SETH’S ACTS OF PRESERVATION

BY CHRIS TIESSEN

I can still recall the first time I came upon Seth’s house. You know – Seth. The famous and enigmatic Guelph-based cartoonist and graphic novelist and, increasingly, visual artist of all sorts. (If you’re not familiar with his extensive – and greatly valued – works, a good place to start is in the stacks at The Bookshelf in Guelph. Or on the building’s exterior wall, which features a massive mural by this gifted storyteller and graphic artist.)

It was approaching dusk one evening a handful of years back when I was out walking my old dog, Lucy, through ‘The Ward’ – our Guelph neighbourhood. Just when Lucy and I were about to head underneath the old railway bridge that separates ‘The Ward’ from the more affluent ‘St. George’s Park’, I noticed something peculiar on the lawn of an old two storey red brick abutting the tracks. A massive boulder. Just sitting there. As if it had dropped from the sky. And a commemorative plaque mounted to it. With Lucy in tow, I drew near enough to read the plaque’s inscription which states, in part:

Upon this spot, the morning after the terrible Allan Bridge Train Disaster of 1912, this 10000 pound stone was mysteriously discovered. According to local legend, it had not been there the day before. 

Though no remains were ever officially recovered, locals swore that this same spot was also where the lifeless body of the train’s brakeman had been seen in the fiery aftermath of the crash.

In the decades following the tragedy, residents of The Ward have reported strange mists hovering over the rock…

‘Incredible,’ I murmured as Lucy and I stood there at dusk. I reread the inscription and marveled at the story behind it. Not at the fiery crash, mind you. Nor the brakeman’s plight. That’s all pure (and great) fiction, of course. But instead at why someone would have played with history in such a way – effectively inscribing a fictitious historical narrative of our city’s past onto its very landscape. I looked up at the house. It was darker now, and the front windows of its covered porch were shining bright with what seemed to be backlit illustrations or decorative vignettes – like stained glass windows in reverse. I immediately recognized the style as Seth – a sort of hybrid mix of old fashioned comics with modernist art deco.

On the front door, another inscription: ‘Inkwell’s End.’ I recognized the name of Seth’s home from a short Maclean’s documentary I’d watched about the house and its inscrutable owner. And I knew, then, that I wanted inside the place. I wanted to visit the man who called it home, and who has made – and continues to make – his living building cities and a whole world on, and out of, print. The graphic novel series, ‘Palookaville’, for instance; and the mock-autobiographical, ‘It’s a Good Life, if You Don’t Weaken’; and ‘Dominion’ – a paper model city created out of Seth’s imagination; and ‘Clyde Fans’; and New Yorker Magazine covers; and the Funny Pages in The New York Times Magazine – all constructed out of Seth’s desire to evoke the feeling of remembering. Of watching the past slip away. And of, as Seth has noted, ‘world building.’

Fast forward to a late morning this December. I’m perched on a couch in Seth’s sitting room. Across from me, Seth is settled into an arm chair. Just like in almost every photo I’ve seen of him, he is impeccably dressed in a three piece suit from a bygone era. The room is replete with pastness. Vintage furniture and antique toys crowd bookcases and shelving units. Rotary phones are hung on walls and perched on heavy wooden desks. A row of period Biltmore hats – the stuff of legend in Guelph – hangs above the front door. ‘When I moved to Guelph a decade ago,’ he tells me, ‘I began collecting things from this town – that help me feel at home.’ Seth points out a framed hagiographical canvas he purchased from the Basilica of Our Lady, as well as an antique print of Guelph depicting the Allan’s Mill site. Which became the WC Wood factory. Which is now Fusion’s Metalworks development. Which sits directly across the street from Seth’s front door. ‘It’s as though the artist was sitting here in this house when he produced it,’ Seth observes, ‘creating his own version of Guelph from this very room.’ Much like Seth – so many decades later.

When I ask him what drives his work, Seth eloquently remarks: ‘History disappoints. By creating my own, I can build my own– without constraints. And,’ he adds, ‘without sadness too.’ After a while, we head downstairs to Seth’s studio where he graciously shows me the sketchbooks he filled while creating ‘Dominion’ – a complete city Seth conceived, constructed and finally assembled out of intricate paper models now on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario. I am transfixed by page after page of cartoons he shows me – and notes, listing imaginary people, for example. And streets. And parks. And cemeteries. Magnificently detailed. Spectacular. Formidable. ‘I create these things so that, if I ever need to create a lawyer character, for instance, she will already exist.’ In Seth’s mind. And in this palpable chronicle of his imaginings.

It’s amazing, really. Seth’s process. Countless hours spent in the studio – alone – creating cities and worlds that exist as a past that seems to want to resist slipping away. Imagined and executed for himself. Yet shared with so many through his comics and graphic novels. Much like the boulder on Seth’s front yard. He tells me that he once had someone knock on the door to learn more about the tragic circumstances inscribed on the plaque. ‘I couldn’t bring myself to tell her I’d imagined the whole story,’ he notes. ‘So I didn’t. We were both happier this way.’

Seth was quoted, about a decade ago, as remarking: ‘I began to believe comics were art when I began to see they could really talk about the human condition.’ Whenever I walk by that boulder, now, it seems to me that Seth’s house, full of imaginary conceptions of past urban microcosms and the people who populated them, represents a sort of reliquary, a mysterious still centre in our brave metropolis, an evocative commentary on what it takes to build a city. And share it with the world.

 drawnandquarterly.com/author/seth