A DIFFICULT PERSON
GROTH: One of the mare interesting tangents in the Don’t Weaken book was your difficulty in maintaining a long-term relationship. I can understand that for a person like you, at least as you depict yourself in the comic, as idiosyncratic as you are, relationships would be very difficult.
SETH: Well, it certainly has been true. I’m a difficult person to get along with.
GROTH: Is that something that you intend to explore fictionally in the future? Is that a theme that you might find fruitful?
SETH: I’m not sure. Not in the next story, I don’t think so. I’m certain that at some point or other I’m going to come back to that. I think the big thing that holds my interest at the moment is a person’s relationship with their world. I guess that’s what possesses me in my day-to-day life. That sort of picking and choosing from all the things around you that builds your viewpoint of the world, and I’m not sure if I can boil it down into what exactly it is about that idea that interests me. But that seems to be a driving force in my in my daily thought, and what I want to write.
GROTH: How you construct your world.
SETH: Yeah. What it is that people pull out of the culture around us to build their viewpoint. When I think about the characters that I’m writing in the next story, that’s kind of the focus, beyond the incidentals of their lives. It’s the focus of why I’m interested in these particular characters. To some degree — I guess it’s sort of self-defeating — but when you start thinking about your opinions and why you believe certain things, if you have any sort of a cynical nature, at some point you start to doubt your own opinions, and you can easily become involved in the kind of thinking where you wonder, “Why do I even bother to form opinions on things? Except to build some sort of persona for myself?”
I think the problem is that my ideals are higher than I can actually live up to. So when I start to try to figure out my motivations on why I’m doing work of a particular kind, my own motivations don’t live up to what I want. You can almost always find some motivation in yourself that you would find repulsive in someone else. Invariably, anything you’re doing seems to tie in with ego at some point.
GROTH: And then you somehow accommodate yourself.
SETH: Exactly. One thing I forgot to bring up when we were discussing what led me down the path in comics was The Comics Journal. I started reading the Journal not too long after reading Love and Rockets, and I think that it has a lot to do — without sounding like an asskisser here [Groth laughs] — with what’s going on in comics right now. Chester and I have talked about this several times. Chester agrees with me on this: I fed that if the comics industry went particularly sour, and Fantagraphics disappeared, the biggest loss would be The Comics Journal. Because The Comics Journal forms a sort of central viewpoint, a rallying call for alternative comics. I’m sure that in some alternative reality if the same cartoonists were still out there, there would be just as many good books perhaps, but without some sort of critical focus that’s talking about them and getting people to think about this, they’re just a series of unrelated publications without any common goal I think it’s had a lot to do with building the psyche of an alternative comics community.
GROTH: That’s funny. When I interviewed Art Spiegelman, he said pretty much exactly the opposite.
SETH: Oh, really?
GROTH: Yeah. In his interview, he said that the important work I was doing was publishing cartoonists like Dan Clowes and Kim Deitch and so forth…
SETH: I don’t know if I would agree with him on that. Your publishing work is, of course, highly important, but I feel that another publisher could have rose to publish good cartoonists. Like Chris for example. I can’t, however, see too many people who’d be willing to put in the effort for The Comics Journal. Because I can’t really see that the payoff for your ego would be very high, really.
GROTH: [Laughs.] No one else could possibly be as tenacious and pig-headed.
SETH: Exactly. I mean, it’s not bringing you any friends. Well, maybe it is. Maybe in the alternative market.
GROTH: Yeah. Three or four, at least.
SETH: [Laughs.] But putting these comic books out there, it would be like The First Kingdom or something — an oddball publication out there unrelated to other oddball publications. Unless there’s some reason why, when you read Eightball, that you bothered to think about all these other comics, Peepshow, Hate, Optic Nerve, etc., together, you don’t have that sort of united front that 1 think is maybe the only way that serious cartooning will grow.
GROTH: Without having a really strict ideological agenda, I’ve still tried to make The Comics Journal some sort of focal point for advocating a certain kind of cartooning. I try to be as latitudinarian as I can be — which probably isn’t much [laughs] — and there certainly are a lot of opinions expressed and view points expressed in The Comics Journal that I don’t agree with myself. But I feel compelled to publish them because I think they’re intelligently presented and even I admit there is some room to argue here. [Seth snickers.] But on the other hand, I think there is something cohesive about the point of view of The Comics Journal.
SETH: I would agree. I can remember very clearly reading The Comics Journal #100. I’m not sure what year that was, but when I read that issue, that’s when I first actually got seriously depressed about comics.
GROTH: Hmm. [laughs.]
SETH: I was pretty young, and I’d been reading the Hernandez Brothers, Neat Stuff, Raw, etc. for a little while and started thinking, “Oh, the comics industry looks exciting!” And then reading TCJ #100 and realizing just how depressing the comics industry really was. That there wasn’t much hope for the future of comics, and that all these lofty goals that I was thinking — “good comics, things are really changing, it’s a whole new wave and everything” — it just shot it right down.
