George Sprott: 1894-1971, A Picture Novella by the Cartoonist Seth
An almost overwhelmingly beautiful book-as-art-object, George Sprott also tells an intriguing story with an intense and pervasive mix of melancholy, nostalgia, introspection and gags.
George Sprott: 1894-1971, A Picture Novella by the Cartoonist SethPublisher: Drawn & Quarterly
Length: 96 pages
US Publication Date: 2009-05
Raymond Souster could be a creation of Seth. A prolific and enigmatic Canadian poet (who really does exist), Souster seems to share with Seth several key themes and motifs that he returns to constantly and obsessively throughout his work. These include observations and studies of people living on the margins, life during WWII, and musings about life, love and Canada (especially small-town Ontario, and Toronto).
This is Souster's poem, "Mike White at the Westover", from his 2000 collection, Of Time and Toronto:
"Honest to God, one night
with a final, rousing trumpet chorus,
he lifted the hair-piece
of a guy clean off --
some boozer at a table
real close to the bandstand.
"But don't get me wrong,
he could lay down a ballad
like "I'm Through with Love,"
or maybe even "Sugar,"
with such a velvet-soft touch
that he reached the toughest heart,
"and each time it happened
in that crummy place
it got so quiet you could hear
the damn flies buzzing overhead."
Reading Souster's work, it's easy to imagine the character of the poet, like one of Seth's characters, walking the streets of his beloved city (which also manages to frustrate, puzzle and sadden him), and being overtaken with introspection. Despite their 41-year age difference (Souster was born in 1921, Seth in 1962), there's a strong sense of kinship in the works of these two Canadian artists.
All of this comes to mind when reading Seth's latest work, George Sprott, the publication of which provides an opportunity to review the work not just on its own, but also in the context of Seth's other work over the past 15-plus years.
An almost overwhelmingly beautiful book-as-art-object, George Sprott also tells an intriguing story with an intense and pervasive mix of melancholy, nostalgia, introspection and gags. Using as a narrative frame the final hours leading up to the death of the titular character, on October 2, 1971, the story attempts to tell the character's life story, using interviews with other character's (reminiscent of Citizen Kane), dream sequences, scrapbook fragments and more. It's a gently non-linear technique that Seth has employed frequently in his work. It's cinematic and poetic, and unmistakably work by Seth.
For more than 20 years, George Sprott hosted 1,132 episodes of Northern Hi-Lights, a local television show on CKCK-TV in the fictional town of Dominion, Ontario. Each show would focus on George's time in the Arctic: he would talk about his adventures there, and show the silent documentary films he made over the course of nine trips there between 1930 and 1940.
As one character says, when George became older, sometimes he would run out of things to say, so the television crew would point the camera at "this terrible Eskimo painting" until he thought of something else to say. George was also famous (possibly even more so) for falling asleep on camera. Along with his TV show, George spoke every Thursday from 1941 to 1975 at the local lecture hall, also about his time in the arctic, to an ever-dwindling audience, the core of which remained loyal to the end.
Throughout the story, there's an unseen narrator who addresses the reader, often to apologize about how little information he is imparting, and recognizing his own limitations in revealing George's character.
"As your narrator, however, I must admit I have done a rather poor job of 'setting things up'. I failed to tell you almost anything about the man. I apologize," the narrator says at one point.
At another point, the narrator interrupts to say: "And he... damn! This is no good! I've entirely failed to give you any of the flavour of these events. I'm sorry. And once again, I've imparted nothing 'real' about the man himself. I'm so terribly sorry."
"I am not entirely sure that the narrator of the strips is me. It might be someone else," Seth says. "Whoever it is – the narrator was included because I liked the idea that the story was being told to the reader by someone who didn't have all the facts."
Interspersed through the story are interviews with friends, colleagues, family, fans, and these often reveal as much about the subjects as they do about George Sprott. A memorable early one takes place with a character known as "Sir Grisly Gruesome," who had his own show on CKCK-TV.
"Sometimes you'll be surprised if you take a closer look at a fellow," Sir Grisly says, speaking about himself, at an interview conducted during a sci-fi/comic convention.
