“A PICTURE NOVELLA”
GROTH: Let me ask you something that was nagging at me. It’s A Good Life is subtitled a “A Picture Novella.” Which seemed like a very self-conscious effort to put a tag on it.
SETH: Yeah, it is a pretty self-conscious effort. I very consciously tried to come up with an antiquated-sounding term. I went through a couple of the normal varieties of labels. “A picture story,” or I could have just put “a comic book,” which crossed my mind. It goes without saying that I didn’t want to use the term graphic novel. I just don’t like that term. And there didn’t seem to be anything really good to call it, yet I wanted to have something on the cover to alert the reader that it wasn’t a novel or something. So yeah, it’s pretty self-conscious.
GROTH: What is your ideal reader?
SETH: I don’t have a due. I guess…
GROTH: You just pray for anybody…
SETH: Pretty much. When I do write the story, I’m pretty much writing for myself, in the sense that, I’m trying to communicate definitely but mostly, I’m trying to write a story that I would like to read. So I don’t have a really good idea of the audience. And I get letters from people, and it seems to be a fairly wide spectrum of people reading it. But I’m not really sure who the audience is, and I’m not really sure who I’m aiming at, either. I’d like to think I’m aiming at a slightly older audience. I do know that there are young males in their 20s reading it, early 20s. I guess I’m writing for an age group around my own. I’d like to think that older people could read it.
GROTH: Your work in particular is so leisurely paced and so antithetical to the tempo of so much contemporary entertainment which is composed of MTV-style quick cuts, stuff you can barely follow from minute to minute, that it seems to me that it would require a pretty rarefied reader.
SETH: I would imagine that in the comics world I am getting a small percentage of who’s out there. Even in the alternative market. I can pretty much sense what is attractive to the alternative readers and what isn’t. And I wouldn’t be thinking that what I’m doing is aimed at them specifically.
SETH: I’d like to think they might give it a try, but I see what they’re most interested in, and it’s usually a different approach than what I’m doing. Something hipper usually. Something with a hook.
GROTH: I think if would take a reader that has more patience and I don’t mean this in any critical way —
SETH: I take that as a compliment.
GROTH: — but the kind of patience that is required to read a good novel.
SETH: That is what I would like from my audience. I’d like to think they would take the time to read it and figure out why I’m trying to do certain things.
GROTH: Do you read much fiction yourself?
SETH: I try to. I’m probably reading more non-fiction lately than I used to. I used to read a lot more fiction than I do now. But I certainly keep buying fiction and putting it into piles. I have no less than 50 novels stacked in my living room. Still, lately I’m reading a lot of non-fiction.
GROTH: I know that you like J.D. Salinger. Are there any novelists that influenced the way you tell stories?
SETH: I would think probably if I could narrow it down to any particular writer besides Salinger, who was certainly a big influence on me earlier, I’m really attracted to the writing of Alice Munro. I don’t know if I could draw any direct line between… it’s harder to say writers that influenced you than artists. At least for me. When something is really well written, there’s almost a magic quality to it. You can’t just take it and diagram it out. And figure out how this was done and that, and make it work that way.
GROTH: You can’t vivisect it and adopt those techniques.
GROTH: I know what you mean. But I’m not sure why you can do it more easily with drawing, and you can do it less easily with the writing.
SETH: Drawing seems so much more concrete to me. I can sit there and I can study their particular inking techniques, or their compositional skills, or the stylizations they’re using, and try to incorporate something from that. But it seems much more difficult with writing.
GROTH: Well, it’s probably good, because it could be disastrous.
SETH: Yeah, definitely. The one thing… you can worry about absorbing too much from another artist. But the fortunate thing, at least for me when I’m writing is that I don’t have a dear idea of any other person, any other writer, for example, when I’m ready to write something out, that I would be emulating in anyway.
GROTH: I couldn’t detect any other writers.
SETH: That’s good to hear.
GROTH: It seemed very distinctly your voice. Because you use voice-over narration, to borrow the term from film, there’s almost a contemplative technique involved. An inward technique.
SETH: I’m interested in that. Some reviewer once referred to Feiffer’s characters as “explainers.” I don’t think I’d really thought about it until I’d read that line. But I realize that that sort of explaining technique does appeal to me in some way.
GROTH: Yeah, you’re definitely an explainer.
SETH: [Laughs.] Yeah — the story I’m working on right now has a lot of explaining, too. It’s a good way to get inside of a character’s head in comics.
GROTH: In fact, I heard— this could be just a vicious rumor — that the next issue has something like a dozen pages of an old woman talking to the reader.
SETH: That’s a bit of an old piece of Information. Actually, the whole issue is a character talking to the reader.
GROTH: [Laughs.] I see!
SETH: But it’s an old man, now.
GROTH: Old man. Huh.
SETH: Actually, that may go on for two issues.
