INSTINCTS AND TECHNIQUES
GROTH: I noticed certain recurring visual techniques which I eventually realized were techniques completely in the service of the narrative, and therefore, almost more akin to writing than drawing. One of the techniques you use, for example, is consecutive silent shots of a cityscape or a country scene. First of all I’m curious as to what you’re trying to communicate through that technique. I assume it isn’t Just to establish place so much as to establish atmosphere and mood. But it seems more than that.
SETH: I guess mostly… with a lot of this kind of stuff, as much as you might think about it, there’s still an instinctual response in how you put things together. And I think most of the time when I’m choosing to cut away suddenly to a shot of, say, a cityscape, there may be an intellectual reason behind it — that this is a moment to break the dialogue, or to have some silence, or create a mood. But there’s also an instinctual reason, a feeling that this is what must go in this panel. And you can’t really boil it down to a hard fact that if I put a cityscape in here, it will create this sort of mood. But you instinctually feel certain things will hopefully cause the desired effect on the reader. And most of the time, I think, I’m going on instinct with that, even though I’m very conscious that I’m doing it. It’s not worked out exactly on an esthetic rule, or anything.
GROTH: It has to be both.
GROTH: I noticed that you use that technique a lot more in the second half of the book than in the first half.
SETH:Yeah, I think with the first half I was just starting to figure it out, bit by bit. Actually, that’s a good example, perhaps, of something in the first chapter of the story that I might not have done the same way later. About halfway through that issue, I had a full page of architectural shots leading to my house. And whereas I think it works OK, I might have done that a little differently at this point. I was trying to sort of get a feeling of the city; it’s not quite as logical a progression as I might have done later. I had a feeling that at that point a break had to be made in the narrative, and some mood established before you moved into the next scene. And this was an instinctual choice I made. And as time went on, I think I became more conscious of where I was deliberately placing these things and why. I ended up integrating that page into the whole story by deliberately returning later to some of those same places in the following chapters — sort of tying it all together.
GROTH: I think Jaime [Hernandez]‘s a real master of that, too.
GROTH: Juxtaposing images that have a narrative quality even though they’re a silent sequence of images that don’t, on a first reading, connote narrative content or strict sequentiality. And using those to establish a kind of visual rhythm that you can’t get in any other medium. You can’t achieve it in film, you can’t achieve it in a novel.
SETH: Exactly. The use of silent panels; it’s a funny thing. Because they’re so obviously one of the real strengths of comics, and when you look back on the history of cartooning, it’s surprising how infrequently they were ever used.
GROTH: Well, I think the reason is fairly obvious. Because most comics were so expedient, they required exposition in every panel. I mean, in Marvel Comics they were talking even when they were hitting each other [laughter].
SETH: Yeah, I know. When you read those Marvel Comics, there’s a certain neurotic quality that there must never be a silent moment. And it’s almost surprising when you read those if you ever come across the rare one. Another odd thing, in those old Marvels, the rare time when there’s a night scene that actually appears to be night. [Groth laughs.] These are things they seem to avoid at all costs.
GROTH: That’s true.
Another one of your techniques is to have a silent panel, a reaction shot of somebody usually sandwiched between two panels of talking where the person is clearly reacting in some way or thinking about what was just said to him or whatever. This is a technique that seems to me so seductive when rendering conversation that I wanted to ask you, how do you avoid that becoming a mannerism?
SETH: It’s pretty tough. I think this is probably something artists fight against their whole life, and that’s mimicking themselves. And I’m not sure how you keep something like that from becoming just a stylistic tick; I guess you try to be aware of these things, and try not to repeat yourself too much. It’s difficult, though. Because there are certain approaches you’re attracted to. And it’s hard to fight to keep away from them. Just like I think it’s difficult to not keep returning to the same subject matter. Because it’s natural you’re interested in certain things. And this is something that definitely worries me. I don’t want to, at the age of 60, be turning out work that’s just the same as what I’m doing now.
GROTH: Not repeating yourself seems to be the greatest difficulty of being an artist.
SETH: And you see it so often. Even amongst artists that you really admire. There are certain things that it’s hard for them to avoid doing.
GROTH: It does seems to me that the best comics create a struggle or unified language out of words and pictures. And that if you extracted the words from the comic, it wouldn’t necessarily be a satisfactory piece of prose.
