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Capturing light through drawing

Interview with Seth on the subject of "George Sprott 1894-1975”

Published: 29 Sep 2022
George Sprott 1894-1975 (Coconino Press, translated by Leonardo Rizzi) is a short picture story (told in images) by Seth. It was originally published in the pages of the New York Times Magazine and later in 2009 in a book. It describes the life of George Sprott, a TV host at a small local station that covered Arctic explorations. One of most striking visual aspects is the rendering of the Northern lights in which a story of nostalgia and regret is set: we discussed these topics with Seth.

Let’s start from the great Canadian North, from the explorations and the feeling of wonder towards the natural elements, the topics which George Sprott talks about in his show. Has something changed? Do we have less wonder today?

Yes, I do think the world has changed significantly when it comes to the sense of Wonder. At least, in the context of how we view the far reaches of the earth. A character like George, I suppose, is part of the reason that wonder has decreased. He would been part of the very early efforts to exploit our interest in the exotic. After a century of nature and travel television shows and movies I think most of us have become a little cynical about places like the far north. We’ve seen the images (no matter how impressive they truly are) so many times that the Northern Lights or the vast landscapes of snow are just too familiar. We take them for granted. Early audiences for this sort of imagery were genuinely more entranced. They have never seen such places and knew they would never visit them. That’s why magazines like the National Geographic made such enormous impacts on people in those early decades. Nowadays, many of the most exotic places on earth have been reduced to luxury travel vacations for the upper middle class. You don’t need to be an explorer to visit the far north or Patagonia or the Galapagos. You probably just need a good travel agent. Also, I think our ideas about “exoticism” have significantly changed as well. We kind of frown on the idea now. Probably because we have come to recognize that the people we once termed as exotic are just people too…and not simply images for our pleasure. Background figures for our lives.

In your panels you play a lot with light, with the shadows on the faces and silhouettes of the characters. But how do you express on the page the great northern lights?

Cartooning is all symbols. You can’t really depict anything on the page with any “reality”. You simply point at the experience and let the reader fill in the details. So, essentially, even though you are drawing pictures of things…they are just stand in’s for the real effect. In film you can capture some sense of reality…but even there you are asking the viewer to fill in the smells and the sense of “being there”. In comics it’s closer to prose. The drawings are just like letters in a word. R and E and D spell RED but red only means something when the reader puts those letters together in their mind. This is the same with cartooning. The drawings call forth real experience. So, drawings involving light on the page make the reader imagine real light. That is your only hope of capturing the Northern lights!
© Seth / for the Italian edition Coconino Press – Fandango 2022
© Seth / for the Italian edition Coconino Press – Fandango 2022
Memory plays a central role in George Sprott, the recollection of the past, almost Proustian, that becomes nostalgia. But youth, as the protagonist says at one point, is essentially indecorous. Memories help prevent solitude?

In the Kingdom of solitude, sorrow reigns. In other words. Memory is no solace against loneliness. In fact, in my experience, loneliness destroys whatever solace comes with isolation. I enjoy being alone but that is mostly leavened by the fact that I have a wife who comes home every day and stops me from ever feeling lonely. When I have been truly alone (ie single) I found isolation much harder to enjoy. When you are alone you are your most true self, I think, and you experience things much deeper than when you are distracted by other people. But the dilemma is that being truly alone you tend to lose the ability to deeply experience pleasure because you are too busy feeling lonely. It’s a paradox. But memory. Ahh—we are entirely composed of memory. And of the narrative we make up of memory to decide who we are. That narrative (and those memories) keep changing all our lives. Constantly updated to match our ideas of ourselves. Memory is mostly false, I think, but what does it matter. It is who we are.

Between egoism and cheating it’s hard to empathize with George Sprott, except maybe when he’s a boy, when his life was simpler. Is it like this for everyone?

