Seth’s Palookaville 24: “Can a memory die of neglect?”

Pulling out the 24th edition of Seth’s Palookaville from its mailing wrapper, it’s hard not to feel like a kid at Christmas. That is to say, if Christmas only came every six years, since I can still see myself being breathless when I unwrapped PV 23, what, in the summer of 2017? Has it been that long? So, yes, there is more than anticipation and excitement.

It’s not that Seth has been exactly delinquent in releasing the latest installment of a series that goes back to 1991. PV 24 follows the design aesthetic and content mix that the artist began with edition 20 in 2010. It’s very tightly, astutely conceived: just look at that cover image of Cove Inn, reflected in the water at the bottom of the illustration. Portent of the author’s mental reflections to come. And the gorgeous artist-designed title font in blocks and triangles that mimic the illustration. In a recent conversation about the book design, I asked Seth if the purple or aubergine color scheme of PV 24 was intentional, the color symbolic of the themes within, but Seth told me it’s just a form of red, and he likes to shake things up for each volume. Hmm. Staring at the vivid cover and doing a quick flip through the book's three sections–with a bonus present of a film by Luc Chamberlain, the director behind the National Film Board of Canada’s biopic Seth’s DominionPV 24 feels more like an objet d’art that one should not touch.

Seth’s hands have been busy since PV 23. Along with the 20-years-in-gestation Clyde Fans, finally wrapped up in one box, he’s Canada’s very busy man of many métiers, putting his hands into everything from New Yorker covers, LP sleeve designs for a musical version of his George Sprott (isn’t it a ‘lil late for that, maybe not?), murals, a bronze sculpture permanently installed at the Art Gallery of Guelph along with a very intensive retrospective installation there, Seth: A Life, All Play from 2019, conveniently a few months before COVID destroyed the world as we knew it… and, oh yeah, illustrations for too many other books to count, and, let’s see, the Collected Works of Schulz, collect it now while you can because as Seth’s mantra goes, “nothing lasts”…. He mentions he is also continuously designing Canadian Notes & Queries, one of the few publications on the Canadian book industry, and, presently, The Collected Doug Wright, both for which he provides his services pro bono. Oh, and I almost forgot, there’s now a Wimbledon Green action figure, true story.

I rest my case.

From “Nothing Lasts {Part Four}”.

But onto the contents of PV 24. Section one, “Nothing Lasts {Part Four}” continues his memoir of growing up as we arrive in his last few years of high school.

There’s much to muse about, both from Seth the narrator's and the reader's point of view. There are three key moments here that stick out, and they all have in common a kind of rethink about the people in our past. How memory, or the inability to properly recall exactly how some key characters in the ‘video’ of our lives, as it were–the mental, visual, moral takeaway of every encounter in our past–informs or misinforms our present and whatever the past really was. It’s almost a graphic representation of that famous quote from Rumsfeld: “...as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.” A bit confusing, yes, but maybe applicable here to our narrator’s musings.

There’s Jefferson, an aging chef that worked alongside the young Seth, an old soul who perhaps inspired or in the least informed the artist as a young man along with other co-workers. Seth puts a bit of a spotlight on this particular person from his past, a charismatic, charming “old-fashioned Black man... in a sharp suit... and a crisp fedora” - is that what inspired Seth’s contemporary wardrobe choice, hmm…

Jefferson is an 80-year old who drove a Cadillac, he had an interesting backstory going back to the Great Depression, WW2, his experiences in New Orleans and Chicago back in the day… and then, through Seth’s point of view… we witness how a distinguished and honorable person gets very unceremoniously dropped, fired out of a job and, perhaps, existence. Where’s the dignity in the last years of this man’s life, Seth ponders. Young Seth winces when the new owner of Cove Inn retires ole Jefferson. “You see, even after he was retired… every Saturday… Jefferson showed up for work. On schedule.”

