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Interviews: On Cartooning

"If I was talking to a young cartoonist I would certainly tell him/her not to worry about style. It will take care of itself." Comic artist Seth talks about how he developed his unique visual style.

POV: The ligne claire ("clear line") style Hergé employed when drawing the iconic characters of Tintin contrasts with the unusually realistic landscapes and backgrounds of the worlds Tintin visits and inhabits. As Scott McCloud pointed out in his book Understanding Comics, this contrast gives the effect of allowing the comic reader to "mask themselves in a character and safely enter a stimulating world." "One set of line," he writes, "allows readers to see; the other to be."

Your style is extremely distinctive: evocative and impressionistic in its use of light and shadow, with a compelling urgency of movement through the story. Describe your own illustrative strategy as you see it. How did you arrive at it? How do you feel it's been most effective? Did you struggle to find it or did it come naturally? When does it not work?

Seth self-portrait Seth: Style is a funny word — we all think we know what it means because we look at a cartoonist's work and we see the evidence of it there. It is right on the surface. However, the funny thing about style is that it is a misleading concept. Many young artists (myself included when I was younger) have the mistaken idea that you pick a style and draw in that style. Some people manage to do it this way. However, in my own experience it seems more likely that the style picks you. It is something that grows out of a series of choices when you are learning to cartoon. If, for example, you decide to simplify the drawings down to their most basic shapes (to aid in clear storytelling), then those choices in simplification decide your style. Perhaps you chose circles for heads and blank backgrounds — there is your style. Maybe you preferred a more atmospheric approach and you used a lot of crosshatching to define your figures — another style. Ultimately, a million choices are made in trying to figure out how to tell a comic story and these little choices (e.g., How do I draw a nose simply?) add up to a style.

This is the process that evolved my style. I certainly didn't realize it at the time, but the way I draw now is the result of thousands of such choices over the years. When I was in my early twenties I didn't really have a clear drawing style and I was worried about acquiring one. I drew one strip in an Edward Gorey style and another in a clean line approach. I didn't know what I was doing. A few years later I was surprised to discover that I had developed some sort of style of my own by simply trying to learn to draw a comic book. It happened while I wasn't paying attention. If I was talking to a young cartoonist I would certainly tell him/her not to worry about style. It will take care of itself. Instead pay attention to the details of your craft.

On the matter of "masking" — I'm not so sure I accept that idea. I don't think I experience this effect when I'm reading a comic myself. I simply enter into the reality of it in the same way I would a prose novel. I don't need an iconic representation in a novel to enter into the world of the story. I merely need to decode the words and have them unfold in my mind into pictures. I believe a comic does exactly the same thing, except with the comic book you must decode both the words and the pictures and combine them in your mind into a single unit. I believe this is why Hergé's clear line approach is so effective. The drawings are really a series of simplified picture symbols that are as easy for your reading brain to decode as the words are. They are remarkably clear. He is never deliberately trying to create any ambiguity in the drawings. If you had to pause to figure out the drawings in a Tintin comic, I would be surprised. Hergé has done a masterful job at making the storytelling clear. This straightforward approach to storytelling is exactly what I am aiming at myself in my own work and Hergé was a large influence on my thinking back when I was young and trying to figure out how to tell a story.

POV: Among your most well-known characters are traveling salesmen and comic book collectors. How do you feel about your recurring characters? How real do they become to you as you work and live with them over the years? Do you imagine them having a life independent of the comic?

The Clyde Fans Company's neglected storefront — closed

The Clyde Fans Company's neglected storefront — closed after 44 years of continuous business. From Clyde Fans: Book One, p. 11. Copyright Seth. Courtesy Drawn & Quarterly.

Seth: Writers often say that the characters come to life for them but sadly, that has not fully been my experience with them. Perhaps if, like Charles Schulz, you have drawn them for 50 years they come to life for you. I find that I have a good understanding of my characters and I know how they would "act" in a certain situation, but they are too fully made up out of bits and pieces for me to think of them as real. They are stitched together from parts of myself and other people and things I have read in books or imagined; Frankenstein monsters more than real people.

