Wednesday, 25 February 2015

It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken by Seth Review

I’ve heard that most people who read comics rarely read them every year of their life continuously unlike, say, “regular” books. The habit is patchy. Read comics for a year or two, maybe give them up for a few years, return later, etc. I can speak to the truth of that as I gave up comics from the end of high school to the end of university. Then I went and did something most people do in between high school and university and went on a gap year, travelling America for six months, Japan for the other six. 

This was 2006 or 07 and I was working my way through the southern islands of Japan, doing a mixture of charity work, working on farms for bed and board, and general slacking off. I was still in my “serious literature student” mindset which included the utterly moronic view that comics were childish and/or of lesser literary worth than prose fiction. 

My book bag was full of stuff like Herzog, The Red Badge of Courage, Life of Pi, Somerset Maugham, and so on. Most of it was shit (not the Maugham - that dude could write!) and, more often than not, in the balmy evenings I’d lie down and listen to music than wade through pages of lofty sentences. Aimee Mann was a favourite, and still is, and I was listening to her album Lost in Space - arguably her masterpiece - on a near continuous loop. 

I don’t know why but I’d never looked at the album’s booklet before so I slipped it out of the plastic case and started looking through it. To my surprise, there were comic strips inside. A bespectacled chap sat in a room listening to records by himself. Later on he’d hear a tune in the far off distance at night, go outside and walk around looking for it. There were also silent character portraits of melancholic souls with their eyes closed. Very moody, ambient, real sad bastard stuff! 

I was mesmerised. 

For the rest of the trip I’d take out the booklet at least once a day and stare at the eight or so pages. Reading the liner notes, I saw that “Seth” was credited with designing the booklet and drawing the cartoons. But that couldn’t be right - what sort of artist name is “Seth”? Where’s his surname?! 

It didn’t occur to me until right before I was scheduled to fly back to the UK to look up what else Seth had done and I was delighted to find a book of his had just been published by Jonathan Cape called It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken! I thought about it intermittently on the long plane ride home and, driving back from the train station in my home town, Cardiff, I asked the cabbie to take a detour and went first to the local library - not my parents’ house! - because I’d looked up on the online library catalogue beforehand that they had it in stock. And they did. 

I got back home and no-one was in. I dumped my bags, sat on the sofa and read It’s a Good Life from cover to cover. That was it. I was back into comics! From there I discovered the Norwegian cartoonist Jason (2007-ish was the time of the great indie comics boom and tons of awesome books were appearing in high street stores), Dan Clowes, Transmetropolitan, Y: The Last Man, and others. I haven’t stopped reading comics since and, some eight years later, I’m more deeply in love with the medium than I’ve ever been. 

And It’s a Good Life might not have been the exact book that did it - a small booklet that came with a record was the spark - but Seth has always been a special cartoonist for me because his comics, as miserable as they were, showed me another side to the art form that I hadn’t seen before. My taste in comics prior to this was The Beano, 2000AD, and Batman. Seth showed me comics are for grown-ups too and could be as powerful - maybe more so - than other forms of contemporary literature. 

Re-reading It’s a Good Life (yes the review begins here!) was still fun but it didn’t carry the charge it once did to a person who hadn’t picked up a comic in nearly five years. Of course it couldn’t, I’ve been reading comics non-stop for nearly a decade now! But it’s still really good, though more so for Seth’s beautiful art than the story. 

This is an autobiographical/semi-fictional tale featuring a twenty-something Seth in 1987 obsessively looking for cartoons by an obscure New Yorker cartoonist called Kalo. It’s non-fictional in that a lot of the book feels like it’s journaling Seth’s day to day life: hanging out with his friend Chester Brown (a brilliant cartoonist in his own right), hooking up with art student chicks, enjoying melancholic walks by himself, buying old comics from second-hand bookshops. And it’s fictional in that Kalo isn’t real. 

Seth goes out of his way to create a convincing past - even including a photo at the end to solidify what would turn out to be a hoax - but Kalo’s not a real person and Seth’s search is more a metaphorical/spiritual one. The thing you notice very quickly about Seth is that he yearns for the past - it was a better place, he’s always moaning - and Kalo represents the 40s and 50s, an era he wishes he was born in (though he’s self-aware enough to know that even if he was, he’d probably complain about not being born in the 20s or 30s, and so on!). 

Creating fictional cartoonists is something Seth would return to again and again in his books. Wimbledon Green (my favourite comic of his) is about a comic book collector, and Seth creates dozens of fictional obscure comics in the story, while in The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists, he would replace those pages of obscure comics with their equally obscure creators. 

It’s not the most riveting read watching Seth slowly make his way across the snowy Canadian landscape, visiting out of the way towns and meeting people who knew Kalo, etc. It’s unapologetically a very slow book. 

But the art! It just speaks to me in a profound way. The black, white and blue tones of the book, the shadows, the quietness of the settings, the simple shots of building exteriors, trees, the sky, ice-skating in the park at night, talking to someone in the rain - it’s our world but it’s not. And it’s extraordinary - I haven’t seen anything like Seth’s almost meditative art style anywhere else. 

It’s hard to be objective about a book that has such personal significance but even more so when it touches your soul in a way you can’t explain. And there should be books out there like that - everyone should have a book they love for reasons they can’t fully explain! For me that’s this one. 

If you like Aimee Mann (and if nothing else, give Lost in Space a listen), Wes Anderson movies, and sad bastard/indie comics, you’ll enjoy Seth’s It’s a Good Life. But check it out for Seth’s art which is really something! 

It is a good life and sometimes you have to weaken, particularly your idiotic views on things like comics being for dum-dums, to enjoy it all the more. 

Cross the rubicon.

It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken

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