Thursday, June 18, 2009

Seth's "Clyde Fans" Books 1, 2

Gregory "Seth" Gallant is perhaps Canada's most prominent current cartoonist, turned graphic novelist. Since 1991, his work has been published in the "Palooka-Ville" one-man anthology, with new issues being published annually, due to the pressures of his day-job. And while working in advertising may take up most of his time, Seth has in recent years found enough acclaim to have his new project, "George Sprott" originally serialized in the prestigious "New York Times". Similarly to Chris Ware, Dan Clowes and Jaime Hernandez, published in the magazine's pages, his work is every bit as nuanced and personal, even if it may appear to be an acquired taste to the uninitiated reader.

"Palooka-Ville" started out with shorter stories, but quickly branched out to encompass Seth's first acclaimed work, the ambitious and memorable "It's a good life if you don't weaken". The semi-autobiographical story seemed to have more in common with a Woody Allen movie than a typical comic, but that didn't keep Seth from filtering through his unique style most of the major themes that he keeps focusing on. 

It was only two years later, that he started publishing his longest, and until today still uncompleted, work, "Clyde fans". Projecting to eventually release the tale in several editions, collecting the major chapters, Seth has in 10 years since beginning the work on the story, managed to finish only the first two, with the third and perhaps final book still uncompleted, despite his work on "Wimbledon green" and "George Sprott" graphic novels.

Structurally, each of the two finished "Clyde fans" books is formatted to take place in a short space of time, providing intimate focus on one of the Matchcard brothers, over a short period of time. The first entry is set in 1997 and centers on Abraham, now retired, but still living in the quarters of the company he once managed, while the second covers his brother Simon, and the time he spent outside of town in 1957.

Both men are their father Clyde's sons, with a particular isolationist streak in them, with the books serving as a fine delineation of the different ways they have dealt with it. Abe, the more functional of the two, was the more functional one, having managed to somewhat overcome his detachment from the daily life by immersing in a very real and methodical work. His story is the one filled with punctual dates, and recollections, both of his life and the company, with the focus seemingly on the dwindling fortunes of the family's once prosperous firm dealing in electrical fans. Yet, in 1997, Abraham Matchcard is a lonely man, set on recollecting his past with the goal that becomes more and more apparent while he tours the firm's former headquarters. 

Seth's artwork here is integral in revealing the truth at the heart of the never-resting old man, as it works in wonderful contrast with the narration to slowly depict the building as the hiding place of a man that is still in denial to his real feelings, despite his seemingly pragmatic tone. In all of Abe's recollections, he never meets a single man, nor does anyone come visit him, as the memorabilia-filled rooms he seems to attached to slowly appear for what they are, a cold comfort for the man longing for the loss of the brother he never truly understood. The creator's subtlety is essential in carrying over the complexity of an elderly businessman's feelings, as the close-ups on trivial details start losing their charm and power just in time as it becomes true that Abraham is going in circles in his wanderings around the house. It is then, that his similarly long-winded and oft-repeating story of the company's financial assets and difficulties in adapting to the new realities in air-conditioning breaks down to take the real turn for the personal.

By coming inside the rooms of his mother and brother, that he purposefully avoids, the older Matchcard brother admits to his feelings on Simon, who despite not being as business-minded has remained closer to him than his former wife that he only makes a passing reference to. Yet, even then, Seth is careful not to go overboard and depict his protagonist as breaking down, keeping his observations in-character and thus, seemingly centered around the financial prospects. For all the business-advice and the level-headedness, Abraham suggests he will remain his father's son to the end, a practical man albeit still trying to understand his erratic brother.

The skillfully depicted depth of emotion is nevertheless in keeping with the themes Seth keeps returning to, both as the man and an artist. Reading the first part of "Clyde fans" asks the reader to trust his storyteller, and adapts to his unique ways. It is only by patiently and intuitively studying the story that the full-extent of the author's vision can be revealed, particularly to a genre fan unaccustomed to the slow pacing and the lack of narrative "twists". Very much in keeping with the modern novel, Seth asks his reader to partake on a psychological examination of an ordinary figure, whose life is as common and as that of most people, filled with contradictions and unresolved issues. The cartoonish look of the art similarly excels in characterisation, with strong layouts, close-ups on charmingly elderly furnishings, and the antiqued buildings that reflect the light's passing.

In short, it's both an examination of the title character, and the book's author, obsessing over the times past, and the lessons learned of post-war Canada. Yet, Seth's talent and willingness to return from his themes and examine them from a different angle is nowhere as apparent as in the follow, the second "Clyde fans" book. Set in 1957, it follows Simon Matchcard with the same constant focus on his, even at most mundane, but the approach varies completely with the change of the protagonist. Abe's brother, in his youth is a much more emotionally complex figure, whose particularities were only hinted in his brother's monologue. Indeed, Simon's direct inner thoughts are almost completely unrevealed to the reader, except for the times he writes a few lines in his diary. Thus, for long passages, the second "Clyde fans" book is completely silent, yet Seth still manages to bring out the deepest nuances of his character.