GROTH: Now is it literally a picture of an old man panel to panel?
SETH: No, it’s not a real boring head shot one after the other. I might have thought of trying that a few years ago. But I can see that’s really boring now. No, it’s very, I guess, filmic, in the sense that the character is constantly engaged in some activity. It all takes place within one house, though, so it’s very contained. But I’m trying to keep visual interest up, at the same time while I’m having an ongoing monologue.
GROTH: Can you tell me how you came to choose this as your next story?
SETH: Well, the stories, I find, tend to float around in your head for a long time and slowly piece together. This one’s been floating around in my head since I began working on the last one. I remember at that point it was a toss-up which of them to do. But since I was so interested in autobiography then, I decided to do the autobiographical one. But it’s taken a lot of time, slowly as each year goes by, little bits get added. And I think it gets better. It’s very hard to explain how a story comes about. I guess on the most mundane level it came about because there’s a particular store here in town, or storefront, that I often walked by, which was called “Clyde Fans.” Which is the name of this story. And I just started to imagine the life of the guys who ran this store. It was a very old storefront that had been closed up for a couple of years. And these guys were electric fan salesmen, I assume. So what started out as a pretty basic story slowly builds and I became more and more interested in the characters interior lives, more so than what they do, and that just became a structure for exploring these two characters through a variety of different means.
GROTH: And at least one of these characters is elderly?
SETH: Without giving away too much, the story will take place at different points in their lives, so I’m starting off with a point where one of the characters is quite old.
GROTH: How do you feel about putting yourself inside of the mind of an older person? Is that easy?
SETH: I guess I’m not too worried about it. I feel pretty much out of touch with everything.
GROTH: [Laughs.] You already feel like an old person!
SETH: Yeah. My girlfriend always tells me I’m old. So I’ve, to some degree, envisioned myself as an old person to get inside the characters, but to a bigger degree I suppose, he’ll be saying things that I would say, even at this point in my life. Since he’s an old man in 1997, I can still use him in some way to comment on things.
GROTH: Do you find projecting yourself as an old person to be a bit painful?
SETH: Not really. I kind of envision myself not much different. [Groth laughs.] Maybe a lot more bitter perhaps, and solitary, but I’m not too worried about growing old, actually. I don’t really expect too much of a change in my life. Except maybe physical illness or something.
GROTH: The physical degeneration.
SETH: That kind of worries me.
GROTH: [Laughs.] Right. Well, at least you’re in Canada.
SETH: Well, as long as our social systems hold up. They’re still intact right now, so we’ll see.
GROTH: I was going to say, come to think of it, with the way things are going, you’ll he paying for medical care soon enough. Probably just when you get old enough to use it.
SETH: I have a feeling by the time I’m old, all the social safety nets here will be gone. The old age pension, the socialized medicine, it seems to all be on its way out, as our whole society crumbles.
ATTITUDES AND STANDARDS
GROTH: I was curious as to your reaction to your publisher’s interview in that Canadian fanzine. It appears as though Chris is a bit depressed about the state of comics.
SETH: Yeah, that would be pretty safe to say.
GROTH: How did you feel about your publisher expressing reservations about comics in general and the work he was publishing in particular? Was that a little demoralizing?
SETH: No, not really. I’m pretty used to it. Because I know Chris, I probably was well-used to the attitude already. He’s not overly optimistic about comics. And I think it pretty much matches how I feel about things, too. So I mean, it might be nice to feel like your publisher was very enthusiastic and could change everything. But it just mirrors how I picture the comics world myself, so seeing him being very cynical, certainly it was no surprise or anything.
It was a bit of a surprise to see him a little too no-holds-barred about his own books. But since I didn’t come in for too much attack, I didn’t worry about it too much.
GROTH: You got off relatively easy.
SETH: Yeah, I felt happy.
GROTH: But poor Joe [Matt] got kicked in the teeth.
SETH: Joe really got it. [Laughs.] We had a talk with Chris after that. [Groth laughs.] I told him basically, “Don’t tell me anything about what I’m working on until it’s finished.” There’s nothing worse than getting a comment like, “I was sort of disappointed in that issue,” when you’re halfway through the story.
GROTH: Let me ask you a broader question. Doesn’t it seem as though if you impose strictly applied literary standards to comics you’re going to be very unhappy and depressed about the state of the art?
SETH: Yeah, I think so.
GROTH: And that seems like a real problem if you’re intimately involved in the art form.
