GROTH: Your family was not particularly artistically inclined or heavily into reading?
GROTH: Was it a working-class family?
SETH: Yeah, very working-class. I’d say lower working-class, actually. If anything, we probably went from working-class to lower working-class through my childhood. We’d be kind of moving a step down all the time. But, it’s hard to say. Actually my rather moved up from being a mechanic in my early childhood, to teaching auto mechanics in school. But somehow or other, our personal standard of living at home kept dropping all the time.
GROTH: It seems almost commonplace that so many cartoonists come from families who are not very bookish, and who are either quintessentially middle-class or even lower on the economic scale, and that the cartoonist himself turns out to have been kind of an oddball social misfit.
SETH: [Laughs.] Yeah, it’s a pretty clear stereotype.
GROTH: I often wonder what that means to the art form. I seems like it would give a certain amount of personality and relevance to what the artist is doing, but it also seems like it could be a limitation where these highly idiosyncratic neuroses are analyzed endlessly.
SETH: It’s certainly true. I think that’s a cliché that’s very prevalent in comics, at the moment at least. But I’m wondering, in the grand scheme of things, in the art world for example, I wonder if there’s a different demographic there. Or among writers. Did more writers come from more the upper-middle-class? Or more literary backgrounds, I wonder? Hmm, I would imagine many writers would.
GROTH: I would certainly think so, yeah.
SETH: Many of them are university educated. But there could be a tie to the graphics field too. Because I don’t think an awful lot of painters particularly come from the upper-middle, upper classes. But certainly the clearest thing would be, if you were from a very well-read family, not too many comic books would be thrust into your hands.
GROTH: [Laughs.] No. More like thrust out.
SETH: [Laughs.] Exactly.
GROTH: You discovered Marvel and Kirby as a teenager; how did your interest in comics evolve and broaden between the time you’d outgrown Marvel and your rejuvenated interest on seeing Love and Rockets?
SETH: There is a gap there. But it’s not filled with any interesting cartooning, actually. I stopped reading Marvel Comics, I guess, just before I went to art school. And that meant all comics, basically, since at that point I was only reading really pretty generally mainstream stuff— Marvel, Heavy Metal, things like that.
In art school, I decided to stop buying them because I kind of lost interest and also wanted to save money. So I wasn’t reading any comic books for a couple of years there. But I was still kind of churning out some pretty bad comics on my own, just for my own pleasure. Which I’d always been doing anyway. Sometime — I think in second year of OCA, maybe; or maybe it was a little later, maybe it was in third year, something like that — I saw an ad for Vortex Comics asking people to contribute work. So I took a big stack of this crummy cartooning I’d been doing and went up to their offices. And the guy who was in charge there at that point was Ken Steacy.
GROTH: This was in the same city you live in [Toronto]?
SETH: Yeah, yeah. This was just a few blocks from my art school, actually. I’d never heard of Vortex comics, and actually maybe somebody else told me about this because I can’t imagine what I’d be doing looking for an ad anyway.
GROTH: I was going to ask you where you would see such an ad.
SETH: It could have even just been on the bulletin board at the art school, I’m not sure. But somehow or other, I got myself up there. And I was talking to Ken, and he was looking through my stuff, and he was being pretty kind, I would say [laughter]. You can imagine what crap was in that pile. I don’t think he had any interest in anything, but he wanted to encourage me. So he took me over to the local comic shop and he pretty much forced me to buy the third issue of Love and Rockets. So I went home, and I read that. Actually, I only read Jaime’s stuff, initially. Because I was attracted to the surface style of it. Took me a few months before I actually sat down and read the first installment of “Heartbreak Soup,” and it wasn’t too long after that that I was more interested in Gilbert than Jaime. But, I followed Love and Rockets for a couple of years, I think, without really buying anything else.
Yes, for about a year or so Love and Rockets was pretty much all I read in comics. During that year, 1 went into a comics shop and asked the owner if there was anything else like it. And I’ve never really forgiven him for this: he made me buy 12 issues of American Flagg! [laughter]. It was a big mistake. I could barely get through them, and I was so disappointed. I remember thinking, “I guess there isn’t anything like Love and Rockets” That probably kept me away from buying any more comics for that year. But eventually I started to discover a few other things, like Weirdo, and Raw, and Pekar and Yummy. From that point on, I started to branch out into alternative comics. And I was buying a wide variety of just about any kind of alternative comics being published at that point. A lot of mistaken purchases, trying to figure things out, and at that point I started to pickup old undergrounds kind of randomly, too. I would pick up anything and read it and see if it was any good. I can remember very distinctly one day buying Binky Brown Meets the Virgin Mary and another underground comic called Rock and Roll Comics at the same time. And they couldn’t have been more different. Binky Brown was really interesting and I thought really bizarre and unnerving to me at the time. And this rock and roll comic was the worst piece of dreck. But I just didn’t have a clue at this point. I was exploring… I think it was around this time when I ended up working on Mr. X. When I was just sort of feeling it out, and starting to get a handle on what was going on in the early ’80s.