SETH: I think that’s one of the most exciting thing about comics.
GROTH: I noticed that the only political note that was struck in It’s a Good Life was when Ruthie turned on you and gave you a list of social improvements which seemed to have taken you aback in the story.
SETH: [Laughs.] I would definitely say it’s a personal shortcoming that I view the world fairly dearly through my own particular agenda. I try to have a broader viewpoint of things, and certainly I could probably discuss anything and have an opinion. I have no problem formulating opinions on things. But I don’t know if I would describe myself as a political person.
GROTH: Clearly in that story, politics are just beyond you, it seems to me.
SETH: Yeah. I guess I’m relatively cynical about politics. I guess I’m relatively cynical about human society. [Groth laughs.] I mean, I’ll discuss this sort of stuff endlessly and people who know me just take it for granted that when certain topics come up, I’m just going to talk on and on about how we’re clearly heading towards the end of civilization. But there’s not a strong impulse in me to believe that anything can be done to stop it. I’m not drawn to go out and protest about anything. Maybe it’s just a good excuse to get myself off the hook about doing anything. But I do feel that everything’s kind of futile.
GROTH: I feel the same way. lean understand that. I once got into a terrific argument with my girlfriend because it seemed as though I was against literacy campaigns because my line of reasoning was that by teaching illiterate, uneducated people to read, they were only being prepared far shitty, soulless jobs. [Laughs.] So the reduction ad absurdum was that I was opposed to teaching literacy.
SETH: [Laughs.] I know. Cynicism can actually lead you into things like that.
A lot of times I feel guilty that I’m opposed to so much that’s going on in the world, and I’m doing nothing about it. I feel that if I was to go down to one of the rallies here in Toronto, say, against how they’re cutting welfare, it would mostly be just to make myself feel better. Because I don’t really believe that that’s doing much. I’m glad somebody out there is making the effort, even though I don’t have much faith in it. I know I’d just be going so that i could take a bit of guilt off myself.
ACTUALLY A POSITIVE MESSAGE
GROTH: Can you tell me what the meaning of the title It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken is?
SETH: Well, I got the title of course from my mother who always said this to me as a kid. It’s actually a positive message I suppose — the only way to live a good life is if you don’t give in to the factors in the world around you that are trying to crush your opportunities for a good life. It has to come from within. It’s only when you weaken to all the negative forces around you that your life is basically destroyed. You’ve got to make of it the best you can. That’s the analogy I draw with Kalo near the end, where forces didn’t come together to create the life that I envisioned for him; but he still managed, it seems, to have a positive existence. I suppose it’s a fairly trite point of view. I’m not trying to say anything too deep there. But basically I’m trying to show myself as a character — without trying to map out exactly what the story’s about— as a person who doesn’t seem to be able to exist within the world, just constantly displeased by things. And that’s pretty much keeping the character from enjoying what life he could have.
GROTH: You as a character seem to stand in sharp contrast to Kalo too. Because Kalo essentially gave up cartooning at one point and started an insurance or a real estate business.
SETH: Yeah, real estate.
GROTH: I always get those mixed up. A real estate business, which could be an indication that he weakened and gave up.
SETH: I tend not to think of it in those terms. The circumstances of life aren’t the things that are going to destroy your chances for happiness. It’s what you make of it. Which comes down to a sort of a cliche I suppose. Within the confines of the story, the Seth character really has a lot of opportunities to be happy. But instead it’s this constant struggle of living in a world that you don’t like, and that makes you unhappy. It’s like a line from Stardust Memories where Woody Allen’s a successful filmmaker and he’s saying, “I can’t enjoy myself if I know there’s one person who’s starving out there.” I mean, this is not an absolute factor in your life, and yet you’re allowing it to destroy your peace of mind. Or at least your happiness.
GROTH: Do you think that you as a character in that story exemplified that point of view? Because, if I had a criticism of the story, it was that certain feelings weren’t dealt with more deeply. This might actually go back to your philosophy of avoidism as enunciated in the story. [Laughs.] I guess in a way I thought you avoided certain things by invoking avoidism. One oft hem was your relationship with Ruthie, where she disappeared and there was a sop to self-examination, but I got the impression that it was only that, and that Ruthie herself came across as a bit of a cipher.
SETH: I can certainly understand that.
