The culmination of nearly 20 years of storytelling, Seth‘s Clyde Fans has been rightfully given the deluxe slipcase treatment by Drawn & Quarterly. It’s a lovely encapsulation of an excellent work, serialized in Seth’s own Palookaville, which ran for over 25 years.
Clyde Fans centers on the Matchcard brothers as they navigate their lives and family business through the decades from the 1950s to the 1990s. Abe Matchcard is often the main storytelling voice as he frequently dominates over his much more reserved brother, Simon. The story follows them from the early days of their electric fan business, the titular Clyde Fans, to their most successful years, to the then waning years of the business as air conditioners take over the market.
As we follow them over time, they exhibit obsessive behaviors that lead them to different paths in life. From Abe’s hungry ambition to Simon’s quiet, often defeatist approach, they both realize the declining path of their business and fall victim to its eventual obsolescence.
While Abe is content to keep the sales part of the business away from Simon (though Simon is also interested in proving himself in this area), he also maintains a resentment towards Simon and his limitations. This manifests in taunts and belittling insults that serve to undermine Simon’s confidence. Though Abe is proven right again and again, in many ways, he has played a role in fulfilling the prophecy himself.
Clyde Fans tells two stories simultaneously: it’s a story of capitalism in the 20th century and a story about the complicated and bristly relationship between two brothers. They are intertwined seamlessly in ways that directly affect and inform one another, while also seeming quite separate at other times. It’s one of Seth’s gifts (and a gift of the medium) that he’s able to immerse the reader so completely in the details of the story such that it feels as full and accomplished in any one of its five parts as it does as a completed story.
As we follow Abe as he goes through the motions of a typical day, he’s an older man surrounded by things that remind him only of the past. His world has shrunk to his home and the memories it evokes. The contrast between the Abe of the past, one jaunting across the country, charming customers, and running a successful business, and the Abe of the present, limited in space and time, is striking. Conversely, Simon has always preferred a more interior life. Even when he pushed himself, or was pushed by Abe to expand his world, it never quite works, and he retreats further into his fragile mental state.
It is in understanding the fundamental differences between the brothers that Clyde Fans makes the deepest impressions. It’s easy to be repulsed by Abe’s brusque, fundamental misunderstanding of his brother, and it’s just as easy to sympathize with Simon’s sensitivity. Still, Seth doesn’t paint caricatures of the brothers. The ways in which they fail to understand one another offers a window into the core of the characters. Just as Seth’s inspiration for this epic story grew from an empty storefront and photographs of two middle-aged men, Clyde Fans is imbued with palpable sadness and regret.
There is little in Seth’s work that does not evoke feeling. Oftentimes that feeling is melancholic or bittersweet, but it can also inspire joy and tenderness. That there’s so much nostalgia present shouldn’t be mistaken for an absolute yearning for the past; rather, as an understanding of its importance and the weight it presses upon the lives of the Matchcard brothers. They can never truly escape their past, yet when they remain tied to it in ways that stifle any forward momentum, it becomes less of fond memory and more of a hindrance.
Clyde Fans achieves in not only telling a story rife with poignant and memorable moments, but it also conveys with sophistication a depth of feeling. There is sentimentality without cloying emotion, just as there are bitter shame and remorse without devolving into a depressive tome. It is Seth’s ability to balance the beautifully minimal yet precise grays and blues of his art with the interior and exterior lives of his characters that makes them so unforgettable.