A Conversation with Daniel Marrone, author of Forging the Past: Seth and the Art of Memory

Forging the Past: Seth and the Art of Memory by Daniel Marrone a critical study of the extraordinary Canadian comics creator. This is a comprehensive account of this work and the complex interventions it makes into the past. Moving beyond common notions of nostalgia, Marrone explores the various ways in which Seth's comics induce readers to participate in forging histories and memories

This is the most thorough, sustained investigation of Seth's work to date. Included as an appendix is a substantial interview, conducted by the author, in which Seth candidly discusses his work, his peers, and his influences. Forging the Past is now available from UPM

Below we talk with Marrone about topics he covers in the book and well as Seth’s place in relation to other comics

What’s the best place to start for readers who are unfamiliar with Seth’s work?

Seth himself recommends George Sprott – but he recognizes that the fan favorite may actually be Wimbledon Green: The Greatest Comic Book Collector in the World. In some ways, the two books seem like polar opposites: Wimbledon Green is a lively send-up of the world of comic book collecting, a dense, compact volume of satirical vignettes from Seth’s sketchbook; George Sprott is a rather sober character study, very polished and capacious, with arresting two-page spreads and a sprawling fold-out section.

But these two books also have a lot in common, from their cumulative, nonlinear narrative structure to their meditations on the elusiveness of memory and identity. The melancholy qualities of George Sprott are balanced by humor, while Wimbledon Green’s sketchbook satire is unexpectedly poignant at times.

The title of the book refers to ‘the art of memory’ – what exactly does that mean?

We generally think of memory as a natural mental phenomenon or capacity, but there is a long philosophical and rhetorical tradition that conceives of memory as a technique or technology, an artificial process of recollection. In the book, I often treat memory in this way – as a medium or an art – and I use Seth’s work to highlight some of the similarities between ‘the art of memory’ and the medium of comics.

In terms of story and character, Seth’s comics are frequently about memory in the more familiar sense of the word, but they also seem to constitute an ‘art of memory’ in their own right.

What position does Seth’s work occupy in relation to other comics?

Seth is by most measures one of the foremost cartoonists working today, both in Canada and internationally. His contemporary cohort includes artists like Chester Brown, Daniel Clowes, Joe Matt, and Chris Ware; as part of UPM’s Great Comics Artists Series, Forging the Past puts Seth in the company of Ware, Lynda Barry, Alan Moore, Jack Kirby, and Charles Schulz, among others.

Like his contemporaries, Seth is working in a cultural context cemented by the rise of alternative comics, in which cartoonists are generally prized as individual and idiosyncratic auteurs. In the same way that Drawn and Quarterly, his longtime publisher, extends the project of an alternative publication like Raw, Seth may be regarded as a successor to the alternative cartoonists of 1980s.

Of course, his work clearly evokes a history of cartooning that stretches back much further: his drawing style bears the influence of HergĂ©’s clear line and Peter Arno’s New Yorker gags, while his various projects explicitly engage with, maintain, and complicate the legacy of Canadian cartoonists such as Doug Wright and Jimmy Frise.

If Seth’s style is so strongly influenced by the history of cartooning, in what ways are his comics innovative?

Seth’s comics are distinguished by inconspicuous formal experimentation, which often takes the form of metafictional explorations and compositions that test the limits of cartooning conventions. Even his very first book, It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken, has many of the self-referential hallmarks that characterize his later work: comics within comics, cartoon renderings of photographs, and a narrative that blurs the boundary between fiction and non-fiction.

Seth’s whole approach to history and cartooning (not to mention the history of cartooning) invites readers to deliberately re-orient themselves as they read. This constant reorientation makes the readers active participants in Seth’s world-building, which involves a truly wide range of storytelling techniques (George Sprott alone includes interviews with characters, a not-quite-omniscient narrator, a fold-out section that mixes memories and photographs, and even cardboard models of a fictional town, Dominion City).