Despite the narrator's protests, we do learn an awful lot about George:
- He attended seminary school, leaving to become a "gentleman adventurer";
- During his trips to the Canadian Arctic, he fathered an illegitimate daughter;
- He appears to be haunted by regrets and memories, especially over his philandering and his love for his wife, Helen;
- For the last ten years of his life, Sprott lived in three rooms on the top floor of the Radio Hotel, amassing a roomful of personal (and suggestive) souvenirs and mementos, most of which are thrown out within a week of his death;
- We're even given direct interviews with George, where he reveals his thoughts (aphoristically, as a public persona and character, in the format of "George Sprott on...") about various topics, including youth, fame, regret, loneliness and death;
- We're given scenes from George's life, from childhood through teens and adulthood, into old age, and we're privy to some of his dreams and nightmares.
At the same time that these personal details are given, there's also a sense of the reader being held at a distance, mainly through the narrator's voice telling us what he doesn't know, and also what he simply refuses to show us. It's an odd mixture: the interior views of a person's life versus that sense of narrative distance). At times, the story seems to suggest there's a mystery at play, along the lines of, "who was George Sprott?" Except it's not clear why it's so important to know.
"I wanted to hold George himself at some distance. I imagined that seen from the outside George might look bad but I also suspected that the reader wouldn't be entirely sure what to make of him. I liked the ambiguity. I deliberately chose not to go “inside” him too much," Seth says.
The Book as "Art Deco Cheese Plate"
The events surrounding the creation of George Sprott (namely the tight deadlines and the physical format of the medium) may have pushed Seth as an artist and storyteller to stretch his familiar themes and motifs
The comics were serialized in The New York Times Magazine from September 2006 to March 2007 (see the original versions in PDF format here), and the process seems to have caused an unusual amount of stress on the artist:
"I enjoyed having a serialized story and I would do it again. However, I would never do it as a permanent position. It's too stressful for producing 'real' work. You don't have enough time to take a breather and really consider just what it is you are doing," he says.
"After the strip started running I struggled to keep ahead of the deadline – penciling the next strip and sending it off to them for editing while I inked the previous one. It was close to the edge.
Following its magazine run, Seth added many new elements to the work before publishing it as a book. In doing so, he's created an entirely new story, one that expands on the original serialized version.
"Making it into a book was an interesting process," he says. "I approached it as an editor and a designer and really tried to figure out what could be added to make this material into a 'real' book. What was needed? How it had to be arranged and juggled. How could I make this pile of separate 'things' flow and read properly. How to make it 'feel' complete."
And the end result is a glorious product. Before even starting to consider the artwork or the narrative, the reader encounters the massive dimensions of the book: 14 x 12 inches (or 35.6 x 30.5 centimetres in Canada). The size is so startling, one critic has even gone on to suggest "8 Practical Uses For The Giant Graphic Novel 'George Sprott, 1894-1975'," which include "Owl-Swatter" (#4), and "Art Deco Cheese Plate" (#5).
Seth's Search for Meaning
Many of Seth's stories seem to be about searching for someone's life story, looking for the key to solving the mystery of a person's life, but never finding it (or realizing that the perceived mystery doesn't exist). His work raises questions about how much we can ever know about someone's life, and even if we had all of the "facts" would we still know anything about a person's true self, and for that matter, after a lifetime of introspection, would the person know anything about himself?
"Searching for things is such a direct metaphor for searching for meaning... and that is just so clearly what most of my stories (most stories, in general, really) are about," Seth says.
The nostalgic, meditative, musing, and reflective nature of Seth's stories is also at work in George Sprott. Other family themes and motifs that recur throughout his work include:
- Characters who collect, and who amass facts and artifacts on niche subjects;
- Photo albums and scrapbooks;
- A love of architecture from the 1920s-1940s, particularly in Toronto and small-town Ontario;
- Telling stories from multiple viewpoints, especially through the use of interviews, either directly with a character, documentary-style, or by having one character deliberately interview another.
