that lasted for at least 10 years I’d say. Probably from age 8 to 18.
During that time, I seriously doubt I gave too much thought to what the appeal of these were. It just seeps in on some subconscious level, and you become so absorbed with that world, that I think that’s where you start deciding — at least for myself, that’s when I made a very concrete choice that I wanted to be a comic-book artist. I wanted to draw these power fantasies… Actually I don’t think I ever wanted to work for Marvel. I had illusions of starting my own superhero company. But the funny thing is how powerfully all inclusive those comics are. Because during that period, I was still reading other kinds of cartooning. I was picking up Heavy Metal, and I would see the occasional underground comic book and I’d buy it. But somehow or other, that stuff was always relegated to a separate category. Like the Peanuts books, or Mad magazine or other things: these were cartooning, and I enjoyed them, but I didn’t put them in the same world. The world of comics was the world of Marvel comics. So it was very clear in my mind what I was going to do, that I was going to do this for a career. Without giving it that real level of critical thought. Here’s a funny thing; I was very consciously ashamed of it. During my whole teen years, I kept it a big secret that I read these comics. Because, as an unpopular kid, you just knew this was no way to become more popular. It was a step down. Somehow or other — I haven’t given it too much thought really — but I suppose that if you know you’re ashamed of them, you know they’re inferior somehow. Because you wouldn’t be ashamed of something that you knew you could hold up to other people and expect a good response from.
GROTH: Why were you an unpopular kid?
SETH: Well, that was a question I certainly asked plenty of times back then. [Groth laughs.] I’m not really sure. I think a lot of it has to do with how quickly you learn the right social skills to fit in. I feel that some time in my 20s I learned the right social skills, or finally got them down pat. But up until that point, I’d done a poor job of it. I think if you learn them late — certainly because I grew up in small communities — you get pegged into certain categories. I think almost from kindergarten on, I didn’t integrate well with the other kids. I didn’t know how to socialize properly. I think I was sometimes so self-absorbed, that I wasn’t taking into consideration other people’s feelings. I just don’t think I was very good at conversing with the other kids properly. By the time I started to really make serious efforts to change this, like in high school, it was just too late. [Groth laughs.] The pecking order was well established. It took going away to another city to straighten it out. I think that probably pushed me further into the comic-book world because that fantasy world really plays on those kinds of feelings that you have as an adolescent. You identify so well with those superhero characters. It really wasn’t until I got into art school that I think my attitude started to change. The funny thing is, I feel like these comic books always had a special category in my brain, for where they fit. Even during high school, when I was reading a wide variety of different types of books — I was reading some junk, like some bad science fiction crap, but I was also reading good books at the same time, too. And I would enjoy a good book. Like, say, if I read 1984 or something, I could recognize that that was a good book and it was powerful. I wasn’t really applying any real critical faculties to decide why it was a good book, but it would have an effect on it. Yet I would never compare it to the comic books I was reading. I would never think, “That was a really good book, and these comic books don’t hold up in comparison to it.” I think it was only when I got into my 20s that I started to feel that gap between the stuff I had grown up wanting to emulate, and then realizing that it really wasn’t that good, and becoming disenchanted. That came about during art school. I don’t really feel that it was simply the influence of meeting a smarter group of people that wised me up or anything. It’s just that at some point, I came to a realization — and I had stopped reading them for a couple of years at this point — that I didn’t want to do this stuff any more. But I still wanted to be a cartoonist. So now I just didn’t have a clue what I was going to do any more.
GROTH: That would have been around ’84.
SETH: Yeah, I guess something like that, probably a little earlier.
GROTH: Kirby drew the X-Men sometime around ’64 or ’65. You were born around ’63, so you must’ve read Kirby’s stuff in reprints?
SETH: Oh yeah. All the Kirby I saw growing up were either old comics or reprints or his ’70s titles. Yeah, those X-Men comics I found were the actual comics from that period, but this was at a summer camp, where I came across those. They were sitting in a giant box of comic books that they had sitting there for kids to read. If I actually read any Kirby when I was really little, it slipped right out of my mind.
GROTH: So you experienced that stuff eons after it had originally come out?
SETH: Yeah, my real interest and love of Kirby grew through the massive amount of reprinting they did! Marvel during the ’70s — which I was really please about, in retrospect.
GROTH: [Laughs.] Right. One of the few no things they did it in the ’70s.
SETH: [Laughs.] Exactly. Because if you look at the other stuff they published in the ’70s, it was all bad.
GROTH: It’s interesting because my recollection is that in the ’70s at Marvel, there were all these supposedly hot, progressive creators working on the books. People like Don McGregor. I pretty much saw through that at the time, but retrospect it’s really embarrassing just how awful…
SETH: It does not hold up at all. The funny thing is, people talk about the pretentiousness of serious aspirations in comics, but I don’t think there’s anything more pretentious than when they tried to apply those serious aspirations to superhero characters. That was really embarrassing.
GROTH: Yeah, it becomes obvious to anybody but a lunkhead.
SETH: [Laughs.] I know. It’s funny too because when you look at that stuff later in life, you realize… I don’t know, there’s something a little too embarrassing and personal coming out of the creators for me. It’s kind of too earnest, or something. Like all that Denny O’Neil stuff, and those Spider-Man drug issues. There’s a quality of a poor second-hand experience.
GROTH: Yeah. Speciously trying to inject relevance into a grossly unrealistic context.