Thursday, April 23, 2015

Confronting Memory: Palookaville 21-22

Seth's long-running Palookaville series has been revitalized by its move to a hardcover collection of the latest segment of the long-running "Clyde Fans" serial as well as intriguing new material. Going away from the pamphlet may have started as a matter of economic necessity (especially since each issue was merely the next installment of "Clyde Fans" and thus not exactly capable of drawing in new readers), but it's become an outlet for Seth's beautiful design sense and eclectic creative abilities.

Palookaville 21's handsome, embossed cover contains three major creative endeavors by Seth. I'll comment on Clyde Fans last in this piece, but I was quite taken by Seth's "Rubber Stamp Diary". In a conversation with Ivan Brunetti where they commiserated on just how much labor it took to do a daily comics diary, Seth hit upon the idea of making up a set of rubber stamps that contained a number of typical poses. That provided a shortcut for all sorts of comics, freeing Seth up to concentrate on the actual thoughts he wanted to get down. Seth has the reputation of fetishizing the past, of treating his "old-time" appearance and interests as a sort of affectation. Reading his more personal comics reveals that this isn't the truth at all. Rather, Seth is interested in exploring the reaches of memory and the power of aesthetic experiences as apprehended by our senses and how they are retained (if at all). Walking on train tracks, seeing birds flit about, feeling spring air and experiencing the majesty of a thunderstorm are all powerful experiences for him. Some of them are powerful because they provide a sort of continuity of aesthetic memory, a sense of there being one continuous moment. Some of them are powerful simply because they allow him to be in a single discrete moment almost outside of time. The rhythm of the rubber stamp drawings add to that sense of continuity, of seeking out these experiences when he chooses to enter the outside world.

In Palookaville 22, we get a look at the barber shop that he helped design with his wife. It is at once slightly worn-looking and achingly beautiful. With flourishes like her membership in "The Royal Order Of The Golden Comb", its giant mascot being "The Secret King of Guelph", and tastefully spare adornments throughout the shop, it's less a shop that Seth experienced and more a shop that he imagined once existed. In fact, he drew a strip about its (fake) secret history, much like The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists. It's nostalgia for a time and place that never existed.

Palookaville 21 introduces the first installment of "Nothing Lasts", an autobiographical account of Seth's childhood told by way of chronicling all of the places that he lived. This certainly puts the lie to the notion of Seth as a nostalgia fiend, because the tenor of these strips is highly melancholy. Like in his "Rubber Stamp Diary", Seth does maintain a certain affection for certain places and things, but it's more for the memories associated with them in time than the actual objects or places. #21 details his childhood, a lonely one that saw him recognize that his place on the social pecking order was rather low, which led him to choose solitude. At home, his distant and frequently angry father was a source of fear; only his mother was a constant companion. That was true for his mother as well, which made Seth wonder what her own mental state was like during that time.

The second part details his teenage years, spent drawing and reading comics and avoiding other teenagers as much as possible. There's a fascinating story about him gaining a comics pen-pal, a person who essentially saved his teen years from total isolation and loneliness--until they grew apart. His friend grew up, but Seth did not, leading to anger on Seth's part in particular.Seth brings up the excitement and shame he felt about women and girls, rather than the possibility of any kind of real relationship. The strips are drawn Wimbledon Green-style: simple, small panels and stripped-down. Seth's own self-caricature (especially as a mop-topped teen) is especially effective and amusing. In may ways, this strip is less a memoir than a tribute to his mother; his love for her and how much he still misses her is palpable on nearly every page. It's also an exercise in what he remembers about each place he lived and why, which occasionally leads to him being mystified as to why certain memories are so clear and others are washed away.

Seth has been working on "Clyde Fans" since 1997. He designed it as a deliberately slow-moving narrative, one where every image was significant in getting across its themes. The journey of reading the narrative unveils its themes in a way that transcends its actual plot. The plot is simple: an elderly man named Abe Matchcard ponders the failed fan business he took over from his father. Along the way, he recalls his strained relationship with his younger brother, the sensitive and painfully introverted Simon. The first three parts of the story saw Abe bullying his younger brother, with a traumatic sales call in 1957 essentially leading Simon to retreat from public life altogether. Part four sees Abe begin to confront his past when he closes down a factory, essentially kicking off the beginning of the end of his career in business.

This is a work of fiction that has some autobiographical elements. Seth's father didn't sell fans, nor did he leave home in the manner in which Abe & Simon's dad did. However, the obsessiveness over the past (especially images of the past, as Simon does with his old postcard collection), the clinging to their mother who died a long and sad death and the feeling of being out of step with the times and other people certainly resonate with the explicitly autobiographical stories in the book. Indeed, the latter aid in fleshing out the themes of the former, especially with regard to "Nothing Lasts".

In many respects, the relationship between Simon and Abe is a way of Seth exploring different aspects of his personality. He describes himself as being gregarious but socially inept as a child, keenly aware of his place on the social totem pole and willing to inflict abuse on those unlucky enough to be lower on the pole than he. This describes Abe quite well, especially with regard to how little actual empathy he was able to summon up for either his customers as a salesman or his workers as a factory manager. Simon is a reflection of Seth's retreat from humanity and his tendency to be a hermit even now. Both are obsessed with the past, with Simon poring over his postcards and Abe mechanically recalling an old sales quiz as they think about their failures. Simon thinks about the disastrous sales call that caused him to withdraw and what he perceived as the monstrous treatment he received at the hands of his brother. All Abe thought about was his father leaving for good, his desire to do well enough to somehow bring him back, and the many failed relationships he had in the interim. His father leaving killed something inside of him. The brothers confront each other about this in a series of absolutely masterful pages in #22, with random postcard images being inserted as part of the narrative at key junctures. Every page is a triumph of design, reflecting melancholy and the desire for that past that never truly existed. "Clyde Fans" is a story about radical honesty blasting through the haze of nostalgia, no matter how painful that honest examination might be. Whether or not coming to terms with their past helps either brother is yet to be revealed.

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