GROTH: Can you define what it was about Love and Rockets you liked that you didn’t find in American Flagg!?
SETH: Well… I guess the first thing — it’s probably hard to nail down that specifically — but it’s probably the directness and honesty of the Hernandezes’ work. I’m sure that Howard Chaykin was very enthusiastic about turning out American Flagg!, but 1 think probably all those years of working in professional comics… there was a surface slickness to it or something that, uh, it just wasn’t appealing to me. And I suppose on top of that it’s the genre, the whole genre layer that’s on it. When Jaime dealt with superhero stuff there wasn’t that sense of earnestness to it. I mean with American Flagg! it was very straightforward and earnestly a science fiction story. And let’s face it, American Flagg! was just plain awful and boring. With Jaime’s stuff there was irony to it, a playfulness, and it was a perfect bridging kind of work, too, for somebody who was really used to Marvel superhero stuff to come to this middle ground where there was someone who seemed to have an affection for it but was pushing that affection in really unusual directions. So it was not shutting me out, like it was some sort of pretentious highbrow stuff or something. And I suppose, also it tied in very highly with that early-’80s sort of punk culture that I was involved in. Like an identification factor.
GROTH: You were involved in that?
SETH: Oh yeah. Around this point I would already have been hanging out at a lot of punk nightclubs and stuff. And starting to align myself very heavily with that sort of youth movement. In a really adolescent way, I glommed onto that surface appeal of Love and Rockets, that it was these little punk girls and there was that sort of punk culture going on.
GROTH: It was recognizable to you.
SETH: Oh yes, and kind of escapist in some way, too. I don’t want to denigrate Jaime’s work, like that’s what he was aiming for, but certainly that’s part of the appeal it had for me. And those girls of his were very cute.
GROTH: Were you simpatico with Weirdo?
SETH: I think I started on Weirdo around issue #3 or #4. I think I was drawn in by the fact that Crumb’s work was just so fantastic in it. I can remember looking at the cover to #4 which is of Jesus with all those faces around him. I studied that for about six months straight. It was a beautiful piece of work. I still don’t think I was properly analyzing things. I was still very immature in how I was looking at this stuff. But I can remember enjoying it without giving it a lot of thought. It was around the Peter Bagge issues of Weirdo that I really got into it. It’s funny when I look back now because the actual approach of all that stuff (not counting Crumb, or the occasional piece by other artists), it doesn’t hold much interest for me any more. During that period I loved it; it just seemed completely entertaining. Everything about it was very appealing to me. But now when I see Weirdo in its long run, it was obviously the last few issues that were the best issues. Those issues by Aline seem most interested in narrative… and longer pieces.
GROTH: What do you mean by its “approach” in the earlier Weirdos?
SETH: Sort of smart-ass, short strips, which were basically, I guess, counter-cultural in saying “Fuck you!” to society. Or taboo-breaking, gross-out stuff. But I was going through my nightclub drug punk scene at that time, too, so it probably tied in pretty well with my world philosophy.
GROTH: And it also seems like a reaction to the Reagan years.
SETH: Yeah. Although I don’t think I would have given that too much thought up here in Canada at that point. I wasn’t very political in the mid-’80s.
GROTH: Are you more so now?
SETH: I wouldn’t say I’m an overly political person, although I usually know what’s going on in a surface way. I can get interested if the right writer is writing about it. I read several of Chomsky’s books recently and found them enlightening and disturbing. I guess I’m more interested generally in social issues rather than… I guess I sort of divide it into a couple of categories. I would say that I’d be much more concerned about what’s going on as a social trend in society than I would be particularly interested about which political parties are leading us, or in particular ideologies.
I should qualify that. I am interested in political parties. I’m interested in watching them screw everything up. For example, I’m very interested in watching the government of Ontario as they systematically disassemble our social system and wage a war against our poor people. I guess I’m interested in the political parties, I just wouldn’t align myself with any of them.