Following up from a mention made by his brother, Simon's journey is that of a very particular soul focused on trying to deal with the isolationist streak he shares with Abe. The business trip he takes is a perfect example of the emotional complexities hinted by the previous mention of the mother's influence on the younger sibling. Seth is truly at his best when depicting the strained emotions peering under the strained, sweaty face of the young man, trying to overcome his difficulties in communication. Thus, the book works as both a showcase of the cartoonist's strengths, such as when depicting the sweat sticking to Simon, and the flawless dialogue displayed in the rare moments of the man's mumbling as he tries to get through even the most mundane tasks.

Yet, Seth does not stop at offering a sympathetic character, hoping to overcome all of his insecurities and social awkwardness in a risky, salesman position usually reserved for individuals much more in tune with the average life. Simon is depicted as a man easily distracted by his surroundings, most apparent by his gentle nature being attracted to the architecture of a Canadian small town. Still, due to his decision, he is forced to interact with a myriad of seasoned store-owners, that are as distant to him as the passersby. Yet, the most intimate look in Simon's thoughts are the flashbacks he keeps having of his stern brother, always hovering above him, as he attempts to negotiate the sales of fans at the designated locations.

As Simon's journey unfolds, the unrelenting self-doubt is apparent in the young man's inability to contact his older brother, with his tender nature slowly tying the flashbacks together with the disappointing experiences of his latest sales pitches. Yet, to break the strain, Simon tasks himself with another complicated goal, that of attaining the attraction of the opposite sex. His efforts are as fleeting and light as the rest of his character, and perhaps best addressed in a scene where he tries to keep his mind on the techniques of making a sales pitch, before eventually breaking down for reading a novel. It is in this, short scene, that Seth foreshadows the whole tragedy of Simon's attempted coming of age, that is much more revealing than the somewhat-confusing dream sequences that follows later on.

The crux of the second "Clyde fans" book is thus not in the eventual end of Simon's search, which is clear from the start, despite the fear of his brother's authority leading the younger Matchcard brother to try and fulfill all of the designated business meetings. The harsh truth about Simon's salesmanship is dragged into the focus during a meeting with a veteran salesman, who stays in the same hotel, bringing into focus all of their differences in their only conversation. This disillusioning, coupled with the ultimate fate of his non-advance to the local girl, leads Seth's protagonist to the literal end of his journey.

Leaving the last of the city's buildings behind him, Simon finally turns his back on the changes he tried to force onto his character, and embraces the slight particularities he is much more in tune with. The solace he finds at the end of the story is bitter-sweet, as the reader is aware of his eventual fate, as explained by his brother Abraham. Yet, "Clyde fans" book two was never intended to be a surprising narrative in the factual sense. Despite this, the real story was always in Simon's emotions and the effect the short trip has had on his psychology, depicted so memorably by Seth. Paradoxically, the second book retains enough of the plot-oriented approach to make it a much more immediate read than the preceding volume.

By pitying his awkward protagonist with endless social situations, Seth manages to achieve a powerful contrast, delivering on the promise of spotlighting the difference between the two brothers. His approach to storytelling is much more multifaceted in depicting Simon's journey too, with the author never missing a beat while depicting flashbacks, the charming of the city, and the emotional distance on the faces of the busy people his expertly fleshed-out character keeps running into. All of the particularities of the young man's isolation, are fleshed out in detail, bringing a realistic portrayal of a completely different loneliness then that of his better-accustomed brother.

The story seems best summed up by Simon's alternating states of confusion trying to relax in bars, and tenseness while going from one business encounter to another, all depicted almost with savagery, explaining the brutal marks it leaves on his psychology. Still, Simon's eventual retreat back into the part of the world he feels solace in is in no way the end of his story, or of the larger "Clyde fans" epic that seems so far centered largely on him. Because despite Seth's talent, his most ambitious work also remains the only one he is still in the process of finishing, asking the reader to enjoy his other projects in the meantime.

Seth is still careful to make both of the book's chapters self-contained, and even brave enough to depict the Canadian yesterday that he is so enamored of as being wildly different, when depicted through alternating viewpoints. Even in it's current form, "Clyde fans" a very bitter-sweet and realistic look on his favorite themes, done in the personal and authentic style, surpassing most of it's comic book peers by presenting an ongoing personal examination of the author's favorite subject in a way that is both direct and refreshingly sentimental.

1 comment:

afdumin said...

You might want to note in your review that only Clyde Fans Book 1 has been collected at this point. Book 2, while completed in periodical form has yet to be released in a single volume.