GROTH: There’s a pretty radical transformation between your first and last Mr. X. Where if looks like, and I’m just guessing, you were influenced by European cartoonists. You were definitely trying to pare down the style and economize it.
SETH: Somewhere in there, I’m not sure exactly when during the run, I really started to look at Hergé again. And Yves Chaland. The big two influences during that period.
GROTH: Right. I can see Chaland.
SETH: That’s also during that period I first started to try and figure out how to use a brush. Not too successfully, either. Those issues, they’re a mess. [Groth laughs.] Actually, it gets worse at the end of the run. A couple of issues before the end, I’d say it’s about at its peak, and then it declines where I’m trying to get the brush right.
GROTH: I see. Did you care much about the story of Mr. X insofar as you didn’t write it?
SETH: No, I didn’t. Although at first I was enthusiastic. I’d read the Mr. X stuff by Jaime and Gilbert. And I was a big fan of it, actually. A lot bigger fan of it then than I would be now. Now it’s pretty clear to me that that was real lesser work by them. But at the tune, I was really enthused by the whole concept. All that early 20th century design that the book was based on was really thrilling to me. And the fact that he was a drug user was something that I thought was real radical and subversive at the time. Although I don’t know why now. But I remember thinking the whole thing was quite radical and interesting. That shows you the level of my thinking at that time. So when I did get on the project I was excited to be working on it. But by the time I got off the project, no, I was very disinterested.
GROTH: What happened? Why did you stop drawing it?
SETH: Now if I can put it together properly. Bill and I started out as friends. That was probably a mistake in some ways, too. Because I think our friendship helped destroy working on the comic book. You see, we started out as friends, but we weren’t friends near the end. So the business part of it got messed up also. Just from that relationship. Bill never screwed me around in business or anything, but by the end of the book we were no longer friends at all. So there was a lot of tension there. And basically, I’m not sure exactly when, but sometime while working on Mr. X I really started to see that there were better projects out there. And I knew I wasn’t working on one of the best ones.
And I also knew that this whole writer/artist system wasn’t very interesting to me. Now it’s not like I wanted to take over and start writing Mr. X, because by then, I had realized this kind of genre writing was pretty limited. So I knew I wanted to do my own work, but I still had to figure out how I could possibly do it financially. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I was thinking that maybe I could do two books. But that seemed pretty unlikely. I could barely get Mr. X done. So it got to a point near the end of Mr. X where the working situation was pretty… well, it was going to be over. It was dear and simple. Bill and I were absolutely not getting along. Things that hadn’t been problems before — well, they’s been problems, say, something like the amount of time it was taking me to do an issue — suddenly were becoming good excuses to get rid of me. So it got to a point where it was going to be a showdown. So in short, what happened was Bill and I got together, he fired me, and I quit. It was kind of an unpleasant situation. I don’t really enjoy confrontation too much. It’s not one of my fond memories, but by that time I’d pretty much built up the idea that I was going to start working on illustration as a way to pay the bills so that I could go do my own book on the side. It pretty much worked out as perfect timing anyway. I had to get out of there. I was just sort of using it as a financial, I don’t know, grace period or something. Something to keep me going until I figured out what I was doing.
GROTH: What kind of conflict did you have with Marks?
SETH: It was a personality conflict. Our personalities just didn’t get along in the long-term. It started out fine, but pretty soon we just got tired of each other. And it seemed like after a certain point we couldn’t stand each other’s company. And we’d have to be in each other’s company a lot.
GROTH: Why would you have to be in each other’s company a lot?
SETH: Well, thinking back, I made a decision to start doing my work at the Vortex studio.
SETH: Which was a mistake. And that was a big part of why we ceased to be friends, too. I figured I would get more work done if I had somewhere to go every day. So I would go in and work in the studio. And we would go to conventions together, or… I remember we went to England a couple of times together. It seemed like we ended up doing a lot of things connected to Mr. X together. And ultimately it didn’t work out too well. I think we went through a period where we would tolerate each other, and then a period came along where we would just try to avoid each other. Which was difficult. Our personalities grated on each other… and we’d established an unfortunate paternalistic relationship in which Bill, the publisher, had to take care of the “irresponsible artist.” I’m as much at fault as Bill in letting that happen — but it became a real bone of contention between us. Let’s just say that we did not respect each other.
I can’t recall at this point in time how this decline came about, what the specific incidents were or anything. I mostly just remember the unpleasant feelings.
GROTH: Clearly you were following in the tradition of the Henandez Brothers. [Laughter.]
SETH: They were much further away.