I suppose, in a vague sense, they live outside of me. I do feel that with a character like Wimbledon Green, that he carries on somehow after the book is finished. If I wanted to, I could sort of squint and take a look and see what he is "up to" and then write another comic story about him. But that all seems to be happening in some dark, rarely visited back corner of my brain.

Generally, I am not much interested in continuing characters (for my own work). I like to come up with a story that has a beginning and an end. However, I don't impose that restriction on others. Sometimes a continuing character works. As a reader, I often want more of a character after I finish a book — so I am no different than any other reader. The temptation to return to a character who has been well received is a difficult one for a cartoonist — and it is easy to make a mistake and return to that well one too many times and find it has run dry. The history of cartooning is mostly the history of famous cartoon "characters" — not powerful or meaningful stories. As an artist — I am not overly concerned with creating characters. Mostly I am trying to capture something about life itself and convey it through the person who the story is about. Hopefully they become interesting people rather than great cartoon characters.

POV: Describe your working process. Do you work daily? When you begin a comic, do you start with image, or with text? What are the raw materials of a story? Do you always know what is going to happen, or does the story take turns that surprise you?

Simon Matchcard makes a sales call at the Dominion General Store

Simon Matchcard makes a sales call at the Dominion General Store. From Clyde Fans: Book One, p. 99. Copyright Seth. Courtesy Drawn & Quarterly.

Seth: I work everyday. Though I work on a wide variety of projects and some days I don't get to do any cartooning — I may just be drawing or designing for a commercial project. I find that the longer the period is between actually working on a comic strip, the more likely I am to be depressed. Something about cartooning is just more satisfying to me than any other artistic pursuit (though it is also more difficult). Usually my ideas come to me in a vague form — just a feeling or a situation or a setting — and then as I develop the idea it constitutes itself into a comic form in my brain. Not that it becomes anything complete, merely that I start to see it with a kind of structure or rhythm. In other words, much like a writer might start to put together sentences in his mind to describe the scene he is imagining, I start to imagine comic panels and the sequences they may flow in. When I actually sit down and start drawing little thumbnail sketches of the strip, it may take on an entirely separate narrative flow, but it usually starts with at least one simple sequence — say, a character rising from his bed while recalling a dream. It never starts as a series of words that then have pictures added to them. I would imagine a filmmaker thinks in a somewhat similar way — imagining scenes with movement rather than just characters' dialogue which will then need some visuals.

A lot of my story ideas take years to develop, usually starting with something very nebulous, like an interesting building I might see on a drive somewhere, and then over time other little odd bits and pieces will be added to it. Perhaps I will read a book and it will mention some occupation that interests me (a trainspotter for example) and I might then imagine that this fellow lives in that house. Eventually these things come together into some sort of an empty skeleton. I often have many of these skeletons rattling around in my brain. What changes them into real material for me is if something human from my own life gets added to them to make them vital. Perhaps this guy will become the vehicle to discuss the relationship I have with my father (or some such thing). When this alchemy happens I am often surprised. The stories themselves are always a bit of a surprise to me because I never really try to come up with "plots" for them and so I don't really know what they are about (in some ways) until they are up and running.

POV: You've said that comic writing is much like poetry because so much depends on rhythm; you also said you believe comics are closer to being like a combination of poetry and design than drawings and literature, or film and literature. Can you talk a little more about what you mean by that — and how cartooning is different for you as a creative process than working in other genres like illustration and design?

From Clyde Fans: Book One. Copyright Seth. Courtesy Drawn & Quarterly.

Seth: Illustration and design are almost purely visual activities while comics is mostly a storytelling medium. That makes them very different right from the start. While working on those activities I am merely thinking of trying to create something aesthetically pleasing that treats the viewer with some kind of respect. I try to get some sort of sense of humor into it too — and some beauty. All of my art has a real hand-done feeling to it so I want it to be beautiful in some fundamental way — it should look human and warm.

Now comics — that is a lot more complicated. In comics I am trying to be an "artist" in the bigger sense, and I'm trying to convey something of real life experience. Every day I go down into my studio and I feel a real variety of human emotions — the whole experience of spending so much time alone (which a cartoonist must do simply to do the work) engaged in introspection and memory really fires my entire purpose as an artist. It is very frustrating to me that this deepest [level] of feeling is the hardest thing to get down on the page. I don't feel I have ever managed to get even a tenth of it into anything I do. I think as a human being there is a strong desire to communicate to others all that turmoil of emotion that is locked up inside of us. The experience of inside and outside is so profound — we live in this exterior world but everything is understood from inside our minds. We really live in here and not out there. That interior landscape is so difficult to portray — but that seems to be the thing most important to try to share.