"Collectors are interesting because they seek out things that no one cares about and find out the vital information regarding those items," Seth says.
Seth's It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken uses the technique of reconstructing a person's life story based on stories of other people, and the work that person left behind. The main character, Seth, tries to learn about a cartoonist for the New Yorker, Kalo. This also brings the main character to reflect on pop culture in Canada and the U.S., and the long tradition of Canadians seeking work and career significance south of the border. Seth (the character) collects old comics, and waxes philosophic about his sense of nostalgia, among many other things.
"I'm immersed in my past -- wallowing in it," he says at one point. "I look at my childhood like it's some kind of golden key. If I just ponder it, sift through it, pick at it enough, I feel like I'll find the answer to every goddamn thing that's wrong with me now."
"Expectations and disappointments. If it's obvious to me, I'm sure it's obvious to everyone. This is what life's all about," he says.
"I thought I was a man in step with my times," Abraham Matchcard confesses to the reader in Clyde Fans. "I didn't realize I was looking backward."
In It's a Good Life, Seth manages to interview Kalo's mother, who tells him what Kalo told her about giving up his career as an artist: "A little misery is good for the soul." It's a sad bit of truth that could apply to all of Seth's work.
Supporting material at the end of the book include examples of Kalo's work, and a black and white photo of him. Combined with the main character being named Seth, and the first-person confessional voice, this creates the feeling that the work is autobiographical. Alas, Kalo's not real, but the effect remains just as strong without that knowledge.
A similar blending of the real and fictional takes place in George Sprott:
"There was a particular host [on Detroit television] of a travel show named George Pierrot that was the direct inspiration for George Sprott," Seth says. "Some of his surface characteristics are similar – though none of the personal ones are. George Pierrot was famous for falling asleep on the air."
In It's a Good Life, as in George Sprott, there's the question about how much anyone can ever truly be known and understood in the world. When Seth (the character) tries to reconstruct Kalo's life, he says: "Piece it all together and it's barely a quarter of the puzzle...just empty facts."
These melancholy truths seem to resonate with Souster's poem "All I've Really Learned So Far," from his 1993 collection, Old Bank Notes:
All I've really learned so far
is that in the beginning
it's a struggle to be born,
and then at the end
a worse struggle for all
but the lucky few.
there's the unequal fight to stay alive,
with always two questions left unanswered:
"All for what?" and "How many
did I maim or destroy in my blindness?"
The hope that more clues
may fall on us like a blessing,
seems to be the only reason so many
keep getting up every morning with the sun.
Strangely, the story in Seth's oeuvre that may have the most direct similarity to George Sprott may also be the one Seth considers to be the most tossed-off, Wimbledon Green: The Greatest Comic Book Collector in the World.
Published in 2005 (seemingly on a whim from his sketchbooks), the story and narrative structure seem like precursors to the one used in George Sprott, namely: telling the story through the use of several smaller narratives.
"I had been particularly interested in a certain kind of storytelling," Seth writes in his introduction to Wimbledon Green. "It's an approach wherein you tell a longer story through a variety of shorter, unconnected comic strips. Cumulatively, they add up to a bigger picture."
Despite the similarities in structure between George Sprott and Wimbledon Green, there's one interesting difference: there are direct mysteries to be solved in this story, among them: was Wimbledon Green really Don Green, and whatever happened to him/them? The puzzles that are hinted at create a drive that helps propel the reader through the book (and inspire much flipping back and forth through the pages to see if there are clues). A similar effect takes place in the story of George Sprott, but the narrative drive is distinctly toned down.
In Wimbledon Green, the supporting character of Jonah may be a stand-in for Seth himself (he looks like a caricature of the cartoonist), giving him an opportunity to poke fun at his own public persona. Another character describes Jonah: "These self-deluded fops are pining for a time before they were even born."
And another: "He made an open display of his 'eccentricities.'...This was just a pathetic bid for attention. Even this interest in the past was shallow -- a reflection of his narcissism."
Compare this with Seth's weary-sounding self-awareness in interviews:
"I’m not really a nostalgic type so much as a melancholic. I spend a lot of time alone, and most of it is spent in a fog of self-pitying melancholy. It sounds pathetic, but it is so true," he says.