GROTH: [Sarcastically.] Well, I take great pride in that.
SETH: [laughs] But it still inspired. It had a cohesive critical viewpoint about comics. It took them seriously, not just a fanboy kind of optimism.
GROTH: Was it the general tone of the issue that depressed you?
SETH: Yeah, there was a real tone to that issue. It’s mostly a bunch of interviews, and a lot of them were with relatively mainstream people like Chris Claremont or Steve Gerber. But somehow or other, I can’t remember what the specifics were that made me feel this way, but I think there was a general tone that implied that the comics industry is just filled with idiots [Groth laughs heartily] and that if you’re expecting some big change to come about for intelligent material, then you’re living in a dreamworld. In the long run, though, I think the critical, even cynical tone of the Journal has helped encourage more ambition among cartoonists. Actually, when Joe Matt first moved to Toronto, the same experience happened to him, only this time Chester and I did the deflating. He was coming in kind of young, talented and naive and thinking, “I’m going to make a great career out of this!” and Chester and I were both just laughing at him like, “What are you thinking?!”
GROTH: [Laughs.] Well it’s funny because I vacillate — we had a forum in The Comics Journal recently as to whether these are the best of times or the worst of times? — and I continue to vacillate as to how optimistic I am or how disheartened I am by the profession. I feel like a schizophrenic because I can make the case both ways.
SETH: Aesthetically it’s the best of times.
GROTH: Yeah. On the other hand, it’s rare when I read a comic that really excites me. I read a lot of comics about which I think, “Well, this was a good effort” or, ‘He’s trying” or, “His heart’s in the right place. “And I have to say, not to be mutually ass-kissing, even though it seems like my questions have been very critical about your book, I read it in one sitting last night, and it was such a mature and sustained effort that I felt it was one of those comics that gives me reason to continue in this folly.
SETH: [Laughs.] Well, that’s good to hear. Art Spiegelman said once, I can’t remember the exact quote, but it’s something along the lines of, he hoped that the comics readership would grow old with him. I think that’s where the hope for comics would lie if it can continue. That being, we’ve got a group of cartoonists working now who show a lot of potential, and hopefully, if they continue to work long enough, the potential will just grow into better and better work. Because, for the majority, cartoonists are always pretty young; they’re usually doing their work in their 20s, and we’re starting to get a generation of younger cartoonists that are doing good work in their 30s. There hasn’t really been that long-term commitment to the form yet.
GROTH: That’s right. Well, the oldest of the second generation of cartoonists of course would be Crumb and he’s around 52.
SETH: Crumb and Deitch, and Spiegelman, of course. There are real few examples who are working at it still.
GROTH: I always find the context of comics in our culture to be somewhat depressing. I mean, as rotten as films are, and God knows, Hollywood just turns out swill constantly, at least the few serious filmmakers are making some sort of impact. There are x-number of people in America who follow films and who are interested in them and find value in good films, Similarly, I read an article a couple years or so ago about literary culture in America. Someone authoritative, I forget who it was, was quoted as saying that literary fiction is supported by about 50,000 people in the United States. These are the people who actually read magazines and read the literary press and look for good work and buy good books. Fifty thousand people in a nation of 280 million is, of course, a minuscule fraction of the population. But, I was thinking, ‘My God, 50,000 people are interested in serious literature; how many people are interested in serious comics? Thirty?”
SETH: I know, it’s demoralizing. I’ve wondered about this myself. I was just thinking the other day, “Why is it that there’s this feeling about comics that it’s an anachronistic medium? And yet film is still a completely viable medium, when they’re similar in age?” I think it all just boils down to the technological quotient. In a society that values technology, print is becoming inherently anachronistic.
GROTH: Yeah, I think that’s true. But I also have to think — as much as I don’t particularly like the idea — that seriousness tends to trickle down from popularity, and the popularity of comics is nil. You have all the various popular crap on television, you have Stephen King or John Grisham, whatever sub-literate authors you want to mention, you have Arnold Schwarzenegger movies… But you have no equivalent in comics, that is, comics that are central to a mass audience. Nobody really gives a shit about comics even on that popular, debased level. But without that, it seems as though the art form becomes so marginal.
SETH: It’s absolutely true. On any front, cartooning is not really popular. Gag cartooning is dead. The newspaper strips are on their way out. And mainstream comic books just can’t compete with the electronic media. Without that fertile field of interest, it’s inevitably moving into a smaller and smaller venue.
I feel that a lot of the blame for that though has to rest on the fact that the people who are attracted to film… We’re just not going to attract that caliber of artists. Unless through some quirk of circumstance they end up in comics, it just doesn’t seem like a viable art form.
GROTH: Do you think that’s actually the case? Because, oddly enough, before I called you I made a list of who I thought were serious film makers in America, and it was a list of a half a dozen people.