GROTH: Jaime and Gilbert had similar difficulties. When Jaime and I were in Lucca, Italy for the convention there, Bill Marks joined us, and we spent four or five days with Bill.
SETH: Would this be during a good period while they were still working on the book? Or was it after that?
GROTH: Well, I’m not entirely… it had to be either after they were working on it, or at the very tail end. It’s starting to come back to me: Marks must’ve owed Jaime money because I remember Jaime being pretty annoyed that he was owed money by someone who could afford to fly to Italy.
SETH: Yeah, I can imagine.
GROTH: I think Bill met us as we arrived at the airport. I think Jaime told him when we were getting there and he met us at the airport and ingratiated himself into Jaime’s room.
SETH: [Laughs.] Oh my God.
GROTH: Because he didn’t have any place to stay.
SETH: What nerve. He showed up there with no plan on where he was going to stay?
GROTH: No, I think he had a plan: to stay in Jaime’s room. I think somehow he wheedled enough money out of the Canadian government to get flown to ltaly, but couldn’t get enough money for lodging and didn’t have the money himself to rent a room. He knew Jaime had a room, and he may have talked Jaime into letting him stay in his room earlier. But, the next thing Jaime knew Bill was living on his couch in his hotel room.
SETH: Bizarre. Although that doesn’t really surprise me, I must admit.
GROTH: That created more tension. Then he would mooch our meal tickets off of us, because the convention gave us a certain number of meal tickets that we could use at certain restaurants, and which were carefully allotted per day. Bill’s scam was to find out if we’d used our allotment and if we hadn’t he could take those we hadn’t used. So every day he would always be cadging these meal tickets from us. And just generally driving both of us, but probably especially Jaime, crazy. [Laughter.]
SETH: It’s funny, you know. At that point, that’s probably all very genuine from Bill. He has an odd personality. I think in the beginning, he didn’t realize how rude he was. But as time went on, as he developed this reputation, he actually started to play on it.
GROTH: Yes, right. He did. I remember that.
SETH: Strange. This would be early enough that he was probably just rude and didn’t know it.
GROTH: But then rudeness became part of his professional persona.
SETH: Yeah, yeah. Strange choice. But I guess he figured he was never going to deflate that reputation, so he might as well go with it. Wasn’t a wise move, I don’t think.
GROTH: The Ziegfield of comics.
SETH: [Laughs.] Yeah, yeah.
I mean, Dave Sim might have appreciated it, but don’t know a lot of other people who did.
GROTH: Right. Especially if you were a publisher. One of the things it seemed to me was that Mr. X was a good training ground, because it seemed like you enhanced your compositional ability and developed your technique through the run.
SETH: It was. It was a very good apprentice system sort of thing. Time to work out my drawings. I had to draw every day. And what was also good about it is that it allowed me to get all this drawing out there without having written the stuff that I’d have to take credit for now. Stuff that I know would be very bad.
GROTH: Culpable deniability. [Seth laughs.]
Was Mr. X a full-time job?
SETH: Yeah, it was.
GROTH: I ask because you did eight issues in two-and-a-half years.
SETH: Yeah, somehow or other, Bill was paying me enough that I made it through.
SETH: I know I got into debt with him, but I think I was living pretty cheaply too at the same. I had pretty much a haphazard lifestyle. Cheap apartments, and I didn’t really buy anything during this period except the occasional comic book.
GROTH: You say got into debt. Was this a sort of a sharecropper situation? [Laughs.]
SETH: Yeah, kind of. I think he was giving me a salary against what i would be making.
SETH: And I know for a fact, that at some point it definitely passed what I was making.
GROTH: Do you owe him money to this day?
SETH: Theoretically, no. [Groth laughs.] For a couple of reasons. One, in the final showdown, I think, although it’s foggy now, I gave up the rights to the work in an exchange. In sort of a handshake deal. He could do anything he wanted with that work to get back his money. Although no thing ever happened with that. I think Vortex is bankrupt now, or out of business, so I assume that cancels that debt.
GROTH: Originally, it was creator-owned, though, correct?
SETH: Um… you know…?
GROTH: You’re not sure.
SETH: I’m not sure what the arrangements were. Actually… originally Dean did own Mr. X. Dean Motter. Somewhere along the line Bill acquired the ownership of it. I’m not entirely sure how.
GROTH: [Laughs.] Funny how these things happen.
SETH: [Laughs.] Yeah. But I guess, from then on, I guess they did work-for-hire, but there were arrangements, I guess, for royalties and reprint rights, stuff like that.
