Rich Kreiner’s Yearlong Best of 5

Posted by on January 2nd, 2010 at 1:00 PM

Previously: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

A book that’s sure to be on many “Best of 2009” lists is Seth’s George Sprott: 1894- 1975.

This volume represents a significant, sensitive enlargement of a story Seth originally composed for weekly, single-page installments in The New York Times Magazine when that publication was flirting with comics. George Sprott was undoubtedly one of the more satisfying and successful serials the magazine ran and the collected book expands and enhances the narrative in just about every any way you’d care to name.

Start with something as obvious as physical size. This volume inflates page dimensions beyond those of the magazine, to a whopping 12” x 14”. Yeah, it’s a relatively superficial quality and a scale rarely exploited by Seth, but he plays it like a maestro. With this extra room the reprinted pages get the titles they look like they always deserved. Edge-to-edge graphic devices become full-fledged artistic Statements. Double-page tableaux become sprawling visions more perfectly fit to and more evocative of their theme. Ice fields, seas of floating bergs, moonlit panoramas of broad, frozen expanses roll out in gestural, painterly, thick lines. In technique and subject they are a kind of Expressionistic Minimalism, tastefully marrying a stark, restrained representation of the emotional terrain with a steely concentration on the contextual matters at hand.

The numerous other slight and noteworthy alterations in this text could occupy students of the form for quite a while. The occasional face is refined toward the more overtly cartoonish. Colors are uniformly more worn, faded, outmoded. There’s a more natural place for cussing; ditto nipples on figurines. Given Seth’s skill and discernment, none of the changes can be considered casual.

And of course there is that generous addition of new pages. By and large, these take two forms. The first are those great, barren visions. As a category, these would include a pair of opposing, double-page fold-outs that represent Seth’s version of the life-flashing-in-front-of-you experience alleged to unspool at the moment of death.

More telling still, the second group of added pages is new comic episodes revealing pivotal moments in the life of Sprott. These go rather directly to fleshing out the portrait of a man relative to his time, an identity cast as a dichotomy on the edition’s paper sleeve: “arctic explorer, television host, raconteur, beloved uncle? Or opportunist, philanderer, deadbeat father, self-centered bore?”

This book’s depiction of Sprott’s existence sharpens and deepens that question, even as it makes the answer more self-evident and humane (it doesn’t take a close reading to notice that there’s very little mutually exclusive or inherently contradictory between the two sets of Sprott’s possible roles).

But beyond that, this expanded work more carefully sets Sprott’s life within a broader history, a grander portrait of people, place and, especially, time. It harkens back to when television could be imagined as a local industry, when it spoke of, rather than dictated, communal interests … hell, back to when “community” was the relevant unit of diversion and culture. Back, too, to when the snowfields to the north were exotic, humbling vastnesses instead of shrinking, besieged environmental bellwethers. George Sprott is a moving, understated elegy to the disappearance of such an era and such a world. It successfully stirs a nostalgic ache that haunts even as we acknowledge that such a time and place never existed outside the artist’s mind, never apart from the realized object we hold in our hands.

With all due respect to Crumb’s Book of Genesis and Mazzucchelli’s Asteros Polyp (and foreseen for Campbell’s promised Alec: The Years Have Pants), George Sprott: 1894- 1975 is the “comic of the year” that I could most readily hand to an adult without either introduction or proviso.

Image [©2009 Seth]

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