I’ve never been much of a comic book guy. I probably would have been, in my youth, if I had been allowed to read superhero comics. But the parental authorities wouldn’t countenance anything more action-packed than Casper the Friendly Ghost, which didn’t exactly capture my imagination in the way that, say, the Silver Surfer might have. So I never made my way into comic book fandom, and from there into underground and alternative comics, the way I might have in some parallel universe where the restrictions of this one didn’t apply.
But while my ignorance of comics and cartoons is near total, this much I know: Seth is brilliant. My first exposure to his work was by way of a serialization of part of “Wimbledon Green: The Greatest Comic Book Collector in the World” in the Globe and Mail back in 2005 or so. That intrigued me enough to hunt down a copy of the book, which turned out to be both a great read and a highly covetable example of elegant book design. (For Seth it appears that the physical appearance of his books is an important extension of the content, which in this case managed to be both a nostalgic homage to classic comic books and a huge sendup of the people who collect them.)
I read it several times. All of his work rewards re-reading, at least if you’re like me and don’t pick up on the subtleties the first time around. It proceeds as a series of vignettes circling around the mysterious figure of Wimbledon Green, who might or might not have been a comic book collector named “Don Green” who was involved in some shady deals back in the early 70s. Whoever he was, he is now the self-proclaimed “Greatest Comic Book Collector in the World,” with a lifestyle matching the comic book heroes of yore, complete with a mansion, faithful retainers, an auto-gyro, and fancy cars. A jeux d’esprit, if ever there was one.
Following that romp, Seth came out with the more serious but no less fascinating George Sprott, a much larger book chronicling the life and times of a regional TV host in the small and fictional Ontario city of Dominion, the setting of many of his other works. Dominion and its inhabitants provide a certain continuity running through much of Seth’s work. Minor characters in one book sometimes turn up in different contexts in another. You get the sense that maybe if Seth were to write enough books, eventually you’d be able to piece together the life stories of everyone in them.
While George Sprott was in many ways the better book: more unified, more considered – I have to admit a certain preference for the zanier, more eclectic Wimbledon Green. So when I’d heard that Seth had written a kind of sequel or companion book to the latter, I had to check it out.
It turns out that the Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists (GNBCC for short) is a bit of a companion to both Wimbledon Green and George Sprott. The fanciful made-up classic cartoons parallel the alternate comic book universe in Wimbledon Green, but the general tone of elegy and loss make it closer in spirit to George Sprott, I think.
GNBCC takes the form of a guided tour through the rather grand if somewhat dilapidated premises of a Canadian Cartoonists’ club. It’s a club in the tradition of the old-school businessman’s clubs, of which we still have a couple in this part of the world: the Union Club here in Victoria, and the Vancouver Club across the Strait. Each room and hallway has its particular history, and as we move through the building our tour guide tells us stories and anecdotes about the members, current and former, and their cartoon creations. Some, like Doug Wright, were real people, while others were made up by the author. Such is Seth’s grasp of his period that it’s frequently hard to tell the difference.
As the details fill in, we get a picture of a way of life, and a form of expression, in decline. The club, one of four in eastern Canada, was a vital cultural force throughout the first half of the 20th century, and achieved a kind of apotheosis in the late 1960s with a pavilion at Expo and the construction of an elaborate, if ridiculously situated, cartooning museum. Since then, however, public interest has waned, the club is having trouble recruiting new members, the museum is under-resourced and little visited, and the GNBCC building in Dominion, the last one of the four still remaining, has rubbish in the broken courtyard fountain.
Of course, I can’t help but read GNBCC as a sly commentary on the state of Canadian cultural institutions in general. We may have never been as keen on cartooning as Seth makes out, but there was a time when we were rather keen on cultural institutions like the CBC, the National Library and Archives, and the National Film Board. The rise and subsequent decline of many of these Canadian cultural icons directly parallels the GNBCC, many of them peaking in the wave of nationalistic pride embodied by Expo ’67, and then slowly withering away over decades of cutbacks and retrenchment. The nationalist vision was replaced by a globalizing one, and public culture by the private/for-profit kind, like endless films and TV shows where Vancouver stands in for every city in the world, except itself.
Seth’s work doesn’t just depict an earlier era, it channels many of its preoccupations. That includes being defiantly Canadian, in a way that we don’t see so much any more (except maybe in some of Guy Maddin’s films). And curiously, this characteristic turns nostalgia on its head, evoking and elegizing (if that’s a word) some of the arguably more progressive strains of those times, that are now in eclipse.