When he reflects, as he is frequently asked to do, on the trajectory of his career, Seth, the cartoonist born Gregory Gallant, likes to cite an anecdote about a girl he met at an art store in Toronto when he was in his early 20s. She was a painter in the abstract Color Field school associated with artists such as Jack Bush, Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko and characterized, per the name, by large swaths of solid colour. “You can’t make art with comics,” she flatly declared, shaking her head as Seth went through a list of cartoonists he felt were capable of breaking that barrier.
Hers was not, at the time, a controversial opinion, but it’s Seth who’s having the last laugh now. “Who cares about Color Field painting anymore!” he says, before puckishly addressing his erstwhile acquaintance, whom he hasn’t seen since: “Where’s your medal?”
The medal in question – fresh enough out of the box to still have that new-medal smell – marks his being named a chevalier (knight) of France’s Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, an award given in recognition of a body of work that has had significant influence on the arts, both in France and around the world. (Quebec’s Ordre des arts et des lettres du Québec, inaugurated in 2015, is modelled on it.)
The ceremony took place on June 17 at the well-appointed Rosedale residence of Tudor Alexis, French Consul-General in Toronto, in front of an intimate group of around 20 that included fellow cartoonists and illustrators Joe Ollmann, Chester Brown, Jillian Tamaki, the Fan Brothers and Michael DeForge, as well as Peggy Burns and Tom Devlin of Drawn & Quarterly, Seth’s long-time publisher. In his speech, Alexis spoke warmly and reverently of the universality of Seth’s stories, how they “transcend the codes of their genre.”
The award’s previous, sundry recipients include the magician David Copperfield, writer William S. Burroughs, dancer Rudolf Nureyev and actor George Clooney; Alice Munro and Loreena McKennitt feature in its Canadian column.
But few have worn the actual medal – a eight-pointed silver gilt star that dangles from a ribbon striped in Seth-like forest green and cream – with the same ease and panache. As Alexis gently lifted it from a crown-royal purple-and-yellow velvet miniature cushion held by Seth’s wife, Tania van Spyk, then affixed it to the lapel of the cartoonist’s vintage suit, it was clear the medal had found an uncommonly amenable host. Seth plans to put it in a display case with a door, so he can access it to wear at future events. He’s comfortable with formality; indeed, often laments its loss in modern life.
The honour itself came, in Seth’s words “out of the blue,” to the degree that he initially thought the certificate – which arrived in the mail, and was in French only, which he doesn’t speak – was for “some crappy silver award from somewhere.” Google Translate served to correct that misapprehension.
So wherefore the French connection you ask? In its treating of bandes dessinées as serious culture in the 1970s and 80s of Seth’s youth, the country had represented, to him and his peers, a kind of promised land. Rarefied cartoonists such as Moebius and Jacques Tardi, whom he’d happened upon in the pages of Heavy Metal magazine while living in an Ontario trailer park with his father during his peripatetic teens, were given gallery shows, had their work published in sumptuous editions.
In North America, conversely, the form was dominated, much like the movies today, by superheroes. To Seth, this seemed unlikely to change. He and Chester Brown used to joke about one of them receiving the Order of Canada, so it’s a sign of progress that that joke, having been divested of its absurdity, no longer qualifies as funny.
North America eventually caught up to France in recognizing cartoonists as artists. Graphic novels are often nominated for, and sometimes win, major fiction prizes. Art Spiegelman’s groundbreaking Maus won the Pulitzer; Seth’s 20-year-in-the-making graphic novel Clyde Fans was nominated for the Giller. This year’s inaugural Carol Shields Prize will consider graphic novels by women. That mainstream acceptance would never have come about were it not for trails blazed by Seth, Spiegelman, Brown and Chris Ware.
In art school, Seth studied the ligne claire or “clear line” technique of Yves Chaland and Hergé, the Belgian whose beloved Tintin comics privileged the use of strong outlines over texture and crosshatching. Chaland’s throwback 1950s style, which he combined with an 80s punk sensibility, had a particularly profound influence on Seth. Ligne claire remains, he says, “the very backbone of my work.”
Happily, his admiration for the Franco-Belgians turned out to be mutual. His debut graphic novel, It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken, was published in France in the late 1990s and subsequently nominated for Best Foreign Title at the Angoulême, the second-biggest comics festival in the world. In 2019, Seth hit another career pinnacle when he received Angoulème’s very-big-deal Jury Award for Clyde Fans.
Asked what becoming a knight means to him, Seth talks of seeing it along a continuum of achievements that are all the sweeter for never having been anticipated (though, having become regular occurrences, he is surely starting to anticipate them), and that collectively represent his body of work as an artist, or oeuvre, to keep with the Gallicisms. Others in that category include his first solo show at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the 2014 NFB short film about his life, Seth’s Dominion, and the 2019 major career retrospective, A Life, All Play, that took place in his current hometown, at the Art Gallery of Guelph.
The AGG show showcased the gobsmacking range of Seth’s achievement: papier-maché puppets, dioramas, ceramic sculpture, as well as his sprawling cardboard city of Dominion, all of it mixed in amongst copious art-on-walls. (American sculptor Alexander Calder’s circus, he says, was part of what inspired him to move off the page and into three dimensions.) Last year, the gallery unveiled Seth’s bronze-cast, life-size Living Room Suite, which sits as a permanent installation in its outdoor sculpture park.
There have been potholes along this road to triumph, of course. Seth recalls how the elation of nabbing his first New Yorker cover turned to despair when the piece he submitted got scrapped. (Not a rare event. And, after being recommissioned a year later, he went on to become a fixture at the magazine.) He now views the episode as a blessing in disguise: “I’m glad they cancelled it, it stunk.”
The award coincides with yet another idiosyncratically on-brand achievement: the vinyl release of Omnis Temporalis, a recording of Vancouver composer and bassist Mark Haney’s musical interpretation – though it combines chamber music, song cycles and narration, Haney is loath to call it an opera – of Seth’s graphic novella George Sprott: 1894-1975, originally mounted as an exhibition and series of live performances at Richmond Art Gallery in B.C. in 2017.
The album’s extravagant, glossy packaging, which features a massive foldout image of the title character, is designed, no surprise, by Seth himself. A book of liner notes is worth it just for the photos of the original performance’s amazing set and costumes, designed by Seth and Diane Park, respectively.
A “fancy record set” had been on the list of things Seth “wanted to have in my life before I’m dead” (he winces at the term “bucket list”). It was also a first for its publisher, Drawn & Quarterly. Another big deal thing, which he can’t yet reveal, will take place next year. It’s not, he assures firmly, but with a hint of despondence, the Order of Canada.
Its professional resonance is ostentatiously obvious, but the words with which Seth concluded his acceptance speech made it clear that the medal, or rather what it represents, has personal meaning for him as well. “When I was in Grade 1,” he told the gathered group, “my teacher complained to my mother that I talked too much and disrupted the class. According to my sister, mother talked back. She said, ‘He’s an artist.’ I wish mother were here today to see the proof.”
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