SETH is an Eisner and Harvey award-winning comic artist whose 1930s inspired aesthetic and quiet, poignant stories set him apart from all other creators working today.
Sceptical of computers, wary of pop-culture and not one to mingle at conventions – SETH cuts a unique figure in the industry. OFF LIFE was fortunate to speak with the 20 year comic veteran, whose latest Palookaville anthology has opened his daily comic strip diary to fans for the first time.
Your long-running Clyde Fans story has a very distinct, almost noir style. Which mediums outside comics influence it?
As funny as it may sound, when I first started writing Clyde Fans 10 years ago it was the play A Long Day’s Journey Into Night that was in my mind. It has a very small cast of characters, in a self-contained space and I really wanted to create that same feeling of a story and place that was set apart from the rest of the world.
What is it about the 1930s aesthetic that compels you to create stories based within it?
I think you could say that somewhere along the line my style got stuck in that ’20s aesthetic. Some time in my early twenties I was working on the Mr X comic, and so I was really immersing myself in the furniture, the clothes, the tone of that ’20s and ’30s era – and it seemed to stick. There’s something in the clean, orderly design of that pre-war period that, to me, feels like the pinnacle of everything.
Even when I try and get away from it I can’t, I’m constrained by it because nothing since has looked as good to me. I tend to see that ’30s period as the peak of aesthetic, that everything before built towards it and everything since declined. It could also be connected to having parents from that era. Growing up with older parents has certainly infected me with some sort of built-in compass for that period.
If that’s the aesthetic you’re growing up around then it’s bound to leave you with an emotional connection.
Yes, but I also think that a lot of artistic reasoning is nonsense because it’s done backwards. We determine that we like something and then build reasons around it.
Though set in the past, Clyde Fans doesn’t shy away from the grit and the grub of everyday life. In showing daily minutia – a man going to toilet or taking his sweaty jacket off after work – are you drawing parallels to modern life?
I definitely wanted it to have the slow qualities of daily life, that’s why there’s almost a plodding pace to the story. I probably could have wrapped Clyde Fans up a long time ago if I hadn’t dedicated pages to characters walking between rooms, but it feels necessary to me to give that sense of place. Characters have to walk through a lot of rooms before getting to the end.
So what would you like readers to take away from your stories?
Well, I hope they enjoy what I call ‘the sublime boredom’ – where stories are slow and conflict is on a very low level. It’s where the plot almost doesn’t matter, but when you close the book at the end you’re left with an overriding feeling that lingers with you. Later, you may have forgotten the details of my stories, but hopefully it’s the feeling that remains.
Palookaville Twenty One includes, for the first time ever, extracts from your personal comic-strip diary. Why did you keep the diary?
I think it’s important as an artist to keep a diary, but it’s also quite hard. There’s something about writing down the details of your life that make you look at them differently, it brings ideas to the surface and marks out a pattern in your life. Of course it can also be a good source of material; something might happen in your day but it’s not until looking back at it later that you can see a story in it.
Much of your work explores and advocates the history of the comic medium. Is it important to look back at what’s come before?
At one point I would have said yes, absolutely, but comics have changed a lot in the last 30 years. When I first started out, the history of cartooning was really hard to get a good grasp on. Even the few books that were written about the history of cartooning were hard to get ahold of – you couldn’t just walk into any library and get a good understanding of the medium – so most people came in to it through the most commercial sources like newspaper and superhero comics.
It meant that any underground comic artist felt they really needed to dig in and learn about the history of cartooning, so they could break away from the commercial form. But I’m not so sure that it’s so important today.
Now people can go out and find the history of their medium pretty easily on the internet. I bet any 21 year old working in art comics has a pretty good grasp on their history, so it might be a load off your back to not feel the need to learn everything and break away.
Speaking of the commercial form, why do you think that people outside of the industry struggle to look past the superhero genre and see what else is happening in comics?
I think what’s really surprising is how much the mainstream public have embraced the superhero comic. I always thought the superhero was very much a sub-culture genre like fantasy. But all that has crossed over into mainstream culture now – so perhaps it’s just an easy thing to like, especially now that technology can give people superheroes in a high glossy form. I didn’t expect it.
But culturally, I think that we’re living in a very lazy time. You almost have to trick people into reading things that don’t have an easy surface to them – but then once people get past their preconceptions they find things aren’t as difficult or highbrow as they might expect. There are people who don’t want to read Maus or Jimmy Corrigan, but once they make the effort they discover how accessible it really is.
Perhaps people have it in their mind that they don’t want to think while they’re being entertained. I mean, I like all work, from entertainment that’s slow and plodding to throw-away material that’s like candy, but I need a full diet. You can’t eat cake for every meal, but at the moment culture kind of does want to eat cake for every meal.
As you say, comics have changed a lot in the last 30 years. Now there’s a lean towards digital comics and we were wondering how you think reading a comic digitally – as oppose to in print – changes the experience?
I’ve read quite a few digital comics and I’m not opposed to the medium. I read one just this week that was pretty engaging and the fact it was online didn’t change much as it was a very straightforward presentation of clicking through panels. But apart from them being accessible, I don’t really see the point of comics being online – it’s just imitating a book. And I prefer books.
My problem with things being online is that they don’t have the solitude that comes with a book. You can’t click away from a book to look at something else. I like some qualities of the computer, it gives me access to things and I can purchase things easily, but I don’t really like the computer. I don’t like that I can feel its presence in the house. Before the computer arrived, I felt a much greater sense of isolation. When I was working I used to feel alone, but now I’m in permanent connection with the world.
There’s something about that two-way nature of the computer that makes you feel always in connection with the rest of humanity, and that loss of singularity is a problem for me. Comics especially belong to the print medium. Even a novel you can read aloud, but you have to study and read a comic alone – singularly. Any medium which breaks that relationship worries me. But the battle is lost, print isn’t the future and so I don’t think cartooning will be the same thing in 20 years that I’m used to.
And two decades on, what keeps you creating?
Well, I still love the medium itself, but I don’t think I’m as interested in the big world of cartooning as when I was younger. Back then I had a kind of zeal and was interested in any type of cartooning – children’s illustrating, zines, mini-comics – and even though I still keep up with it, now I’m just primarily interested in doing my own work.
As I get older I understand more what I’d like to do and say with my work, what kind of stories I want to tell and how to tell them. It takes a long time as an artist to come to know yourself and the medium you’re working in, and so now that I’ve developed my own grammar I just want to do as much work in it before my time runs out. In that sense, I’m not all that interested in being part of the comics scene any more. I don’t really care about the conventions or meeting new artists because that’s the world of youth.
It was interesting to sit at SPX just a few months back and watch the enthusiasm young cartoonists had for meeting and talking with each other – and I would have enjoyed that when I was 20 – but at this point I don’t really have that desire to connect. Even with my peers and best friends like Adrian Tomine and Chris Ware, we’ve similar work but also our own styles that aren’t really cross-pollinating any more. I guess you get old and realise that it’s time to just hunker down and do the work.
Is that sad or liberating?
It’s liberating. As you get older things fall away. You become less concerned with many of the concerns of youth. You don’t really care if people like your work any more. I mean, you want to sustain an audience but really you’re heading down paths just because they interest you.