What are some of the highlights of your interview with Seth, which is included as an appendix?

The interview contains a fairly detailed account of Seth’s creative process, which comes into focus as he discusses everything from his method of page composition to the specific drafting materials he uses to the development of his distinctive drawing style. Other highlights include reflections on his first cartooning job (as an artist for the Vortex Comics series Mister X) and his more recent experience as the subject of a documentary for the National Film Board of Canada.

Overall, the interview is fairly digressive and wide-ranging, covering a variety of topics not addressed in the majority of the book. Naturally there is some overlap between the chapters and the appendix, but the interview is meant to act as more of a complement, a kind of parallel inquiry with a less circumscribed set of interests.

What are the topics that you focus on in Forging the Past?

I’m primarily interested in how Seth constructs history and memory – or, more precisely, a literary space somewhere in between the two – and the ways in which the medium of comics is uniquely suited to this project. Often this involves enlisting the participation of the reader, who instinctively fills in narrative gaps and in doing so enacts Seth’s ambivalent longing for the past – a longing which is sometimes mistaken for simple nostalgia.

Within this framework, the chapters address specific aspects of Seth’s work: chapter 1, for instance, looks closely at his distinctive cartooning style and its evocation of an authenticity rooted in the past; chapter 5 explores the significance of collection in his work, both as a subject and a storytelling method; chapter 6 discusses the simultaneous fragmentation and coherence of comics in general, and Seth’s use of parataxis in particular. Other topics include drawn photographs, Chekhovian irony, historiographic metafiction, and the elusiveness of Canadian identity.

What can Seth’s comics tell us about cartooning in general?

Seth plays with cartooning conventions in a way that is relatively understated. Often, his sequences subtly reorganize the familiar elements of comics, leading the reader to heightened awareness of these elements. He is not engaged in the purely formal experimentation of “abstract comics” – his innovations are more attuned to the literary potentialities of the medium. At his most inventive, Seth offers nonlinear narrative pleasures that are unique to comics.

One of the ways he does this is by drawing attention to the juxtaposition of fragments that is so fundamental to the structure of comics (I designate these instances of amplified juxtaposition as “parataxis”). In emphasizing the fragmented quality of comics, Seth also reveals the ease with which the reader can put the pieces together.

What aspects of Seth’s work might surprise readers?

Even those alternative comics fans who have read some of his books may be surprised by the sheer range of Seth’s extra-literary output. These endeavors include: magazine illustrations, New Yorker covers, book design and illustration, gallery installations (which often feature model buildings constructed out of cardboard), a mural, a parade float, even an entire barbershop. Much of this work is documented in recent hardcover issues of Palookaville, alongside his ongoing comics narratives.

The cardboard models, in particular, provide a striking example of the world-building that Seth undertakes in his work. Each building is from the invented town where many of his stories take place, Dominion City. When these models appear in his books (as they do in George Sprott and The Great Northern Brotherhoodof Canadian Cartoonists), they interact in complex ways with his metafictional excursions. Ultimately, there’s much more to Seth’s work than just nostalgia for old cartoons.

What’s wrong with using the term ‘nostalgia’ to describe Seth’s work?

Daniel: There’s nothing wrong with using the term – in fact, I use it regularly throughout the book. But I spend a lot of time explaining exactly what I mean and distinguishing among different forms of nostalgia. It becomes a sort of umbrella term for a range of ambivalent impulses related to return, repetition, and various sorts of homecoming. I understand the uncanny, for instance, as a species of nostalgia, a kind of double of nostalgia: both are related to what is heimlich, i.e. private and familiar.

Seth’s complicated attitude toward the past is often reduced to nostalgia in a way that is colloquial and imprecise, which obscures more than it reveals. As a result, though, his work is actually perfectly suited to a re-examination nostalgia in relation to cartooning. Seth’s comics illuminate (and are illuminated by) a more complex understanding of nostalgia.