- Seth’s Ironic Identities:Forging Canadian History
With distinctive brushwork that evokes a bygone era of pop culture, and stories that are by turns funny and elegiac, Seth has established himself as one of Canada’s foremost cartoonists, though the identifiably Canadian aspects of his work rarely disclose themselves in a straightforward manner. Seth’s first book, It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken (1996), chronicles his search for an obscure Canadian gag cartoonist, John “Kalo” Kalloway, whose work appeared sporadically in magazines like The New Yorker and The Saturday Evening Post. The book also contains extended first-person ruminations from Seth, and depictions of his day-to-day life in Toronto, including his friendship with fellow cartoonist Chester Brown. However, this ostensibly autobiographical story is not quite what it appears to be: Kalo is not an actual historical figure and the entirely plausible “reproductions” of magazine pages featuring his work are forgeries created by Seth. It’s a Good Life constitutes an intervention into both the history of cartooning and the autobiographical mode that has become so familiar in contemporary comics.
The most apt description of Seth’s work may be “historiographic metafiction,” a term coined by Linda Hutcheon. She explains that historiographic metafiction “questions the nature and validity of the entire human process of writing—of both history and fiction. Its aim in so doing is to study how we know the past, how we make sense of it” (Canadian Postmodern 22). Her emphasis on the making of the past resonates strongly with Seth’s approach to storytelling and helps to illuminate those aspects of his work that are often characterized simply as nostalgia. Stuart Hall suggests that “identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past” (225). Seth’s comics draw attention to the narrativization of the past and reveal the extent to which the making of history—and, by extension, identity—is an act of great artifice. [End Page 166]
Seth’s historical inventions/interventions are substantiated not only by his evocative drawing style, but also by his compelling portrayal of imagined communities, to appropriate the phrase developed by Benedict Anderson in his book on nationalism. (Anderson’s communities are imagined, but not imaginary.) In The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists (2011), the community imagined by Seth serves as a stage for a particularly ironic nationalism. The Canadian identity of Seth’s characters can also be quite modest, at times even covert, included for the benefit of an imagined community of knowing readers. George Sprott: 1894-1975 (2009) is an idiosyncratic account of the life of a small-town hero known for his long-running lecture series and local TV show, in which he repeatedly rehearses the arctic expeditions of his early career.
In its settings and cultural points of reference, Seth’s work has always been quietly Canadian, but in The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists the nationalist connotations of Anderson’s phrase “imagined communities” become explicit. Seth reinforces his invented national history with references to actual Canadian cartoonists like Doug Wright and James Simpkins. Along with extended assessments of metafictional comics and detailed descriptions of the Brotherhood’s sprawling clubhouse, Seth spends nine pages on Wright’s popular strip Nipper, for which he clearly has genuine affection (fig. 1). The annual G.N.B.C.C. award for best cartoonist, “The Jasper” (GNBCC 6), is a tribute to Simpkins’s once nationally beloved, now nearly forgotten character Jasper the Bear. The reader who does not possess an encyclopedic knowledge of Canadian cartooning will probably not recognize names like Peter Whalley and George Feyer, and may assume that they too have been invented by Seth. Seth takes advantage of the relative obscurity of these real-life cartoonists, deftly incorporating them into a dense imbrication of historical fact and credible invention.
In this way, the central tension that emerges in reading The Great Northern Brotherhood is between the known and unknown. This uncertainty—which might be designated as epistemological ambivalence on the part of the reader—is a product of the inherent ambiguity...