D&Q’s Comic Books I: Palookaville #20

Posted by on January 17th, 2011 at 6:43 AM

Rob reviews the landmark twentieth issue of Seth’s Palookaville as the first part of a three-part series about recent issues from Drawn & Quarterly.

Seth, Chester Brown and Julie Doucet were three of Canadian publishing concern Drawn & Quarterly’s most important artists in their early days, but only Seth has continued to actually publish new issues of his comic book series.  Once every year to eighteen months, a new issue of Palookaville would arrive, with his “Clyde Fans” storyline going since issue #10.  Even Seth, an artist who loves comic books as physical artifacts more than most, could not escape the realities of the marketplace and so has retooled Palookaville as an annual hardcover.  The result, not surprisingly, is a beautiful and somewhat antiquated-looking object that’s as much to be looked at as read.  Seth’s nostalgia for lost, beautiful objects of yore made this kind of volume a natural.  Indeed, it allows the cartoonist to stretch out a little bit and do a little of the sort of commentary that was so interesting to follow in his Forty Cartoon Books of Interest book.  Like Chris Ware, Seth is one of our best talkers about comics.

Indeed, I see both cartoonists as not only having similar skill sets and interests, but they also process their neuroses and anxieties in a similar manner.  The annual Palookaville hardcover seems to draw not a little inspiration from Ware’s own Acme Novelty Library annuals.  While both contain segments of larger works to come, they are also meant to be individual art objects in their own right.  Both sometimes contain interesting one-offs or ancillary material.  Both find the artist struggling with themselves on a day-to-day basis, a struggle that is mirrored by the actions of their own characters.  Seth takes things in a different direction, using an austere aesthetic that is very much his own.  From his choice of colors to the drawings and designs he chooses for his endpapers, Seth aims to create a new object that at the same time evokes a nostalgia not for a real place and time, but the way we might dimly remember such times and places from the artifacts and photographs that are left behind.

That aesthetic yearning was made manifest in the art installation that Seth inadvertently created in his fictional town of Dominion.  A series of beautiful but quickly constructed & painted cardboard buildings, Dominion was a way of using his hands to ruminate on a project that never quite came together.  It exists as a sort of bridge to Seth’s imagination, a vessel for that nostalgia of the particular that haunts the artist.  These buildings are a reaction to the mass-produced and cookie-cutter aspects of modern culture; they are notable as much for their aesthetic qualities as well as their quirks.  The extensively-illustrated article he wrote about how they came to be an art exhibit was both exhaustive in its details and revealing of the artist, and it strongly informs the other pieces in this issue.

The latest chapter of “Clyde Fans”, a story about the ways in which memory deceives and destroys us, focuses on alpha male Abe Matchcard.  The story is also all about failure, and this episode reveals that Abe may well be a greater failure than his anxiety-ridden younger brother Simon.  It’s an interesting companion piece to Ware’s recent “Lint” issue of Acme, which is also about an alpha male (a character type very different from Seth and Ware’s usual put-up neurotics) who nonetheless winds up every bit as desperate and lonely as the weaker folk around them.  “Calgary Festival” presents the author himself as a counterpoint to Matchcard: someone experiencing deep isolation, depression and social anxiety.  It’s very carefully crafted to reflect a time and place now in the past, implying that this is either a rock-bottom state of being or a prior emotional steady-state that has now shifted.  There’s a straightforward, emotional rawness to this story that’s surprising to see from Seth, given the way that he prefers to use images to convey emotion more than text.  It’s an especially bracing story given that even someone as gifted, charming, respected and well-liked as Seth is capable of being reduced to such a state.  I hesitate to speculate on whether or not putting these thoughts down on paper was in any way therapeutic for the artist, but I admire his unflinching and frequently unflattering honesty.  It’s certainly a very different side to an artist whose work has a slick and sometimes mannered surface quality that demands some effort on the part of the reader to penetrate; here, Seth lays himself bare.

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