Cartoonist, book designer, and illustrator (though he prefers the term “decorator”) Seth took the stage on Thursday after the Alcuin Awards presentations to talk about his influences; cartooning as an expressive, symbolic language; and the design features he’s identified as uniquely Canadian that he’s incorporated into his own design aesthetic. Guided by questions from another titan of Canadian book design, Peter Cocking, Seth led us on an eye-opening tour of his artistic process.
“Let’s talk about where you came from,” said Cocking. “You have a very pronounced style. What were your influences?”
“I’m a book designer now—I do a limited amount of book design—but primarily I’m a cartoonist,” said Seth. Growing up in small towns in Ontario, before the Internet, he absorbed culture from the pop culture. “As a child, you don’t judge it with an adult aesthetic,” he said, “but there was some stuff—you were connected to it for a reason.”
Peanuts, for example, had a profound effect Seth. “It was not really written for children, but children responded to it.” Charlie Brown was an outsider character, which elicited a lot of empathy. Charles Schulz “set the standard for how I wanted to work as a cartoonist,” said Seth. “The cartooning was really his handwriting.”
Marvel Comics also captured Seth’s imagination. “Like every kid,” he said, “I loved the superhero comics of that era.” Like Schulz, artists like Jack Kirby drew in clear lines. “The figures were quite strange. The anatomy wasn’t quite right. That’s when I realized that cartoonists were working with a symbolic language. Cartooning is not about drawing. It’s about creating symbols that people instantly recognize. Drawings in a cartoon are more similar to typography.”
Later on Seth discovered the work of Robert Crumb, whose work proved to Seth that “you can do anything you wanted as a cartoonist.” Crumb’s work, he said, had a dirty vibe to it—“literally filthy. Yet there was something really enticing beyond its pornographic qualities. It could actually impart a genuine feeling of lust.” In contrast with many cartoonists who were just drawing to make a buck, Crumb was one of a handful of great practitioners who redefined the idea that cartooning “could be a personal medium.”
Particularly intriguing to Seth was that Crumb’s work “looked like it had come from some earlier era.” The quality of the cartoon looked like it was drawn in the 1920s, but the content came out of the hippie subculture. Seth realized that Crumb “was digging around in the past for inspiration.”
Seth’s other influences include the Hernandez Brothers, as well as Georges Remi’s The Adventures of Tintin, in which “the shapes were simple. He was not concerned with rendering. It was all iconically drawn,” reinforcing the idea that cartooning is symbolic.
“Cartooning is a graphic language,” said Seth. “People sometimes say it’s like a combination of film and literature, which to me has always been a poor idea of what a cartoon is. To me, it’s more a combination of graphic design and poetry. Comics are about condensing things—condensing time and space.”
“They can be as complex to read as poetry,” said Cocking.
“Sometimes people ask if they should be reading the words or the pictures first. To me that’s always been a peculiar question. I always read them at the same time.”
“Some people don’t understand the language of comics,” said Cocking. “They don’t know what a thought bubble means…”
“Yes,” said Seth. “In Japanese comics, characters will sometimes have a puff of smoke coming out of their nose, which means great sadness. That’s just as foreign to us as the sweat beads we have flying off our characters in North American comics. And we don’t really have words to describe these devices.”
The New Yorker’s cartoons made an impression on Seth as well, particularly Peter Arno’s bold, brushed lines. “As a cartoonist, you always have a temptation to tighten up,” he explained. A maximum of expression in a minimum of lines.
“We’ve talked about your influences,” said Cocking. “Now let’s move on to some of your own work.” Showing images from Seth’s book design on The Complete Peanuts, Cocking noted the “attention you bring to Schulz as an illustrator—really showing graphic quality.”
“People take for granted what he did,” said Seth, “but it was groundbreaking.” Schulz was one of the first post-war cartoonists to take a modern approach of using “very few lines. He kept things very simple.”
“Charlie Brown is not a drawing of a child,” said Seth. “It is Charlie Brown. This was Schulz’s hand—it was his handwriting.” Schulz was writing his own life into the strip,” Seth explained. “When he was having an affair, Snoopy was having an affair—and his wife didn’t pick up on it!”
When Seth first approach Schulz’s widow, Jean Schulz, with the idea of The Complete Peanuts, he already had a very clear idea of what he wanted to do. “Peanuts had never been very well packaged,” he said. “People were selling the image of Peanuts as a popular item. I wanted to take down the tone of the books. The strips really had a melancholy mood.” Initially Seth envisioned fifty volumes, each with Charlie Brown’s face on the front. In the end he compromised, including two years per volume and featuring a few of the other characters.