SETH: Well, that is a problem, but I think a lot of it has to do with the time period of comics we’re in more than the limitations of the medium. I think that people should be optimistic about comics aesthetically, certainly I’m not talking about the comics industry here, but when you look around you can see that there’s a high-caliber of artists working now, or certainly a lot higher than there ever has been. I mean, just think of the artists around today, Crumb, Clowes, Woodring, Chester, Joe Matt, Chris Ware, Ben Katchor, Debbie Drechsler, Tomine, the Hernandez Brothers, oh and about a dozen others. That’s something to look at as real growth… that the medium is growing somewhere. I’d like to hope that in the future it will attract more and more talented artists which will continue to raise the standards. And then hopefully it won’t be so ridiculous to think of comics as achieving some form of high art.
There are comics that I’ve been very impressed with. Like Dan Clowes’ “Caricature” story. That was a real high point for him, I thought. And I think Gilbert’s first Heartbreak Soup story. The very first one. I think was probably, it’s a terrible thing to say to an artist, but to me it’s the most affecting work he ever did.
GROTH: Hm. Is that right?
SETH: I’ve liked plenty of other stuff he’s done after, but there was something really powerful about that first story Heartbreak Soup. I thought he really captured ruinething very high. And certainly I can think of other works, like I Never Liked You, or Maus. These are certainly among the highest works you’ll find in comics, definitely. Now, I’m not trying to say that better artists are going to come along and produce more “literary” works necessarily. I would hope, though, that they will continue to produce more serious works, works of more depth and complexity. And, I’m not so sure that when those future artists come along that these current good works will lose their power in comparison. Good work will continue to be good work. I guess what I’d like to see is a general raising of standards, a higher level of ambitions. And I think that has to come with an influx of new cartoonists who are influenced by the work that’s going on now.
GROTH: It sounds like you believe the theory that there is a progress in art. In other words, that the art moves from humble origins to achieving continuing greatness.
SETH: I haven’t really thought about it that much. But probably to some degree I do. I’m going to have to think this through. There would have to be a climate to encourage these things. It’s not like I believe that Raymond Carver is a step forward from Charles Dickens…
GROTH: I don’t think in fact the theory holds true of literature.
SETH: And I’m not so sure it’s true in visual art, either. I certainly wouldn’t think that the current crop of painters are an improvement on what went on a hundred years ago. But I think that perhaps with these new media that there is some kind of progression required, like film for example. You have to go from a primitive stage to a slightly more technically accomplished stage, and then if it manages to draw the right artists, then things will continue, until you reach some plateau where quality work is being produced.
GROTH: I don’t necessarily buy into that theory myself, but it does seem uncanny the way film and comics have mirrored each other. The early days of both forms were exploding with innovation. In film you have Keaton and Chaplin. In comics you had artists like Winsor McCay and Herriman. And then there was this long kind of dull commercial period. You had good work…
SETH: … but with certain restrictions.
GROTH: Yeah, yeah. And then you also had a blossoming. The Hayes code was too antediluvian to continue and the ratings system, which supplanted it, allowed artists greater latitude, which combined with European influences in the late ’60s and early ’70s, so that American films started taking on more serious subject matter in a more serious way. And comics obviously exploded around the same time with artists like Crumb.
SETH: I was kind of thinking about this today, because I just watched the first episode of this documentary series called The Other Hollywood. You’ve heard of this?
GROTH: I’m not sure, no.
SETH: It’s Kenneth Branagh, I think. It’s a multi-part series on the early years of cinema around the world. And they were showing a lot of stuff from England, France, Germany etc. around 1900 to 1915. I was amazed at just how visually exciting all this imagery was. Just like in the comics, it comes from the fact that there were no conventions yet on how you were supposed to do things. And because of that, it’s so much more exciting than the visuals you see from the ’30s the ’60s, where there’s such a rigid method of how to produce these things in comics and film.
You see the rare innovator come along in both fields. Like a Welles or something or a Kurtzman. But for the most part, yeah, it becomes very conventional. And I think that the commercial nature of these industries held things back. It draws inferior artists for the most part. I think because of the fact that there’s not that excitement, you don’t get the best artists. It probably has something to do with the breaking down of the studio system, as with the breaking down of the big two comic book companies, that in the ’60s a lot of independent film started to come up, same as the underground comics. So yeah, I guess I don t really believe in progress in art — the quality seems to go up and down depending on the climate of the times. But, given a good climate, a medium can grow in sophistication.
GROTH: Returning to the interview subject, can you see yourself exploring the same obsessions for the next 30 years? Your obsessions appear to be the place memory has in one’s life, reflecting on the past, examining your life in relation to the past…
SETH: I think so. To some degree or other. As I plan out future stories in my mind, I definitely see a common thread between them all. Certainly the common thread is not going to be autobiography. I do tend to find myself drawn to certain situation almost instinctually. I’m immediately drawn to the idea of a singular character who is re-evaluating things. Old people, a lot of story ideas revolve around old people. I can easily assume that has a lot to do with re-evaluating life and exploring the past. That might change; it might just be something I have to get out of my system right now. But it seems to be a real focus for most of the stories I put together in my mind.