Later in life, Seth googles Jefferson and finds an obituary and a backstory to a life lived he couldn’t appreciate at the time 40 some years ago. He laments that the obit “brought him more into focus… as a real person. I mean, I knew he was real!! In fact, I’ve tried here… to get something of the man… down on paper. But truth be told… when we write our life stories… we tend to relegate everyone else… to a supporting role.” And with a panel showing dapperly-dressed Jefferson arriving for his shift with a friendly ‘Morn’n,’ Seth adds, “Sometimes… just a cameo.”

For a denouement, on the following page Seth reflects on Jefferson’s obituary: “I cannot help but wonder… who, when I am long dead… who, in that future time… which casual acquaintance… (on a whim)… will be googling me? Reading my obit… and realizing… that they never really knew me.” Insert humble drawing of a tombstone reading SETH.

Seth says the two summers spent working alongside Jefferson remain with him today, and he attempts to rekindle “the feeling of being there.” He complains that words and images are failing him. I think Seth protesteth too much, as the following two pages are magic wherein he poetically captures a full days work experience in Cove Inn’s kitchen. In almost rap style! If you’ve ever worked in a restaurant or hotel, you’ll be nodding, smiling in acknowledgment.

Equally provocative is the literal Cove Inn spotlight that was once on a lounge lizard (is it politically correct for me to describe him thus - no offense intended to lizards) by the name of Frank Dobbs. He’s a fixture at Cove Inn, he’s been around for years and likely way past his prime, if he ever had one. And so, Seth observes, he didn’t think much of the lounge singer at the age of 19, he likely scoffed his stage shtick. But now, in late middle age, Seth writes “I often think… ‘I’d like to go back.’ Back to those nights. I’d take my wife with me… order some perch, a bottle of wine… take in the show. God, I’d love it! But that old world is gone… entirely gone. Ha -- all these years later… now I’d be his ideal audience.”

Bud-a-bump bump!

“Nothing Lasts {Part Four}” concludes with a vulnerable admission, confession, by our author. I best not spoil anything here, but it goes without saying that perhaps we can all relate to such unpredictable foibles, if you wanna call them that, which drift into all our lives at one point or another. It’s a bit of a cliffhanger, or not - perhaps a red herring? I guess we’ll have to wait for PV 25 to learn more. Stay tuned.

Seth-designed puppets from "The Apology of Albert Batch", photographed by John Minh Tran, as presented in Palookaville 24.

Section two gives us a taste, through still photos and text of the odd but more-than-entertaining film The Apology of Albert Batch, included as a DVD attached inside the back cover. Try not to laugh too hard while watching. As I’m laughing too hard, I invite the more sober comics scholar Dominick Grace, co-editor of Seth: Conversations and author with Eric Hoffman of a terrific Clyde Fans interview, There's Power in a Name, to take a peek at the proceedings in PV 24:

I find Seth's increasingly anti-narrative approach to comics fascinating. Even ‘Nothing Lasts’, which is on one level recognizably formatted as a memoir, challenges expectations about storytelling progress. Seth's style, even—the majority of pages here consist of sixteen-panel grids in which each panel forms only a small part of a sentence and often only a small part of a larger image—suggests a minimalistic, even static approach to story. Story arc, narrative as we know from Dickens, or say any genre fiction, this doesn’t really interest Seth, does it? Maybe a tad with It’s a Good Life…. His panel sequences often offer slight variations on the character depicted, often from the same point of view. Dialogue takes a back seat to narration - Seth tends to violate the truism that a story should show, not tell.

Yeah, sure I say. Good observation. Show and don’t tell. But rules are meant to be broken, too.

I can see that, as with Clyde Fans and now these pieces in PV 24, Seth might be getting more rarefied, distilled. As with the “Rubber Stamp” diary in PV 23, there’s not much in the way of narrative. Seth is in the most minimalist of a storytelling persona: he goes out for a walk to get some fresh air, and drops his pen. It’s almost absurd, like only a Samuel Beckett character can pull off. And yet, so compelling.

