The artist who calls himself “Seth” is obsessed with the elusive past. His illustrated stories (“comic books” seems too flimsy a term) dwell heavily on regret, the struggle of modern life, the yearning for a more innocent and perfect yesterday. It is no surprise, then, that Seth’s private sketchbooks feature so many portraits of nostalgic icons — old buildings, performers, sports figures, and reworkings of old snapshots.
Opening the oversized volume — heavy, somewhat bulky, covered with thick gray linen, embossed and stamped — feels nostalgic in itself.
These images from Seth’s personal sketchbooks of the past 10 years or so, he tells us, are almost entirely “from sources that are widespread, ordinary and beneath notice. … magazines, yearbooks, mail-order catalogues … discarded photo albums, and the many, many other forms of paper ephemera that endlessly passes through my studio.”
With simple, undulant outlines, Seth resuscitates people and places which would otherwise be buried under the ever-encroaching glacier of modernity. There are rough ink sketches and scattered studies of facial expression, but most of the drawings are formal and complete, washed with muddied pools of watercolor as if caught halfway between obscurity and the vividness of real life. Printed on thick, ivory-colored paper stock, the effect is that of a long-lost family photograph — gawky relatives gathered on a wooden porch, gritty workmen on the job, party guests with pointed paper hats, a picnic bench, a string of fish, a boy on a bicycle on his way to hockey practice.
Born in 1962, the reclusive Seth admits he’s nostalgic for a period he never experienced personally. The story line of his current comic book series, “Palookaville” (also published by D&Q), is also set in the past, a world of bustling Main Streets and traveling salesmen. Seth lives and works in Guelph, Ontario, between here and Toronto, so many of the vignettes will seem especially familiar to Detroiters: Empty brick storefronts whose once gay signage has faded; a deserted loading dock with rusted metal doors and a weedy foundation; a flat rural landscape featuring an abandoned silo or aluminum travel trailer; a shady group of heavy-shouldered men in suits and hats — a posed union contract signing? or a formal business meeting for a product or service long ago rendered obsolete? We don’t really know; yet they all feel familiar, recognizable somehow.
All is not sad reverie; there is also room for bawdiness and whimsy — scenes from old girlie magazines and jazz-joint programs, portraits of performers such as T-Bone Walker, Jimmie Rodgers, and an elderly Laurel and Hardy. There are giggling music-hall girls with ruffled panties and feathered tiaras, rouged cheeks and pronounced underbites. You can almost hear the tinny piano, barroom laughter, the clinking of glassware; you can almost smell the smoke and gin.
Naturally, a cartoonist would also sketch superheroes. But Seth’s have no supernatural musculature or post-ironic angst; these are real men in costumes, looking tentatively brave while their tights sag a bit at the knees.
Aside from an introduction by the artist, there is minimal text. Some of the portraits contain brief captions or dates; for instance, there are painstakingly re-created pages from yearbooks or long-lost club directories — rows of earnest, peculiar faces and lacquered hairdos with names and addresses set underneath, anchoring them to a reality which is no longer valid in the here and now. But most of the illustrations in this sketchbook are purely anonymous people and places. Seth has used them to create his own alternate reality: An oddly beautiful, wistful world, perfectly preserved, cobbled from our collective pasts.
Karen Fisher is MT's information coordinator. E-mail her at [email protected].