As for comics and poetry: The connection between the two is fairly obvious if you've ever sat down to write a one-page comic. The entire process is concerned with rhythm and condensed language. In many ways, the restrictions placed on a cartoonist when he writes (amount of text that will fit in a wood balloon or caption) and the very nature of how reading panels creates a rhythm, a cadence, in the reader's mind makes a pretty good case for comparing the two disciplines.

POV: Marshall McLuhan, author of the 1967 book The Medium is the Massage, wrote about the differences between what he called "hot" media versus "cool" media. Hot media, like movies and radio, he said, were dense with data and therefore demanded only a passive audience, whereas "cool" media, lo-fi and utilizing iconic forms, required active, involved audience participation. His examples of "cool" media are television and comics. Do you agree with McLuhan's assessment?

From Wimbledon Green, p. 14. Copyright Seth.

From Wimbledon Green, p. 14. Copyright Seth. Courtesy Drawn & Quarterly.

Seth: Being a fellow Canadian, I agree with McLuhan on nationalistic terms alone. Seriously, though, I think McLuhan is dead right. It could be simply self-interest but I do think that comics (like prose) require a more active involvement of the reader. As I mentioned earlier, simply reading a comic book is a process of deciphering the words and images simultaneously. That sounds rather impressive, but of course, if you've read any comic (even Garfield, for example) you realize that it is a rather natural process and doesn't require any study. Whenever I hear someone say they met someone who doesn't know how to read a comic book I am always perplexed. It seems pretty easy to me. If you are having too much trouble reading a comic I suspect the cartoonist has done a poor job of his storytelling.

Simple or not, I do believe comics are an inherently fascinating art medium. In the hands of a talented and ambitious cartoonist the work can be an extremely layered reading experience, and can involve as much analysis from the reader as they wish to put into it. I think the electronic media of film and television can be as richly layered — but I would agree with McLuhan that the viewer is mostly in a passive state while taking it in. They are both more clearly group experiences, too. Reading remains a more intimate process — one to one. That one to one relationship between artist and reader appeals to me.

POV: You're redesigning The Complete Peanuts as a 25-book series for Fantagraphics; you've also said that you were significantly influenced by Tintin. How have these comics found their way into your work, consciously or perhaps unintentionally? What about other influences of yours, like the short stories of Alice Munro?

Seth: Personally I am a sponge when it comes to influences. I have been influenced by an endless stream of other artists and writers and filmmakers. At some point the word "influence" seems to be a poor choice, because after a certain age you are less being influenced than simply outright stealing from your peers (which I have certainly done). Generally, when I consider my influences. I tend to go back to the "seminal" — the ones I was drawn to at a young age and had tried my best to absorb whatever I could from them. Schulz was the most powerful. His work interested me at an early age and has continued all of my life. I didn't understand as a child why I was drawn to his work (I just thought it was funny) but later, in my early twenties, I began to go back and reread all of those Peanuts books I had loved as a kid. I came to really see and appreciate the sensitive genius he was. Unlike any other cartoonist working in that commercial venue, Schulz managed to infuse a very personal and idiosyncratic vision into what was essentially a kiddie gag strip. The work had a lot of black humor, and it was sad, poignant and dark, but not in a calculated way. Schulz was simply fusing his own inner life with the characters. It touched people even if they never understood why they were responding to it. He really was one of a kind. Funny, smart, subtle, mean and emotional. A rare type to find working in newspaper strips in those days.

Later, I discovered Robert Crumb. Crumb is surprisingly like Schulz in that he used comics as a natural outlet for his own inner life. Unlike Schulz, he was not restrained by the conventional media, nor was he from the same generation as Schulz. Crumb's self-expression was markedly bolder and more startling, but essentially, these two artists are not that different from each other. Both of them are amazing examples for a young cartoonist — neither compromised their vision in any way. They both took what was a straightforward commercial art medium and used it as a very personal method of self-expression. These men were great pointers for a young artist to follow.