GROTH: Which would probably be a good indication as to why you broke up, because perhaps you weren’t as interested in her as you would have had to have been to have stayed with her. And that whole side to the character in the story intrigued me, but was not dealt with as much as I would have liked.
SETH: Within the way I was putting together this story, I think what I was trying to do was err on the side of understatement. Because I felt that with the first three issues I’d worked on, I’d done the exact opposite, which was to try and make things very clear. I felt they were really heavy-handed. What I wanted to try within this story was to try and get ideas across, but not too heavy-handedly. I’m still not completely satisfied. I still feel certain ideas came across heavy-handed, and other ideas came across maybe a bit too soft and didn’t really tie up together, that maybe I’m asking too much of the reader to try and put all of this together. But I guess I’m kind of asking the reader to take a lot of disconnected ideas and somehow merge them together into what I’m hoping will be a fairly distinct viewpoint of that specific character. But I’m not sure if I’ve got the mechanics of it worked out yet. I still really feel like I’m in the middle of a growing process of trying to get this stuff out there. And with Ruthie, I certainly was trying to portray the relationship of someone who gets involved quickly, without any considerations whether or not they truly want to… It’s just a desire to be involved with someone. And then not having his ideas confirmed by the other person, so he has to get out again, immediately. Sort of a shallow response to getting involved with someone else.
GROTH: Your next story is not going to be autobiographical? Or, at least not as overtly?
SETH: No. I have a feeling that a lot of it will basically be autobiographical, but all the circumstances will be fictional.
GROTH: Do you see that as in a way freeing yourself dramatically?
SETH: Yeah. I’ve really reached the point where I feel like autobiography is way too restraining. The whole idea of the relationship that you have with the audience, because this is you, really changes the nature of what you’re trying to do. And you get caught up in this whole idea of trying to portray yourself in a manner that’s not repulsive to ‘the reader’ that they’re not thinking, “Oh boy, he’s making himself look too good,” or, “He’s making himself look too bad.” You start thinking too much about how you’re portraying yourself rather than just trying to have a character putting across ideas.
GROTH: I tend to think people like Joe Matt and Harvey Pekar have fallen into a certain trap.
SETH: Yeah, I think it can be a trap.
GROTH: I would think that one of the problems is that it’s a little more difficult to imaginatively deal with problems you’re posing because they’re so personally your problems.
GROTH: I noticed, for example, that one of the ways you did that was by a lot of exposition between you and Chester. I thought that perhaps if it weren’t quite as overtly autobiographical, you’d have dealt with that not expositionally, but dramatically between characters.
SETH:That’s probably true. Although I think one of the things — and this maybe a problem too that has come about — that I think I have developed a slight aversion to the idea of confrontations in storylines. I think that comes from having read too many fantasy-based comics that are built around the idea of confrontation. When I drew the first issue which had a fight in it, I felt very weird about the whole thing afterwards, because I actually had to draw someone punching someone else. I felt like all those years of reading mainstream comics was still in there and there was no way to draw a punch without drawing on that source material. It made me feel like I never again want to have a scene where one character hits another character. I think that’s probably not a concern that a prose writer would have.
GROTH: That’s right, because he doesn’t have that baggage.
SETH: Yeah. Unfortunately even at this point, I think too much of what people are doing in the alternative is still a reaction to the mainstream.
GROTH: I think that’s true. I think one of the most difficult things in the world is to get rid of… Well, you can’t get rid of baggage, but you can find perspective.
SETH: Yeah, I think you have to find some middle ground with it. You have to come back and be able to embrace what was positive in that, and try and get away from what was negative.
GROTH: It’s hard to say, but I think that what you experience as a kid, right up through your teenage years, really affects you for many, many years, and it’s hard to get rid of that. That’s especially true in America, because it’s so saturated in media; I mean, kids are media-savvy at God knows what age these days, far younger than I was when I was a kid…
SETH: Certainly. I would agree with that.
GROTH: And the younger they are when they start becoming media consumers, the deeper that baggage gets, the earlier it worms its way into their consciousness.
SETH: It’s true. What we hope is that at some point, as an individual, you can reject the values it’s putting across onto you, and analyze what they’re showing you.
GROTH: Yeah, but that’s the most difficult thing in the world.
SETH: Yeah, it really is.
GROTH: Not to accept those values passively and make them part of yourself, but to analyze them and get rid of what you don’t find useful.