Also, my fav filmmaker, Andrei Tarkovsky, is not a traditional storyteller, and much of Seth’s work reminds me of Tarkovsky. Slow-paced, minimalist, atmospheric… and heavy on dreamlike sequences tied together. And, meditative in what dialogue there is. Love it.

“Dialogue and character,” says Grace of what we encounter in PV 24, “are often explicitly acknowledged as unrecoverable—the empty text balloons, the blank faces of people only partially remembered—peak to the inevitability of the loss of the past.”

Yes, as Seth asks here… can “memories die of neglect?” There have been psychological studies of old people like my mom telling the same story over and over and over for decades, and how just doing that… reinforces the accuracy (though sometimes not) of what has been lost to the past.

Grace goes on: “Thematically, this idea runs through the book, and indeed units two and three are if anything even more explicitly anti-narrative. 'The Apology of Albert Batch' consists primarily of lists rather than narrative - here are all the things in his apartment (even his final, unflushed turd, an excellent example of Seth's deadpan humor), here are the people in his life, etc. As Seth has done elsewhere—George Sprott, Clyde Fans—people are represented by the detritus of their lives but essentially unknowable. This is perhaps best foregrounded in 'Albert Batch' with the incomplete comic strip, in which the culmination of Batch's work is an empty panel.”

TOP: Page detail from “Nothing Lasts {Part Four}”. BOTTOM: Still image from "The Apology of Albert Batch", a short film performed by Seth and directed by Luc Chamberland, included on a DVD and via digital code with Palookaville 24.

In section three of PV 24, Seth presents “Selections from Sketchbook Thirteen” and gives himself an exercise: to pick five flower names out of hundreds from a 1967 southern Ontario flower nursery seed catalog, and use those flower names as titles and inspiration for five very short stories. I’m guessing the catalogue came from his mother or father? That’s something to pre-consider before we dive deeper. This sort of self-imposed creative restriction might be familiar to anyone who has watched the Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier’s game with his mentor Jørgen Leth in The Five Obstructions, a genius concept for storytelling, and well… put that film on your list. What do we encounter here, are these Seth’s personal ghost stories? Drug trips, hallucinations? Not exactly. Seth shoots down that theory when I enquire.

But don’t do what I did at the beginning of this section, where Seth sets up what the exercise is about - namely, to pick some flower seed names from McConnell's catalogue. I skipped over the 380 or so names in Seth’s list to get on with his delivery of said exercise. But you might want to read every flower name, not just take it that this is a historically accurate list of names. I went back and googled some of them, and while Seth uses, say, Sunburst for one of the stories in section three, the full name is Coreopsis Sunburst. Okay, no big deal, but you’ll read in his list of flower names, get this, Miss Canada, Christian Dior, Charlie McCarthy… really? And, oh, most telling, a flower named Capt. Gallant. Now why didn’t he choose to do a story on such a flower? Is he pulling our leg?*

Never mind that for the moment.

From "Selections from Sketchbook Thirteen".

“The sketchbook stories are impressively anti-narrative, with virtually no character but instead a focus on old, abandoned places, in stories (or unstories, perhaps) that have almost a weird or uncanny feeling to them,” comments Grace.

“The mysterious old or abandoned space is such a recognizable gothic trope, but Seth does not use it to create conventional gothic mysteries but instead to meditate on space and loss - the demolished house, with only a single remaining picture, the writing on the back too faded to read; the now-empty apartment, with no evidence of who lived there, the abandoned mansion imaged as an icy monument, etc. The recurring motif here of someone visiting such spaces to find nothing—and in some of these pieces, we do not see a single living human figure—speaks strongly to the informing idea of the main narrative, that 'Nothing Lasts.'”

Exactly. I believe Seth has Last Year at Marienbad at the top on his top ten picks from the Criterion Collection. A film very influential on him, as seen here? It’s a masterpiece of the uncanny and enigmatic and foggy memory and, well, nothing much is revealed or resolved. Images from that film came to mind while looking at some of Seth’s section three sketchbook exercises.