THE TIME BETWEEN
GROTH: I think you stopped doing Mr. X in 1988. And Palooka-Ville #1 came out in ’91. So there are roughly three years between the two, and I’m curious as to where you were at that period and what you were doing, and how you had moved from your Mr. X style, your Chaland-influenced style, to what became Palooka-Ville.
SETH: All that time was spent doing commercial illustration. And working slightly on comics. I would churn out the occasional little piece of comics work. A one- or two-pager. And always through that whole period my plan was to do a comic. But for the first couple of years of illustration I had to work pretty hard to get a career going. So I was working a lot, and naturally the comics went on the back burner. Sometime in that third year of illustration I started working on the first issue of Palooka-Ville. I think what I was doing at that point was taking a month off every six months from illustration just to work on the comic. And I guess during the time while I was working on that first issue I came into contact with Chris Oliveros. And that kind of gave me the push to get it done. If I’d kept going at that rate, I never would have gotten anything done. By having it published, I was forcing myself to follow a schedule, to really get the work done.
GROTH: Throughout that two or three years, were you consciously hammering out a visual approach? Because the first issue of Palooka-ville is radically different from the last issue of Mr. X.
SETH: Yeah, definitely, it was right around the end of Mr. X, when I first started discovering the old New Yorker artists. And that had a really big influence on me. That opened up a whole floodgate of interests in past cartoonists in a way that I hadn’t had before. During this period I’d been slowly getting more acquainted with the history of cartooning. Picking up, I don’t know, Bill Blackbeard’s collection of Smithsonian comics, I was sort of filling in the gaps. But around the end of Mr. X I got much more interested in the cartoonists of the past. And from there on in, I’ve pretty much obsessed with collecting and studying any kind of old cartooning. Y’know, there is an extremely wide range of old-time cartooning out there to study — newspaper strips, gag-cartoons, comic books, children’s books. I think that these things have been separated off into their own little categories and people tend to be only interested in one area or the other… but if you look at it as one continuous, unified world of cartooning — well, there’s just an incredible amount of riches available to immerse yourself in and learn from.
But yeah, a big influence on my style, definitely, was the New Yorker cartoonists of the ’30s and ’40s.
GROTH: Was there a moment where you had an epiphany of sorts, where you said, this is it, this is what I’ve been looking for?
SETH: No, it was never that clear-cut. Somehow or other there was a pretty easy segue between someone like Chaland and someone like Peter Arno. It was like I just stepped into another field of study. My art style has evolved bit by bit, learning something here and there and eventually synthesizing into what it is today. It’s an ongoing process. I suppose you know Maurice Vellekoop’s work?
SETH: He was a friend of mine around this period. And whereas his work didn’t look like it does now — it was a lot more hard-edged, a bit rattier, I suppose — there was that retro angle to it that I think really impressed me. He’s got a real natural drawing ability that was always very impressive. I knew him in art school, also. I think in two areas his work had an effect on me. One, that visually he was approaching things in a very simple way, and that appealed very much to me. That was an influence on me, definitely. And the other is, during this period, he’d done a lot of comic strips that nobody’s really seen, except a few people here in Toronto, that were about incredibly small subject matter. One page, big full-color strips, that he might show in a gallery, of something like a woman waiting for a phone to ring, and it doesn’t ring. Something very simple. But they were very well-done. And this was… I think this was very influential to me, in the idea of breaking down the whole narrative structure of what comics should be about. This and a lot of other stuff I was looking at, but I remember Maurice definitely had an effect in that interim period.
GROTH: I thought he looked very New Yorker-ish inspired also.
SETH: Yeah. I didn’t realize that at the time, though. Because he never talked about the New Yorker. And it was only after I discovered the New Yorker artists on my own did I make a connection there.
GROTH: Why did you choose autobiography as your made of choice?
SETH: A lot of that comes down to Lynda Barry, actually. More than someone like Harvey Pekar. Even though I really liked Harvey Pekar’s work, it was Lynda Barry’s stuff that most impressed me at the time. And I just assumed it was all autobiographical. Later I pretty much found out that most of it’s fictional. But at the time it had a such a ring of truth to it. Chester Brown and I were good friends by this point, and I would be talking to him about Lynda Barry all the time. I was very excited about what she was doing narratively. And I think that’s what really pushed me on the idea… I was very firm at that point, I had decided that “autobiography is the way for cartoonists to go.” Because it is the clearest way to get a narrative that’s avoiding all the stink of mainstream comics, of melodrama.
GROTH: A reaction against.
