May 27, 2015

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Dealing With the Past in Seth's Palookaville #22


Palookaville #22
Written and Drawn by Seth
Published by Drawn & Quarterly

We don’t get enough Seth comics lately so when a new volume of Palookaville drops, it’s a reason to celebrate. Having a couple of years ago migrated from being an irregular comic book to being a semi-annual hardcover, Palookaville #22 is a true comic book event as Seth’s masterful cartooning makes you forget the time that has passed since the last volume (approx 19 months for those of you keeping track at home.) Opening this new book, you might at first feel a bit lost, trying to remember the story of “Clyde’s Fans” (now on part 4) or “Nothing “Lasts” (only on its second installment) or even wondering just what the heck the barber shop photos in the bridging sequence “Crown Barber” has to do with anything. Maybe there is a bit of frustration about that 19 months between volumes but Seth quickly makes you forget about those Palookavilleless months because so much of Palookaville #22 is about memory and the haze of it. So if you’ve forgotten what’s been happening in this comic, don’t worry. It’s almost kind of the point of these comics.

The fourth part of “Clyde’s Fans” is the continuation of a story that’s been doled out in fits and starts since 1997. The main chunk of this story focuses on a discussion of two brothers, Abraham and Simon, who tried to run their father’s electric fan business together after he abandoned his family. The brothers dredge up every wrong each other had committed against him, trying to figure out who was the crappier brother. It’s a harsh discussion as Seth excellently leaves so much unsaid between the two of them. As they bicker back and forth, Abraham roots around the knick knack littered around Simon’s room. Simon’s odd collections are as much Abraham’s memories as they are Simon’s. These leftover artifacts of a life are the only things that form any connection other than the family business between these two brothers. They may have never been close but Simon’s odd collections are what span the chasm between small talk and family matters for these two brothers.

As if having a discussion about the family business and the rifts between them wasn’t bad enough for Abraham, he leaves Abraham feeling nostalgic for his old sales routes and one women along those routes, Alice. “I love you, Abe” he hazily remembers her saying even if he remembers little else. Her hair? What she was wearing? Any really defining features of her face? Those details fade to black in his memory while he hangs onto “I love you, Abe.” It’s a decades old memory. His brief rendezvous with Alice is no less unpleasant than his time with Simon but it’s much briefer. His hopes to rekindle some old feelings is overshadowed by Alice’s still painful memories of Abraham and his cruelty to her.

Images of Seth's childhood from "Nothing Lasts"

“Crown Barber” and “Nothing Lasts” explore the cartoonist’s memory in much the same way. “Crown Barber” is an odd piece, more a celebration of his wife’s (proprietor of the real Crown Barber Shop) business and even its past. It feels like a diversion, like his cardboard and paper model towns or his rubber stamp diary from the past two volumes. Photos of the barber shop feel Sethian, but more something belonging in his other books Wimbledon Green or The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists. It’s playful but twinged with a nostalgia for a time that no longer exists, even if it ever really did. Among these photos is a two page cartoon of a fictional previous owner of the barbershop looking back on his life and profession. This is where that fascination with memory comes back in. Is the barber here really any different than Abraham in “Clyde’s Fans?”

And in “Nothing Lasts,” is Seth himself any different than his comic characters? Looking back on his childhood and teenage years, Seth ends up re-examining and judging his own life through the haze of his memories. There’s probably nothing that any self-professed school-aged “outsider” doesn’t at least recognize in him or herself in Seth’s catalog of his youthful interests. There’s nothing particularly salacious in his childhood but there is this strong twinge of the author’s guilt that hangs over the whole thing. Years wasted on seemingly frivolous things or friendships left behind as shared interests started to diverge seem to be Seth’s (let’s just assume for now that unlike It’s A Good Thing If You Don’t Weaken that “Nothing Lasts” is at least partially if not completely true autobiographical) biggest hangups about his childhood. The cruelty of these memories is what link Seth, the barber and Abraham. In Palookaville #22, we get three very different stories about men looking back on their lives and feeling very similar dissatisfaction with them. 

The way Seth choreographs Abraham and Simon’s discussions or revisits the streets and libraries he knew as a kid is stunning. “Clyde’s Fans” is broken narratively into two distinct parts, Abraham’s meeting with Simon and his dinner with Alice but the visual consistency through the ways that characters interact in this comic links the two encounters as much as the themes of memory do. It’s never just two people talking; it’s two people trying to avoid one another even though they’re right there in the same room. Abraham falls further and further into his overstuffed chair while Abraham shuffles around the room, picking at the artifacts of a life. Or it’s Alice shifting her eyes all around the restaurant wanting to ask Abraham “why?” 

Avoiding the conversation in "Clyde's Fan"

Seth builds lives through his artwork one panel at a time. “Nothing Lasts” focuses as much on places and things as it does on characters but each panel becomes one more piece of a life, it becomes one more mystery of its creator that Seth is trying to reveal. The way in all three comics that Seth lingers on a postcard, a barber’s comb or even the headstones of a local cemetery focuses on the building blocks of his characters lives. These aren’t objects; they’re memories, events, possessions, and fragments of these lives that Seth is carefully constructing and simultaneously deconstructing. These are elements that are truly world building but he’s using them to break down his characters existence while he’s reconstructing their memories in the here and now. 

Palookaville #22 is a cruel book to its characters and its creator but it’s lovingly cruel because Seth cares about every panel of these characters lives. It’s the memories that these characters have to live with that are cruel to them. While the cartoons explore the unpleasantness of Simon, Seth’s and the barber’s past, it’s counterbalanced by the photos of the his wife’s barber shop or even the act of Seth’s cartooning. He seems somewhat embarrassed by being a fan of comics but here he is, producing some of the most stunning cartooning of the year so far. Scott McCloud tried to show how serious he was about cartooning in The Sculptor but Seth does everything McCloud does so much better and so much more organically to the story that it’s not even funny. (This may be a backhanded compliment to Seth but it’s also the truth that from a true cartooning perspective that he takes McCloud to school.) Characters and creator are both wrestling with their memories in this comic and maybe even the readers are as well, depending on how much they can remember from past volumes. And in that way, Seth places reader, characters and cartoonist on equal footing.