Memory Drawings in Film and Print: ‘Seth’s Dominion’

Seth’s Dominion offers a full picture of an exciting artist brimming with imagination, and with a great deal more to create.

“It may sound like a ridiculous statement, but in some ways cartooning is much like what the Impressionists were doing, in that you’re not aiming for the detail so much as the overall feeling.”

— Seth

Seth’s Dominion, part book and part documentary, is the story of one of the best comic artists working today. The sheer volume of work that Seth produces goes beyond his comics, showcasing the life of an incredibly dedicated and inspired artist working his way through various art forms. Directed by Luc Chamberland, the documentary touches on Seth’s life from his childhood, to his comic career as part of the Toronto Three, to the present. Though coming in at less than an hour, it offers a portrait of Seth that feels complete.

Spanning interviews from 2006 to 2013, Seth’s Dominion is an intimate examination of Seth told in his own words, as well as those closest to him. His wife, Tania, his friends and other members of the Toronto Three, Joe Matt and Chester Brown, and his father all talk about Seth in personal ways, creating a fuller picture. Of particular interest is the artist’s transformation from Gregory Gallant to Seth. The very deliberate shift to Seth is marked by an unhappy childhood and a fascination with “persona building”, something he shares with Tania. The accompanying book contains photographs of a younger Gallant before Seth took hold, making the change appear especially striking.

Seth’s relationship with his parents is complex, and inspires much of his work. He mentions “memory drawings” in reference to much of his creative output, speaking to his consistent connection to the past. His clear attraction to the ’30s and ’40s is linked to his parents and Seth’s fascination with an earlier time is a thread that’s explored in the documentary. There’s a natural element of nostalgia in his comics, but rather than a simple celebration of ‘simpler times’, Seth’s work is imbued with a melancholy that he’s drawn to, but doesn’t necessarily inhabit. His commitment to his work is apparent when Chamberland highlights his highly regimented workdays. He’s happy to work alone for long stretches, though he admits to being more of an extrovert than many would expect.

One of the most remarkable moments in the documentary comes when Seth discusses his hobbies. His creativity demands many and varied outlets, and his impressive imagination is on display when showcasing his projects. Of special note are Seth’s puppets and building models. Both are excellent examples of his meticulous style and attention to detail. The puppets are beautiful pieces in and of themselves, but they’re also a way in which to tell stories, such as in the short film “The Apology of Albert Batch”, also directed by Chamberland, based on Seth’s play of the same name. His buildings are gorgeous models for his fictional town, Dominion, and the book and documentary both draw attention to the amount of work that surely must go into a project of such large scale. The buildings are an amazing feat of creativity and intricacy, two things that are at the heart of all of Seth’s work, yet they bring to life his art in a wholly unique way.

In addition to the interviews and close look into Seth’s work environment, Seth’s Dominion also includes animated clips of Seth’s stories. The special features contain the complete animated shorts, but the excerpts shown throughout the documentary offer yet another dimension to Seth’s style and storytelling, particularly in Kao-Kuk a comic he worked on as a child. By showcasing Seth’s very early work, his later, better known comics are placed in the larger context of his comic evolution.

The book accompanying the DVD contains photographs of Seth and his family and friends, alongside excerpts from his comics, illustration work, such as his New Yorker covers, and photographs of his three-dimensional creations, including a parade float and the design work for Tania’s barbershop, Crown Barber Shop, in Guelph, Canada. As Seth’s work extends to book illustration and design, such as in the Charles Schulz Peanuts anthologies, Seth’s Dominion is yet another lovely instance of his distinctive style. Divided into two halves, with two opposite openings, the book also contains a comic about Seth’s feelings on the documentary. Put together with a set of rubber stamps designed by Seth, it’s a charming tribute to Chamberland and his approach to telling Seth’s story.

Seth’s Dominion is in many ways merely a glimpse into Seth’s creative life, but Chamberland still touches upon a wide array of his productivity. Seth’s openness and willingness to reveal so much of his work and what drives him shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering how much of his own history permeates his stories. The special features are all worthwhile, especially the recording of Seth’s talk on the release of George Sprott, showcasing his humor. Seth’s Dominion offers a full picture of an exciting artist brimming with imagination, and with a great deal more to create.

RATING 8 / 10