SETH: I don’t think at the time I knew how reactionary it was. But I can see clearly now that it was very much a reaction against all the fantasy and genre stuff that has been done in comics endlessly.
GROTH: It was always my impression, and correct me if I’m wrong, that it was Chester’s book that was the first book that Chris lined up.
SETH: No, no. Yummy Fur?
SETH: Well, I guess his first comic, well. Drawn & Quarterly the magazine came first.
GROTH: Right. I was referring to creator-owned titles.
SETH: Then Julie [Doucet]. Then me. And then Chester.
GROTH: I see. Well, how did you hook up with Chris?
SETH: Well, Chris was still fairly new to the field of comics. I think the only thing he was publishing at this point was Drawn & Quarterly and maybe the first issue of Dirty Plotte had just come out.
GROTH: So he was not yet the bitter old man he’s become. [Laughter.]
SETH: No, definitely not. Still very fresh and naive.
He was sending out letters and phoning all kinds of illustrators. He didn’t know my work as a cartoonist. He’d never seen Mr. X or anything. He only knew me through magazines that he’d seen my illustrations in. And I think people who he thought had a nice visual style he was calling them up to see if they’d like to do something for Drawn & Quarterly the magazine. So when I got his letter, I already knew the magazine and I liked it enough at that point that I was anxious to do something for it. I did a two-page color story for him. Which he liked. Then he came to town very shortly after that, and when we met for dinner, I told him I was working on a comic book, he hadn’t known this, and very quickly, pretty much within the next hour he agreed to publish it, without even having seen it.
GROTH: So he literally tracked you down.
SETH: Yeah. Actually through magazines, not through comics.
GROTH: Does he continue to try to find cartoonists in this way?
SETH: I think less than he used to. I think he’s realized now that an artist with a good visual style doesn’t mean that they can write. And I think he went through a few trial and errors with different people and came to the conclusion that you gotta see the whole package first.
THE LEARNING PROCESS
GROTH: There seems to me to be a very clear progression between the first issue, which was one story, and the second and third issues, which is also a single story, and then your magnum opus, It’s a Good Life. Where it seems like with each story you were getting more chops and developing more facility and becoming more sure of yourself.
SETH: Yeah, that’s absolutely true. I look back on those comics and it’s very dear with each step that there’s a learning process going on. I think the first issue was really the first extended narrative I’d ever written. Not counting fooling around here and there. And that first issue is a classic mistake of autobiography, that being you take an anecdote from your life that you think is amusing or interesting, something that you’ve told as a story many times, and you turn it into a comic story. I couldn’t see it at the time, but mere’s a lot of surface stuff in there where I’m kind of regurgitating other autobiographical stuff I’d read: Little arrows pointing to things with snide comments, self-deprecating humor. I figured out, probably by the fourth issue, that what most likely works best for an autobiographical story are things that are less tangible, something that you don’t usually sit down and tell as an anecdote to someone else. And that’s why when I look at that first issue, it seems pretty empty to me. It’s just a little meaningless event that happened to me, and there’s not really a great reason to be telling that story.
GROTH: Almost Denny Eichhorn-esque.
SETH: Yeah. Probably my biggest complaint with autobiography, that sort of approach.
GROTH: What prompted you to use tones very first issue?
SETH: Since I had been working in illustration for three years, I had gotten pretty used to using color in my artwork as a method to differentiate between foreground and background, and keep it from being totally flat. And I started to use gray tones whenever I’d have to do black-and-white illustrations for the same reason. So when I started doing the comic, I wanted to use the approach. I actually didn’t think you could just use the same overlay system for grays that I was using in my illustrations. I thought I’d have to lay down Zip-a-Tone. And for the first couple of pages I did put down Zip-a-Tone, until Chris Oliveros told me that I could do it the way I’d been previously doing it. So I just tore the Zip-a Tone up. Using gray was a device that I felt I needed to keep the artwork interesting and not have it seem too empty, too much white space.
GROTH: It gives the pictures a certain rootedness without which the drawings would tend to float off the page.
SETH: I’m trying to punch it up a bit more with blacks. With each issue as I go along I get that a bit more into the artwork, but the cartoony figures don’t entirely hold a realistic lighting system. So the grays really work as kind of a compromise between the two. To allow it to have a shadowing effect, without the figures having to be too firmly three-dimensional.
GROTH: One thing that occurred to me just now is that the New Yorker-inspired style that you decided on is most inappropriate for this first story which required a lot of tactility: being punched out and so on.