Back to Dominick Grace: “I don't find this particularly grim or depressing work—Seth's style and perspective are too cool for that, and there is also that deadpan humor—but there is something melancholic and perhaps even pessimistic about the ephemerality and unknowability of human life that permeates Seth's work.”

Yes. And also, how do we properly describe Seth’s subtle humor? He’s certainly never going for the big laugh, punch line. Right?

One more thing: There’s something about Seth’s narrative style or lack thereof that reminds me of what I loved about reading Peanuts as a kid. There’s often little in the way of a time’s arrow narrative (we know in advance he ain’t gonna kick the football) with those daily strips. More than observational reflection on life’s enigmatic events, they’re meditations, and Seth just might be borrowing from Schulz’s playbook.

I ask Canadian cartoonist Charles Jaffe what he makes of the proceedings in PV 24:

It seems, as if there are two stories going on in the main story. The remembrances of Seth’s time at the Cove Inn but also the story of his attempts to make sense of it. One proceeds through time and the events and things change.

The other level, the narrator seems fixed and static. There is however a story there which has its own suspense and potential resolution… of some sort.

It might even be the main, important story. I wonder though, if closer reading could show some change, character development, as he thinks… or speaks to his audience… us.

Maybe previous issues of Palookaville might show that the stasis of the narrator itself is a vanishing illusion and he’s now a different person than in earlier issues?

Why should the present Seth’s comments on the past Seth be any more definitive? Is not the universe still the same and the present ever fleeting?

Often monuments, memorials have that ineffable, plangent quality of the lost time and people that they are trying to bring back, if only in memory, tombs, war memorials, biographies, bio-films so maybe the cartoon strips are memorials, monuments to Seth’s past while, more obviously than is usual, acknowledging their limitations.

Maybe Jaffe should write a book on Seth. I’m in for a copy. Specifically on section three, he comes up with a bit of food for thought we all might want to consider:

When reading the stories, the film The Shining came to mind. Big abandoned structures, not fallen yet into ruin. Perhaps the ruins here, at least in the Cove Inn story, are the memories. The first story about the Cove Inn situates the writer in the physical building but the later sketches leave unanswered what the observer is doing there, rendering the pieces more dreamlike. It all seems a piece with Seth's nostalgia, or at least, his questioning his own memories' trustworthiness.

If the ‘Sketches’ are preliminary efforts, then perhaps the detailed narrative in the Cove Inn is an afterthought and the image that suffuses the texts is of grand, abandoned structures, even the lighthouse island, Juliette house…. The more splendid and more elaborate the building, the more obvious its purposefulness is but what that purpose might be and what the purpose of the narrator being there are the big questions. That perhaps memory, or thought itself, is unable to determine?

The lighthouse on the island is defunct but the light is down below in the cave (of “Eternal Flame”, section 3).

My old high school emblem was a lighthouse, the motto, Lux Numquam Desit - May the Light Never Fail.

But here, the light exists, not in the tower but its opposite, the cave, yet… it hasn't failed.

That's pretty optimistic for Seth.

Indeed. Pretty optimistic. But Charles Jaffe might be totally misguided. Though of course he’s entitled to his takeaway. Me? The sketchbook exercise he’s referring to, “Eternal Flame”, could have a multitude of interpretations. As with “Sunburst”, the final exercise which ends the PV 24 proceedings. I read it as an allegory of the development of nuclear weapons that haunted every kid growing up in the Cold War era. With Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer front and center in the media just now, I can’t help myself with that take. And I could be dead… wrong.

Though scholar Grace sees things my way. “Makes sense,” he comments. “The association of the nuke and sunburst is long-standing. The manga series Barefoot Gen uses the idea extensively. Phyllis Gotlieb's novel Sunburst uses the idea, etc. And some of those trees DO look like mushroom clouds....”



“As for the light in the cave,” notes Grace, “this occurs to me only now... is Seth playing on Plato's allegory of the cave - the light behind the cave's inhabitants, showing only shadows of reality? One must leave the cave, turn away from the shadows, to see reality - which for Plato (as you are no doubt aware) meant seeing the higher reality of which the world we inhabit is only a shadow. I don't know that that fits at all...”

