SURPRISE AT WHAT HE'S SAYING
GROTH: With regard to It's a Good Life, which went from issues 4 to 9, did you have that entire story mapped out when you started drawing it?
SETH: Pretty much. I mean I hadn't written an entire script for it. But I did have essentially a scene by scene plan for the whole story. Not exactly sure how many issues it was going to be, but pretty sure it would be six. And it did turn out to be six.
GROTH: Let me ask you a little about the technique you used when you started to put the story together. Did you actually have every scene sketched out in screenplay form? You knew what the scenes were going to be, if you didn't know exactly what was going to be said in each one.
SETH: In a vague way, I knew what would be said during all the scenes. I knew pretty much all the scenes. But of course, as I went along, I added and subtracted scenes. But on an issue by issue basis, I tightened everything up. So when I first began the story, I wrote a fairly inclusive scene by scene of the whole story. Then I sat down and wrote a very tight script for the first part of it. Then when I hit the second part I would do the same thing. Sometimes scenes would end up being juggled, like where I had planned a scene to be in the second part might actually end up getting thrown off until the fourth part. And somewhere along the line, new things would come in that I hadn't planned on when I started the story. But I pretty much knew beginning to end what was going to happen, and the ending was planned definitely from the word go, the actual writing for the last couple of scenes. So I pretty much knew where it was going at all points. And the dialogue would be filled in issue by issue.
GROTH: Now you obviously knew this was going to be serialized in comic-book form as a periodical. Did that present problems, or did you find that to be helpful in structuring the narrative?
SETH: Yes, I think it was helpful. I think if I had sat down to write it as one long extended narrative with no chapters, I might have gotten into more trouble than I did. Because having that break between issues somehow allowed me to compartmentalize the story, it allowed me to focus in, in a tighter way, on each issue. And to see each issue as a growing experience, to try new things and to allow that break between issues so I didn't have to keep a totally sequential timeline going through the whole thing. I could sort of look at each issue as a self-contained item. And then start fresh again with the next one. I think if I had to do the whole thing as one graphic novel, I might have got a lot more confused by trying to control the largeness of the narrative.
GROTH: The periodical form served as a disciplinarian.
SETH: Yeah, exactly. And it allowed me to see them as chapters, which I quite probably wouldn't have done if someone had said, "Do me a graphic novel" — I might just have done one continuous story, the chapters allowed me to break the narrative up in away that I was ready to handle. If I had to sit down and do one long sequential piece with no breaks in between, no chapters, I think I would have had a harder time moving from scene to scene. It allowed each of the issues to somehow have an opening and some feeling of closure at the end. Whereas I might have aimed for it to be much more straight-forward, you start out with a big build-up, you have a climax, and then a denouement. But this way I could have a closure each episode.
GROTH: Do you think not having that closure would have been worse?
SETH: Yeah, yeah. I don't think I would be ready to handle that. I'm not sure if I'm even ready for it now.
GROTH: Just because it's a more grandiose task?
GROTH: You started this in '93, and you finished it...
SETH: This year.
GROTH: So that's a three-year span. Since you had groped your way to this particular visual approach, do you see any stylistic difference between the beginning of the story and the end?
SETH: Yeah, I do. When I look back at the first issue — the first issue of this story — whereas I'm happier with this story than the earlier ones, it does almost feel like a different person started the story. And besides the more obvious things of drawing changing and maybe getting a bit more sophisticated in the approach, a lot of the times I look back on the writing and the idea and it seems quite different.
GROTH: Can you give me examples or elaborate on that? In terms of the ideas, for example, how would they have been different at the beginning than toward the end?
SETH: Well, that's a tough one. Let me think. How would I exactly change that. [Pause.] It's hard to say. I don't know if I can pin it down exactly. There is definitely a growing process that goes on in your mind, in your opinions, and how you think about things, and when you read your thoughts from years ago, they seem a bit alien. I'm not sure if it's the actual way I put them down, or simply the content of them that seems different. The approach might not have changed much over the issues, since I was still interested in the mix between narration and dialogue.
GROTH: Do you think it's a matter of your having learned something throughout that three years, you'd grown and...
SETH: And constantly changing. I always feel that every few years that if I was able to hear myself speak a few years ago I'd be surprised at what I was saying.
GROTH: This is an odd question, but you're a good one to ask it of. Do you draw a strict line between writing and drawing? Because in a sense it seems to me that you're also writing with the art. Do you know what I mean?
SETH: I do know what you mean. I don't think I draw in a strict line. Because when I'm writing a story, almost always what I'm writing is dialogue. The rest of the writing is done at a different time, in a different way. I sit down and write a script for the issue, I don't have any stage directions in there of course. I just sit down and type out what one character is saying to the other, so I will just write "Chet:'' and then I'll write what he says. I'll write “Seth:” and then I'll write what I reply. And then I take that script, and I actually work out the issue from that. Because I know the dialogue and I know the scenes, and the actual pacing of the story is what I think of as the real writing. And that's done in a thumbnail stage. I think with comics it's hard to separate the two, the writing and the art. The pacing is so integral to what comics writing is.
GROTH: Well, you seem to pay special attention to pacing. The visual rhythms seem very, very important. Almost akin to musical rhythms, which is what they ought to be in comics.
SETH: Yeah. I've come to realize that storytelling is the key, exciting thing about comics. I will certainly read comics where the content alone is compelling and I'll be really drawn in by the information and narrative, but what gets me most excited I think is when I see somebody doing something really interesting with the actual storytelling. How they've chosen to tell the story. And when you see somebody who's doing something really different from other people — that's inspiring. When it comes to compelling storytelling, I always think of Chester Brown, because Chet's the guy who first made me see the endless possibilities in comic storytelling. I've read many comics that I really liked while reading them. Only later when I looked back at them from a storytelling point of view, I would realize that a certain piece might be very pedestrian. Just one panel after another with some narration over top, sort of pushing a point across. And I think, "Boy, this could have been told in such a different way that might be so much more interesting." And when you see someone take up a few pages with a character just from one place to another, you realize just how effective the actual decisions — the storytelling choices, I mean — how much affect that has on the story. And ultimately that's what led me to the idea that longer narratives are what's so interesting in comics. Because you need that pace to do this sort of thing.