SETH: Yes, actually, I can remember while working on the first issue of Palooka-Ville, being really unsure whether or not the cartoony style would, in the long run, be effective for trying to tell more serious stories. Since then I’ve pretty much put aside that concern. I’ve gotten used to the idea. And in fact I now believe a cartoon approach is probably the best, actually. But different types of stylization can definitely hold you back from reaching the reader. I’ve just gotten used to the cartoony approach and I assume now that the readers will accept the drawing style without giving it much thought.
GROTH: I was going to ask you about that later, but I might as well as bring it up now. I was wondering if you thought that style might be somewhat limiting. There were a couple of instances in the book where I thought the style was problematic, and one of them was when the Seth character kissed Ruthie, which seemed to me to lack the tactile quality that’s important in communicating the physicality of a kiss.
SETH: Well, it is difficult sometimes. I mean, I’m very used to how I draw. But there is a struggle there between reality and stylization. There are times when I realize that there are things you would like to capture, but it’s just not possible. Maybe it would be possible in another style, I’m not sure. Look at film, for example. There’s an ability to capture a certain sense of reality that no matter how much you struggle in comics you can’t get. Like, I just saw Secrets and Lies, Mike Leigh’s new film. Have you seen this yet?
GROTH: No, I haven’t.
SETH: Well, I won’t say much. There are different classes of people within the film. And their various apartments have extremely different feelings to them. It goes beyond the objects in them. You can’t really capture the quality of a squalid room very well in comics, I think. That true quality of it. There’s something about how the rust sits around the edge of a faucet that no matter how detailed the artwork gets never really captures that, and as you get more stylized, the more difficult it gets to get those sort of things.
GROTH: Have you seen Ladybird Ladybird?
SETH: No, I haven’t.
GROTH: It was brutally, intensely naturalistic. And I think it would be very, very difficult to do in a comic. It’s a point of view that you would have to get by indirect methods.
SETH: I think that’s true.
GROTH: Context is so important. I think your style works so well throughout the story that it really doesn’t matter that there are occasional moments when it jars a bit.
SETH: It’s always a struggle. I think there’s a certain kind of cartooning shorthand that cartoonists definitely rely on to make people dredge up an image of the real thing.
GROTH: And the reader has to acknowledge that. It’s like a stage play. You can’t sit there and be aware of the proscenium arch.
SETH: Definitely. I think comics do relate better to plays than they do film.
GROTH: In a way, I do, too. Even though they’re most often compared to film.
SETH: Yeah. You can see why.
GROTH: In your second story, in issues #2 and#3, “Beaches,” it looked like you were definitely on more certain ground.
SETH: I think I was for the first part of it. I look back on that story, the first part of that story and I feel like I was kind of going in a good direction. Unfortunately, I didn’t know well enough at that time what I was doing. It was a bit of a reaction against the first issue, in that I looked at the first issue and I could see that I now wanted to pace something slower and try and really work at building up atmosphere. So the first part of the story, I let it flow at a very natural pace. I let it fill as many pages as it required. But by the time I had gotten to the second part, I had determined it was going to be a two-part story, which wasn’t too smart I don’t think. So then I had to cram. If I was going to re-do that story now, I probably would have stretched that out another three issues or something.
GROTH: I see. Well, that’s true: the pacing in the second part is definitely accelerated.
SETH: Yeah, it’s a lot denser than what I would… I look at it now, and I can see it doesn’t work. I did a lot of chopping and editing of certain things that I had initially planned to put in but that didn’t make it, and certain scenes certainly could have been handled a lot better. But that’s what led me into the approach for die latest story.
SETH: Basically that was the theme of the story, I suppose. I’ve been somewhat heavy-handed at times. I think that’s my biggest disappointment when I look at my own work, is I see that what I was trying to accomplish… I’m never quite happy… it’s never quite as subtle as I would like. In that scene, I wanted to get across, without directly bringing it out into the open, to try and show how these events for the last two issues, which were so important to the character, were ultimately meaningless. I suppose using that sort of flashback was my attempt to do something a touch subtler than simply having my character saying it.
GROTH: Because if struck me as a miniature metaphor for what I’d just read.
SETH: Yeah, exactly.
GROTH: And therefore not very essential.
SETH: Yeah. It could have worked somehow… yeah, if I really sat down to re-do that story, I know very little of it would resemble what it is now.
GROTH: Was this story in fact autobiographical?
SETH: Oh yeah. Yeah, that one’s pretty much entirely accurate.
GROTH: So you worked as a cook.
SETH: Yeah. Actually, I worked in restaurants, in and out of them, for probably the first four or five years of the ’80s. Maybe not quite that long. Up until whenever I worked on Mr. X.