"I let the writing do whatever it wants": a Q&A with Clyde Fans graphic novelist Seth

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      The graphic novelist Seth has been called "one of Canada's great storytellers and writers" by no less than Douglas Coupland, who himself qualifies for that distinction. In May, Drawn and Quarterly will publish Clyde Fans, a 488-page collection of work that originally appeared, over a period of 20 years, in Seth's Palookaville comic series.

      Poetically scripted and beautifully executed in Seth's signature midcentury-inspired style, Clyde Fans is the story of two brothers, Abe and Simon Matchcard, and the family business they were stuck with when their father abandoned his wife and sons. (In a cruel twist of fate, Clyde Matchcard named that business after himself, telling this sons that "there's power in a name.") Simon is reclusive and philosophical, Abe is brash and garrulous, and each is miserable in his own unique way.

      Seth spoke to the Georgia Straight via telephone from his studio in Guelph, Ontario.

      Q: How does it feel to be able to see Clyde Fans collected in its entirety, all in one volume?

      A: Well, it feels good. I'm glad that it's done. It's funny; it's not like a big, life-changing experience. When I was putting the book together my production assistant kept saying things like "I'll make sure to honour your life's work," and stuff, and I kept thinking, "It's not that important. It's just a book I've been working on for a really long time, and I'm just glad it's done." There's a certain quality about it, like I can't believe it's done, because it was always hanging over my head as, like, "I'd better get back to that," and kind of dreading that—and kind of dreading that it would never get done.

      So there's a great sense of relief about it. But on the flip side, the positive element is that I feel good about it, surprisingly, when for years I thought, "How could I possibly feel good about this when the book is done?" Because it's taken so long, and there's a certain fragmentary quality to doing something over that much time. How consistent could it be? Will it come together? When I look at it, I feel a sense of satisfaction that it's going to be my major work and I'm happy enough with it.

      Q: You spent something like 20 years working on it, and one thing I noticed, seeing the entire thing all at once and just reading it from beginning to end, it took me almost until the end to realize that your drawing style had changed very drastically. When I went back and looked at the first few pages and then compared them with the last few, it's almost a completely different style.

      A: It is. It's changed quite a bit. And that, of course, you know, is problematic. But there's nothing to be done about it. I did give some serious thought, when I was constructing the final book, to say "I could redraw the first two chapters." But I thought, it's a big undertaking and it would add two more years to this, and I was, like, “I don’t want to do two more years of this book.” At some point you've got to let it go, and who knows? Even those two chapters might end up making even the third chapter look wrong somehow, if they were redrawn, because it's in that intermediary stage between the two periods, so I just let it stand as what it is. I mean, I fixed things up, but I didn't go in to the point of the massive change that it would need to be visually consistent.

      Q: When you started the story back in the '90s, did you have the whole sort of narrative arc of it mapped out in advance, or did some of it change a lot as you were going through it?

      A: It was mapped out in advance. Not in the sense that I wrote a script, though. I wrote down lots and lots of notes, and over the years the notes would change. But I knew where it was going, and I knew just about every scene in the book, in a sense. When I would get to each section, I would do the actual writing—and comic writing is funny, because you don't sit down and write a true script. I might sit down and type out a couple pages of dialogue. But the real writing occurs on the page as you sort of thumbnail it out and work out the panels, and the way things come together is as much in the drawing as it is in the writing.

      So I would say that I always knew exactly where it was going, and I always knew every scene in it, and I knew where it would end, and I knew this and I knew that, but the subtleties of it, they were created as I went along. I knew that even if it had only taken five years, I wouldn't have wanted to draw any book that required just following a script. The magic of cartooning—if there is any magic—is in the spontanaeity of creation when it comes together on the page. So there is a certain sense that it was all written in advance, and another sense that it was written entirely as I went along.

      So things did change, but there were no major changes. There were a few things where, when I got to it and did it, and then I looked at it later, I was like, "That didn't work as well as I thought it would," or "Maybe this was a mistake" or whatever. And there were slight alterations made when I fixed it up later. Generally I would say it was pretty true to the vision I had when I started.

      Q: Neither Abe nor Simon is particularly happy with how his life has turned out, and they're each sort of miserable in their own way. In a way, they've both trapped themselves in a place, or in a moment that they couldn't grow past. In Abe's case, that's "I need to keep this business open because Dad might come back"—which is what I thought you were getting at with the whole "There's power in a name" thing.

      A: It's tricky. I'm not sure you ever do know what you're doing, that's the funny thing. It's interesting; as you're saying this, I'm agreeing with everything you're saying, and it's true, and I think the essential element of any character I write is that they craft their own reality, and often it's not the right answer. And I do believe that's basically how we run our own lives; it's this complicated process of building identity and worlds for ourselves, and how often it's a mistake. There's a certain element in anything I write where I let the writing do whatever it wants. You know somehow things will connect, just as you were talking about there. I'm not sure that I planned those connections out in that clear way so much as just having a world view and allowing it to come out on the page.

      Q: I don't know if you have an answer to this question, because in a way they're two sides of the same coin, but of Abe and Simon, do you feel that one of them is a more sympathetic character than the other?

      A: I think Simon is the more sympathetic character, only because to some degree it appears he's allowed the world to act on him rather than him acting on the world, even though that's not entirely true. Abe, of course, is much more abrasive, and imposes his will on the world, and I think naturally Abe is more forthcoming, and maybe more comfortable with the negative truths in his life, where Simon is not so sure of them. I think you can't help but feel less sympathetic towards Abe. His aggression is probably more off-putting than Simon's obsequiousness.

      Q: I agree with that. I do feel like, in the case of Abe, if you look at it in a certain way, he put a lot of effort in, whereas Simon's coping mechanism was essentially to retreat.

      A: I agree. I think retreat is obviously the wrong answer in life. I firmly am a planner. I believe you always have to have a plan. It may not be the best plan, but you have to be active in the world. So I feel very sympathetic—very copacetic—towards Abe's approach to life. But of course the flip side is, I also feel like I'm a person who has crafted a life for himself where I'm by myself most of the time. The retreat of that is extremely powerful to me. I'm definitely an extrovert, but I can relate very heavily to the neuroses of a Simon character. Just walking downtown to the xerox shop, I will rehearse what I'm going to say in the xerox shop, like, 20 times before I get there: "Could I have five copies of this?"

      So I can kind of relate to both of them, but I do believe, when I look around the world at life, the people who have failed to initiate action on their own are the people who have made a terrible mistake. You really do have to forge your own way through, find a path, and that requires a lot of action. The only problem with the world of action is that that's where conflict comes from.

      Abe and several other characters of mine are much like my father, who was a very active, outgoing person, but with a lot of flaws and, I would say, character traits that are not ideal. These kinds of characters come up repeatedly in my work, and I think it is because I have a complicated relationship with them. I both like them and dislike them.

      Q: One thing I couldn't help but notice is that Simon, at least in the '50s, looks a little bit like you.

      A: Oh, everybody in the '50s looks a little like me. Actually, Simon has much more aquiline features than I do. But certainly we have the same tailor.

      As part of the Vancouver Writers Fest's Incite series, Seth will appear in conversation with cartoonist Ken Boesem at the Vancouver Public Library Central Branch on Wednesday (May 1).