The end papers in all of the volumes were a compilation of the settings, devoid of characters. “I wanted to establish a feeling for the place—this netherland of suburbia,” he said. “It was never clear where they lived. But it was somewhere with four seasons.” Seth wanted to highlight the strip’s underlying nature: it wasn’t really funny; it was meant more to be moving. On the occasional spread Seth allowed himself to assemble settings and build scenes with elements from Schulz’s strips. “I was drawing with his hands.”
Seth’s book design was heavily influenced by the work of Thoreau MacDonald, son of the Group of Seven’s J.E.H. MacDonald. Thoreau MacDonald was Canada’s premier book designer before the 1960s: he was a pen-and-ink artist who had a “cartoonist’s sensibility,” said Seth. He incorporated hand lettering seamlessly into his designs and illustrations. “There was a great earnestness to the work,” said Seth. “His work felt Canadian to me. Why does it feel Canadian to me?”
This question prompted Seth to gather Canadiana: old pamphlets, books, other ephemera that exemplified “Canadian vernacular design.” He was driven by the need to explore cartooning as a personal medium. “A lot of my peers were Americans,” he explained. “We were part of a little movement. I was one of the only Canadians in that group. Is there anything different in what I’m doing? What is an essence of Canadian imagery? Maybe I was insulted by Americans who thought, ‘Well, you’re just American.’ I started to inevitably feel some sense of national identity.”
From his collection, Seth distilled three features he identified in the Canadian postwar aesthetic: imagery from that period always had
- an idea of landscape,
- some official reference to the government, sometimes heraldic symbols of Britain or France, and
“There was something about them that was small,” he said. American images of the same era were always more impressive, almost always more proud. “I always thought there must have been some Ministry of Enforced Drabness,” said Seth.
These themes made it into Seth’s own work, such as in his graphic novel, George Sprott. “Every page could be read on its own, so it was easy to add pages in between. I could edit a work that already existed and really pay attention to pacing.” The front cover, with the title, George Sprott, 1894–1975, “is a tombstone,” Seth explained. “I like sadness, I must say. Life is sad. There’s an underlying tone of melancholy that goes through people’s lives.”
Cocking noted a musical quality to Seth’s work and asked him whether he thought in musical terms. “Yes,” he answered. “Pacing is so important. You’re always thinking about how you’re controlling time. Rhythm is super important.”
“Cartooning is a tiny little medium with a few symbols—a toy medium, a miniature world. There are endless possibilities for what you can do with that,” said Seth. “It’s remarkable the amount of variation that’s barely been touched. The medium is being completely redefined by the people working in it.”
Interspersed among the cartoons in the George Sprott collection are photos of cardboard buildings Seth crafted in his basement. “I made a world called Dominion—a Northern Ontario town that I invented where all my stories take place.”
Another of Seth’s projects was designing and decorating a new edition of Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, which, as Cocking said, “celebrates and mocks the drabness” of the quintessential Canadian town. “It’s a mean book,” acknowledged Seth.
“What was important to me, as is always, was to get a sense of place.” The dust jacket is Seth’s depiction of the town during the day, the book’s title central and bold. The cover, in contrast, is the town at night, and features no type at all. “It’s going to end up at a second-hand bookstore, and nobody will know what the book is,” he said. “There’s an old cartooning rule: show, don’t tell. So when people draw literally what’s written on the page, I always think that’s a wasted opportunity.”
Seth took his mastery of covert symbolism to another level with The Collected Doug Wright. Wright was “Canada’s master cartoonist,” said Seth. His work was “very, very Canadian.” He created a pantomime strip—with no dialogue—and he worked from the late 1940s to the 1980s, when he had a major stroke and died a couple of years later. As Seth was thinking of how to assemble the collection of Wright’s work, he recalled that Wright’s father, away fighting in World War I, had written the boy a heartfelt letter of fatherly advice and pride shortly before he was killed in battle. Seth landed on the idea of having the Wright collection subliminally take the reader on a walking tour of the Vimy Memorial in France. He studied photos and plans and storyboarded the tour before echoing each of his sketches in the designs of the spreads in The Collected Doug Wright.
Seth’s archival sensibilities came naturally to him: “Cartooning is a collector’s world,” he said. He developed an affinity toward collecting, and “the more you do it, the more it becomes archival, historical. You’re not just an artist; you’re also a historian.”