No matter. Readers will make up their own minds, or, scratch their heads accordingly. I want to ask Seth what he makes of all of this interpretation but I know better. That’d be a mistake.

"Eternal Flame"

As for Jaffe’s comparison to The Shining, that rings true to some degree. Is that film in the horror genre, and does Seth tread lightly on such horror tropes, too? I heard a definition of horror that suggests horror, certainly the uncanny, posits that there are things from our past that might come back to remind us of “missteps” or failings to… remember. What actually happened in the past. And that’s why it is scary. Hmm.

“Juliette,” says Jaffe about one of the flower seed exercises, “so there’s the Shakespeare character, is this her tomb? Alternatively, it’s referencing Juliet of the Spirits?

"Thinking about Albert Batch, he dies regretting that he didn’t include in his work his real life, events and people instead of doing a genre strip like Gasoline Alley. Then he’s confronted by a gallery (jury?) of cartoonists who managed to escape the strictures of mass media and connect with real life. In that respect the puppet show might be Seth’s manifesto or ‘artist’s statement’ more about his own ambitions and hopes than anything autobiographical…?”

That’s a good take. It is called an apology after all. Is that what the apology is… that he is not autobiographical enough? Except, we do see his friends and fellow cartoonists in It’s a Good Life... With Seth’s other work it’s more about imaginary characters.

“If you look at the historical meaning of apology,” adds Jaffe, “apologia, it has elements of justification. I think there might be something there to Batch’s Apology, it’s an argument in favor of something.”

Then, apologia might have better suited the title here. And then there’s all the unfinished things in Albert Batch’s life, the empty speech bubble… even an unfinished turd. Is that Seth’s comment on his oeuvre, since he is obviously Batch to some degree, and it’s a dismissal of or self-evaluation of his body of work as crap in comparison to his heroes that came before, such as Crumb and Schulz? Jaffe notes that both meanings, an apology and apologia, in the context of the film hold up, Batch’s viewpoint and Seth’s.

As with parts of “Nothing Lasts”, there is some handwringing over the clarity of memory, names, the exact time or place in the past by our narrator in these “exercises.” I’m tempted to ask Seth if there is a deeper subtext to these sketching exercises but then, we know that authorial intentions are not always necessary for a reader, nor fully reliable. We’ve seen a plethora of unreliable narrators in fiction and it’s a bit of a tired trope perhaps. Or, in memoir, you have the strange phenomena surrounding Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle series, wherein memory is almost too reliable for his friends and family. That work had to be branded as fiction, or the new category of autofiction.

I mention to Seth that there is power in a single panel, or maybe a strip cut out of the Saturday newspaper syndicated strips and pinned to one’s fridge for further contemplation. I used to do that 30 years ago when there were newspapers, and strips. I forget to ask if Seth had such cartoons he pinned to his fridge as a kid. But I mention a New Yorker cartoon that was pinned to my fridge, it’s of two dogs, and one says to the other, “I used to have a blog too, but then I just decided to go back to incessant barking.” I’ve often quoted that one, and it speaks to the power of a cartoon to remind us of places in time in our culture, the ability of the art form to inform and inspire and contemplate life’s inadequacies and its beauties.

If I were to pull one such panel out of PV 24 and pin it to my fridge today, it would be from around page 20 of “Nothing Lasts {Part Four}” where our narrator ponders, perfectly set in white type on a pitch black background - an abysmal, existential, angst ridden background? “Can a memory die of neglect?”

Maybe it’s just me. But, damn straight it can.

Because if you’ve been paying attention to what Seth has taught us all along, it is that, well… nothing lasts.

* * *

*Seth is fond of using asterisks in his storytelling to augment or elaborate a subtle thought, and since I like it so much, I’m gonna try using one too. Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion is the name of a TV series from 1955 and Capt. Gallant is also the real name of a flower, as are all of the names listed in section three of PV 24. OK, now go back.