Known for dressing like a character from a 1940s film noir, Seth is often portrayed as someone who pines days long gone, although (as seen in his self-awareness both in interviews and in his work), this seems to oversimplify his persona.
"I have no illusions about the superiority of the past. People have always been miserable and life has always been difficult. However, I can honestly say that I don’t think much of this present time," he says.
Along with the architecture and generally superior quality of goods produced in the past, Seth often returns to Canadian popular culture, especially from the 1950s. The character of George Sprott is a broadcaster, filmmaker and journalist of sorts, and the book is saturated with references to a seemingly lost era of Canadian broadcasting.
"Canada, as a nation, doesn't seem very interested in its popular culture," Seth writes in his forward to Invaders from the North: How Canada Conquered the Comic Book Universe. "[But] if you actually take the time to look back over the interesting pile of magazines, television shows, movies, records, comic books, et cetera, that Canadians have produced in the past hundred years, you'll find there is a surprising amount of striking material--a real mix of the great, the clever, the beautiful, and the odd."
In It's a Good Life, the character of Seth muses that "Somehow or other the '50's always seem very 'Canadian' to me. When I think of the States, I think the '40's--but Canada--the '50's. Why is that? I guess it could be all the CBC television I watched as a kid. Diefenbaker, Don Messer, Wayne & Shuster...so much of that footage appeared to be from the '50's. These associations--they govern so much of our thinking."
This love of regionalism is another quality Seth shares with Raymond Souster.
"I suppose I am truly an unrepentant regionalist," Souster writes in 15 Canadian Poets X2. "As Emile Zola put it to Aul Bourget: 'Why should we be everlastingly wanting to escape to lands of romance? Our streets are full of tragedy and full of beauty; they should be enough for any poet.' All the experiences one is likely to encounter in Paris can be found in this city. Toronto has a flavour all its own...My roots are here, this is the place that tugs at my heart when I leave it and fills me with quiet relief when I return to it."
The poetic element in Seth's work is often brought up by critics.
"Among graphic novelists, Seth has emerged as a poet of the dispossessed, a man who brings an adolescent fervour to the attenuating joys of the old and disappointed and infirm, to the plight of the hapless and bewildered young," one critic writes.
Compare this description of Raymond Souster by Gary Geddes in 15 Canadian Poets X2: "He searches out pockets of beauty and spontaneity in the rubbish heap of the century."
Seth also refers to poetry when talking about his work, and comics in general:
"Cartoon storytelling is all about rhythm (much like poetry)," he says.
"You are not writing poetry in the traditional sense, but the way the writing is broken down in the panels and then how it is run through a page -- the way it is paced in general -- it is just all about how it sounds in the mind," he says. "The brevity, the rhythm, the breaks for silence. These are elements that probably have more to do with free verse than they do with the traditional novel."
Made from cardboard and lovingly detailed, the sculptures seem to reflect the "austere" boxes of Seth's comics, as he describes here:
"There is something very lovely about the stillness of a comic book page. That austere stacked grid of boxes. The little people trapped in time. Its frozen and silent nature acting almost as a counterpoint to the raucous vulgarity of the modern aesthetic. Of course, the drawings aren’t really frozen. When we look at them, we immediately invest them with life," he says.
In writing about Raymond Souster, Gary Geddes seems to describe a similar disdain for the "vulgar" modern buildings:
"At times he displays a gentle nostalgia for the innocence and good times of the past, lamenting the passing of friends and shared interests and the disappearance of familiar landscapes under a jungle of concrete and cereal-box architecture."
George Sprott as a character, story, and art-book conveys a love and melancholy that fits well alongside many of Raymond Souster's poems. This excerpt, from "St. Catherine Street East" could be a description of Seth's Dominion:
"Every face in every window
of each building watching as we go
down the steaming pavement, on, out of this jungle
where the dead are never buried by the living,
but crowd onto buses, sit late at bar stools, or wait
in the darkness of always airless rooms."