Seth bids farewell to his 20-year comic epic Clyde Fans
Clyde Fans, a five-part series about two brothers and their faltering sales business, has been two decades in the making for Guelph, Ont.-based cartoonist Seth. The book takes on an increasingly otherworldly quality as it unfolds over the course of the lives of brothers Abe and Simon Matchard.
Published as a series in Seth's Palookaville comic books beginning in 1997, the collected Clyde Fans is an intimate and compelling portrait of brotherhood and nostalgia in southwestern Ontario.
Clyde Fans is on the longlist for the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize. It is the first graphic novel to be nominated for this award since its inception in 1994. 2020 was the first year graphic novels were eligible.
When you first started writing Clyde Fans, did you think it would take 20 years to complete?
"If I thought for a second it would last 20 years, I wouldn't even have started it. Twenty years sounds like a long time, except it sure doesn't feel like it when you're working on it. Strangely, now that it's done, it feels like it's something I've worked on for a couple of years. It's lost its potency in some way.
I understand as a reader what it's like when you care about somebody's work.
"Doing the work is super important. I get excited when I'm working on new projects and when I put it out there, I'm excited for people to read it. Of course, I want feedback and I want praise, but once I'm done with it, it's lost its connection to me. I'm one of those people who don't like to revisit their old work.
"I understand as a reader what it's like when you care about somebody's work. There are artists whose work I reread and when I meet them I tell them that it matters to me. With my own work, once it's done, it doesn't mean much to me anymore."
What was the inspiration behind Clyde Fans?
"There used to be an actual business called Clyde Fans. It was at King and Sherbourne Street in Toronto. It was an old storefront and had a nice hand-lettered window with the big letters on it, just the way I've drawn it. I walked by it often and I didn't pay a tremendous amount of attention to it. One day, for some reason, I looked more closely into the office. I think they were already out of business by this point. I looked in and could see inside the office, which was dark and very dated. It had a few desks, a counter, some typewriters, rotary phones and a couple of fans. On the back wall, there were two photographs: two portraits of two men. I can't remember what those photographs look like anymore, but they were standard black and white business portraits, which I assumed were the owners. That struck me as an evocative image and that floated around in my head. Eventually I thought it would be interesting to make up the lives of these two."
Were there any surprises during the process of creating the book?
"I pretty much figured out exactly what it was going to be about when I sat down to draw it. The surprising part to me is that in 20 years, I never varied much from that plan. When I got to the end, it was the end of the book exactly as I planned it. A few things changed of course, but the thing that surprised me the most was the way the story changed.
"By the end of the book, what I thought I'd started out as a story about people, kind of mundane, turned out to be more magical than I expected it to be. The mystic underpinning of life was more the focus at the end than I had planned."
What kind of research did you do for the book?
"I read a lot of books on sales in the beginning, which surprisingly was a lot more interesting than I thought it was going to be. They were all very old books on sales because I wanted them to be from the right time period. There was one called 40 Sales and How I Made Them or something like that. I still own it and I dip into it every once in a while. It's first-person accounts from successful salesmen about difficult sales they had and how they turned them around. It's very gung-ho about sales, but the stories were interesting because they weren't just sales techniques, they were first-person autobiographical stuff.
"If I were able to take that stuff to heart, it would be about how you could sell yourself in the world. Certainly if you were to read those books and apply it to yourself, it would mean getting out into the world more, which is exactly the opposite of what the life of a cartoonist is. I spend all my time in the studio. But the thing I took away from it most was — and which I used in the book — there's an artificial sense in the sales community, the veneer of self-assurance that's so important to sales. That was interesting to me. It was important to me that I had two characters who were not essentially alphas and faced a disparity between who they were and who they had to be."
How did you develop the personalities of these two characters?
"I knew that there was going to be five chapters and each chapter would have a different storytelling approach. The first chapter is a long monologue where Abraham talks directly to the reader. Then in the second chapter, we go back in time with Simon and we follow him in what I call 'naturalistic storytelling.' In comics, that means following the character around, kind of like a ghost, watching them as they do things. The characters don't talk to you and you don't see inside their head; you just watch them from the outside. For the third chapter, I wanted it to be an interior monologue by Simon and then in the fourth chapter, they finally come together.
By the end of the book, what I thought I'd started out as a story about people, kind of mundane, turned out to be more magical than I expected it to be.
"I was concerned about dealing with the characters individually and then finally getting to a point, after all these pages, of bringing the two characters together to have a conversation. I knew that would be an important point in the book. I knew I'd have to know the characters well enough by that point for that conversation to work properly.
"My sympathies lie more with Simon because he's the introvert and Abe's the extrovert. But it's the oldest cliche, that the writer says both the characters are themselves. This is absolutely true in this case. I am more like Abraham than Simon, if you were to meet me. He's the outgoing, more aggressive figure, but cartooning is a lonely pursuit. You spend most of your time in your studio by yourself. It's traditionally considered to be a role for introverts, people who don't want to be out in the world. I must admit it is what I enjoy most. The schism between those two positions is what I thought about a lot while I was writing it, trying to come to terms with both the characters and the way that they interact with other people and themselves."
What was the most challenging part of creating the book?
"There's a sequence in the centre of the book where Simon is having this imaginary conversation with some toys on the shelf. When I got to it, I did it pretty much how I thought it would be. When I published it in Palookaville, I was like, 'This is terrible. This does not work. It's corny. It was a bad idea.' That hung in the back of my head as I worked on the rest of the book. I rewrote all the dialogue there at one point, maybe twice, planning to change it when I finally put the book together.
"This is one of the true values of serialising something — you get a second chance. I realized that you don't want to hear anything on the other side of that imaginary conversation. There was no dialogue I could write for those toys that didn't come off as trite and silly. I removed all the dialogue and left the empty word balloons for their side. I felt much better about that. There's nothing important being said. The point isn't what they're saying. The point is Simon's interior reaction to what he's working through. I'm grateful that idea finally came to me before I published the whole book."
Do you have a favourite section of the book?
"My favourite part of the book is the last chapter. I was waiting for a long time to get to it and I knew it would have to have an otherworldly quality to it. When the time came, I was ready to do it. But I always think to myself, 'What if I had drawn that last chapter 20 years ago?' I wonder how different or the same it would be. I suspect that it would have the same ideas and the same themes, but the way that I would have told the story would have been very different."
Seth's comments have been edited for length and clarity. Read more interviews from the In Conversation series here.