SETH: You’re probably right. It’s not like there are 200 or 500 of them.
GROTH: No. There are certainly a lot fewer eminent filmmakers than there are literary authors. It seems to me that virtually every day there’s a new first novel published by somebody who appears to be at least as ambitious as the most ambitious cartoonist working. I mean, an author seriously interested in fiction as literature. Whereas, if you have one new filmmaker a year that is remotely interested in film as art, it’s a miracle.
SETH: Maybe I haven’t given this enough thought. Perhaps it is a fallacy that people are going to film because comics aren’t an attractive enough medium. The big problem, I imagine, could be that you’re just not going to find a lot of serious artists out there in general. The culture is not geared up to create those kinds of people. They kind of slip through the cracks, I think. Even amongst serious artists of a wide range of fields, they so easily get sucked into the machine. I was thinking the other day, I’d been watching the film Naked, and the main actor, I don’t know what his name was [David Thewlis], but I thought he gave such a great performance, and I thought, “This guy is not going to get another opportunity like this, to have such a great filmmaker behind him.” Or, say, Gary Oldman who was in Prick Up Your Ears. They end up doing a lot of crap because there’s just not really an environment for those kinds of people. And inevitably they get sucked into the machine and they’re making a lot of money, and before you know it… Maybe they’re still thinking they’d like to do good work, but mostly it’s just crap coming down to them.
I always have to wonder: I guess it’s complicated, but why do we have a culture that would prefer junk to quality material? I was having a discussion with somebody once about the fact that in the last century, less people were literate probably. But if you were to find the literate people say, in the frontiers, they may only have read one book, the Bible, but they probably had a deeper understanding of that one book than people today who are reading 100 trashy books. So what is actually superior? I feel that it’s better to have an intimate knowledge, a deep knowledge of one thing, than to have a superficial understanding of 1,000 things. And this whole culture seems geared toward that kind of quick, superficial understanding.
GROTH: I think at least part of the answer, and of course if’s a very complicated question, has to do with the economic engine which has to be constantly fueled by throw-away commodities. Culture has become part of that throw-away ethos. The faster you can consume a book or the faster you can watch a movie and acquire another one, the better for the corporate interests involved.
SETH: Yes, and it’s easier to produce junk on a strict schedule than it is masterpieces. I feel like a lot of it stems from the Western idea of progress. We’ve gotten so carried away with the idea of progress, that we need constant superficial change, to give the illusion that progress is marching on. We have to have some new bands this year, even though they’re not a step up from last year’s bands. But we have to have the feeling that there’s something new to be interested in all the time. This seems to me a major mistake in the development of a society.
GROTH: Yeah. And you know that when it starts to fade, something always has to fill up the vacuum, whether it’s an actor or a band or whatever, there has to be someone to fill that hole, whether there happens to be anyone talented around at that particular moment or not. Also those same corporate interests are locked into pandering to the youth culture. That’s probably another aspect of why things are as cretinous as they are.
SETH: Yeah. The whole idea of gearing the culture down towards teenagers has had a lot to do with it, definitely.
GROTH: Right… Well boy, don’t we sound like a couple of old farts! [Laughter.]
SETH: Yeah, I know! It’s funny how it creeps up on you, too! At the age of 24 I would never have known that in 10 years I’d be completely out of touch with what was going on in the popular culture.
GROTH: Well you’re a pretty young fart to be an old fart. [Laughter.] Now, one incredibly superficial question I have for you is: Why the name “Seth”? What’s the story behind this?
SETH: Well, it’s a pretty simple, stupid story. It goes back to when I was about 22 and I was hanging around in those nightclubs. I was painting and drawing comics and I was looking for a “cool” pseudonym. I went through a whole bunch of ones that were even worse [Groth laughs], which I’m very glad I never latched onto. One day a friend of mine was telling me about some kid they’d taken care of named Seth and I thought it was a nice, pretentious sort of name, with mythological connotations. So I took it on and by the time I was working on Mr. X, I still considered this a good idea. Unfortunately, I’m exactly the type of person that if somebody told me, “I just met some guy and his name was Rex,” or something, a one-name name, I’d think, “What a moron!” [Groth laughs.] It can’t help but be a naturally stupid thing. But it has become a nickname and I’m used to it now. I often go through an internal debate about whether I should start to bring my real name back. It seems like a John Mellancamp kind of thing. It seems like, one way or the other, it’s stupid. So I’ve resolved to do nothing.
GROTH: You’re just stuck with it.
GROTH: Did you feel a little odd revealing your real name in Palooka-Ville?
SETH: No, by that point I didn’t care at all. I think back around the beginning of Mr. X, I thought it was a neat idea to try and be mysterious or something. But now it really makes zero difference to me. If anyone asks me, I will tell them my real name.
GROTH: [Laughs.] OK.
SETH: I’m also afraid of bringing back my real name because it doesn’t sound entirely real either.
GROTH: No, it actually sounds a little like a comic book.