When I was about 19 or 20 I began to be interested in the three artists that would hold my interest in that first half of my twenties: Crumb, J. D. Salinger and Woody Allen. The last two have slipped somewhat from my radar over the last decade, but in those years these men were very influential in my thinking. In retrospect, it tells me a lot about myself that I was drawn to these three artists and not others. All of them were somewhat introspective and backward-looking and none of them were artists with a capital "A." I certainly wouldn't put myself in a list with these men, but these are the qualities that I was clearly looking for in them.

There are many artists who have been important to me since them, and out of those a good number of artists I am most drawn to are oddball loner types — somehow I really admire these characters who produced art for such personal reasons (often getting little positive feedback from the outside world). That purity is very appealing. And certainly in the last decade I have found myself responding heavily to a handful of Japanese writers from the early 20th century (Tanizaki, Kawabata, Mishima, etc.) whose slow and patient interior storytelling appeals to me greatly. Alice Munro is definitely among my very favorite writers simply because she has such a deep, deep understanding of the inner life. I would never list her as an influence because what she does is mysterious and is something beyond my ability to incorporate or even outright steal.

As for Tintin: Hergé came along at just the right time for me. I started studying his work in my early twenties, and this was when I really needed some examples of how to tell a story clearly and cleanly. That brilliant clarity of line and design in Tintin was the object lesson I needed.

POV: Although some have approached its widespread popularity, there is no exact parallel to Tintin in American comics. Why do you think this is so? What in American comics comes closest to Tintin and approximating the cult of Tintin? In other media?

Seth: It probably has something to do with national character. America and France/Belgium are such different places and I think the popular media of these two cultures reflects something on the character of the countries themselves. America adopted the superhero as its model (eventually) and this seems to have filled the same role for young children that Tintin filled for much of the rest of the world. The difference between a Tintin and a Superman is an interesting comparison, and I think it says an awful lot about how Americans view themselves vs. how Europeans do. I don't think it is a coincidence that both of these iconic figures rose to popularity during the thirties and WWII. I won't bore you with an essay about what these two characters represent. I think it is pretty obvious right on the surface.

Certainly Hergé's example was a better model for producing lasting cartooning. The very format of the hardcover Tintin albums vs. the disposable pamplets of the American comic books meant that the North American artists would naturally be viewed differently than their European counterparts. It has made for a longer steeper climb for cartoons to find an adult audience over here in America.

POV: Pop artists like Andy Warhol and Lichtenstein, and other artists like Raymond Pettibo, have certainly been influenced by comics and have incorporated elements of them into their paintings. (Warhol was particularly influenced by Hergé.) And of course, Art Spiegelman really struck a nerve with a literary and a mainstream audience with Maus. In the last few years, a number of literary journals have been devoting space to comics; the New York Times magazine began serializing comics in 2005, beginning with Chris Ware's. Although for years comics have been denigrated as a so-called "low art" category, it appears they're becoming not only more popular and widely accepted, but perhaps even validated as a form of art and a long literary narrative. Would you agree with this? Is "form" the right word here? Do you think that this kind of validation is inhibiting in any way, that comics are in danger of becoming less rebellious or creatively free because they're more accepted and being published in the mainstream?

Seth: It has been a long uphill climb for the lowly comic artist. Lately, it seems as if we have finally gotten our heads out of the water and have made some important steps to get out onto the beach. Personally, I think this is great. I have no desire to hang onto any kind of outsider status. I would like the comic book (or "graphic novel") to be a perfectly legitimate medium for artistic pursuit. We are much closer to people perceiving it that way. I think there are currently a handful of cartoonists working today at a level that is equal to any other group of artists in any of the other mediums. I can't control how the work will be perceived or labeled — I simply know that the comic medium is like any other medium. It has its own strengths and weaknesses and it is only as good an artistic tool as the artists who practice it. It has a lot of negative baggage as a junk medium — but film and photography were once in this camp also. I have faith in it. However, the outside attention that comics has been receiving in the last few years has been very gratifying. I've noticed a large change in how my own work is being received. Things have changed significantly in a pretty short time period. I have no worries about the rebelliousness of the medium being squashed — already a new generation of cartoonists has risen up behind me that seems to be rebelling against all the directions we took. It appears to me that this new generation wants to get some "fun" back into the medium and that they aren't all that interested in producing "long and complex" narratives like the "old farts" of my cartooning generation. The comic book has real roots in the junk culture and no matter how much highfalutin acceptance it gets there will always be a contingent of cartoonists waiting to remind us of its origins. Which is also a good thing.

POV: Do you think it's also fair to say that a division or tension exists within the world of American comics, between the mainstream daily syndicated comic strip world or, say the New Yorker cartoon world, of which you are a part, and the comics underground/graphic novel world, of which you are also a part?

Seth: They are all part of some kind of a continuum because they are all forms of cartooning. But — the intentions of the artists in these various camps are quite different. I can respect and enjoy cartooning that strives for more traditional goals (e.g., simply going for a laugh) but I don't feel a great affinity necessarily with these cartoonists. I would probably feel more of a connection with another artist (of any medium really) simply based on what their artistic intentions are. For me it is a desire to communicate something of the inner life. In some ways this is probably closer to a contemporary fiction writer than a newspaper comic strip artist or a New Yorker gag cartoonist. That doesn't mean I don't feel any connection to these artists — I do. But it is often based more on a shared cartooning history rather than where we are heading.

POV: Hergé underwent a period of despair and anxiety during which he suffered recurring nightmares filled with whiteness — certainly iconic dreams for a cartoonist! Eventually, after psychoanalysis, he emerged with a new direction: Tintin in Tibet, with its stark alpine landscapes and minimalist cast and story, was a major departure for Hergé. Do you have periods when you lose faith in your work? How have you handled them? What do you feel is your greatest creative or artistic accomplishment?

Seth: "Do you have periods where you lose faith in your work?" Yes — those periods are called "every day." I find the process of cartooning a genuine struggle. You must have the confidence in yourself to pursue your work and publish it (you've got to have some faith in it to send it out into the world) but you must also have enough doubt about what you are doing to constantly try to tear it apart and try to make it better. It is a tightrope walk that is never very pleasant.

A cartoonist has a very isolated job. You sit in a room with yourself everyday, all day. You have to come to some sort of truce with yourself. It is difficult to do, and easy to become depressed or melancholic. When I first read of Hergé's troubles, years ago, I was not surprised. It seems an archetypal cartoonist story. The fact that this depression became fodder for his work strikes me as just what I would expect. You work it out at the drawing board — I could relate to that.

As for my greatest creative accomplishment — that is the work yet to come. I like some of what I have produced and others, not so much. The work that most holds my interest is the work-to-be.

POV: How does politics influence or impact your work in comics (or not)? Has it had a lesser or greater effect over the years?

Seth: I am really not much of a political person. I have political beliefs, but they don't occupy a large part of my daily life. I am so utterly self-obsessed that my main artistic concerns are generally informed more by my inner world than the political realities of the outer world. Clearly I am a typical product of this pampered North American affluence in that I can afford to be complacent and contemplate my own navel. When the end of the world hits (any day now) I am sure I will suddenly find out what a sheltered cry-baby I was. But it will be too late then to have made any effort to prevent what I am currently ignoring.

POV: What are you working on now?

Seth: I am plowing ahead with the second part of my book Clyde Fans. I hope to have a good chunk of it done by the end of this year and the whole book hopefully finished up in another year after that (with luck). Look for the next issue of Comic Art Magazine (no. 8) for a small 100-page book (titled: 40 Cartoon Books of Interest) that is shrink-wrapped in with it. This is a little book I recently produced that explores some of my collecting interests over the last twenty years.

It looks like there may be a strip in the works for a high profile magazine — but the negotiations have just begun on this so I am not naming any names just in case it doesn't happen.

Rebecca Bengal conducted this interview via email for POV

Related Links:
Drawn and Quarterly: Seth
The artist's page on his publisher's website

Fantagraphics Books: The Complete Peanuts
Seth designed this 25-volume set of Charles Schulz's classic Peanuts.





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It was obvious to me that Tintin in Tibet had to be the climax of an intense personal drama — played out so movingly by Hergé in the snowy and desolate plains of Himalaya. All I had to do was unearth the story...”

— Anders Østergaard

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