I think every life is a mess and a mass of contradictions. But we are not defined by our best or worst actions (well, maybe our worst!). We are, in the end, a mixed bag of choices. A lot of mistakes are made selfishly in youth and sometimes we learn from them and sometimes not. My parents were very conflicted people. Especially my father. I did not respect his choices in life. Yet I loved him deeply. This is the nature of human life. It doesn’t let anyone off the hook but it does face the reality that we are complicated creatures. We do good. We do bad. If we are lucky our scores cancel each other out. I know I was selfish in youth. I am trying very hard to be a better person in old age. Probably that is a typical story.

You already narrated stories of invented lives, like in Wimbledon Green, the greatest comic book collector of the world, or the life of Kalo in It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken. They both had to do with the world of comic books and, I suppose, with autobiographical elements. Why did you choose a job like a TV show host for George Sprott? Is it also a reflection on new media?

I was in my later 40’s when I started George Sprott. It was around this time that I was getting very melancholy about my youth (just like everyone else). I grew up around Windsor Ontario and right across the river was Detroit Michigan. Detroit had a lot of television stations and I watched an awful lot of tv in those teen years. I probably loved tv more than comics even. So, in middle age I was starting to think about those years of local tv quite a bit…and just at that moment the New York Times called me about the idea of doing a strip. It was right on the front of my mind and so…that’s the subject I chose. Truthfully, I write a certain kind of story and I write it over and over again. Mostly about the choices people make in life and the experience of looking back with regret (or lying to ourselves). If I had been fascinated with the moon landing at that moment the story probably would’ve been about an old astronaut who regretted the things he’d done on the moon (or maybe on earth too!!). The New York Times caught me at just the right moment to invent Mr. George Sprott, tv host.
© Seth / for the Italian edition Coconino Press – Fandango 2022
© Seth / for the Italian edition Coconino Press – Fandango 2022
The light sources (the moon and streetlight) can be found, symmetrically, at the opening and closure of this comic page. The mixture of natural and artificial light diagonally crosses the scene and highlights the spectral outlines of the buildings. In this captivating nocturnal scenario, where the only signs of human life consist of lights at the windows in houses in the bottom left-hand corner, the words of the "commentary voice" resound as they describe George Sprott's time on Earth.

George Sprott’s story is narrated in a non-linear way, the narrator plays with different story structures, between flashbacks, flashforwards and interviews of people that knew him. The nostalgic mood at times recalls Welles’ Citizen Kane. Why did you choose this postmodern method of narration?

I’m not sure what I would call it but you certainly hit the nail on the head by mentioning CITIZEN KANE. I saw Citizen Kane several times as a child and the story hit me very deeply. I sometimes think that my entire idea for a story is simply based on the structure of that one movie. I come back to it again and again and again. Life is a kind of a mystery story and we are always missing a single piece of the puzzle. It may not be as symbolic always as Rosebud but there are always these grey areas in the stories…even are own life stories are a mystery. What was it all about? I know, as a child (and an adult), I spent an enormous amount of time and effort thinking about my own parents. They were mysteries to me. Both talked a lot about their lives but their inner lives were well hidden from me. I’ve never gotten over them. They were giant figures to me and I think most of my stories are really about them. I work in this manner—using fragmented narratives—because it allows me to leave holes in the stories in a very simple way. It even allows me to draw attention to the holes. I used to be opposed to having a narrator but at some point I realized that having a narrator speak directly to the reader was my ideal method of telling a story. The trick is—the narrator cannot be god. The narrator has to leave some room for the reader to make up their own mind about things.

This year we celebrate Charles M. Schulz centenary. You worked on the book designing and the covers of the Peanuts complete collection for Fanthagraphics. What’s Schulz legacy today?

I love Peanuts. It was so important to me as a child and again as a young cartoonist. I learned a lot from Schulz but more importantly I loved his characters and they are real to me. Not lines on paper. Real characters like the best characters in any form of fiction. Schulz legacy will probably be fairly long lasting. The characters are rich and the work continues to appeal to new readers. It won’t last forever but what does? Schulz did something unique in the newspaper comics—he used his own personal life history—his deepest feelings—to infuse life into the comic strip. Very few cartoonist have done this in his era. I mean, there were some okay strips in the newspaper when Schulz was working but you wouldn’t say that Beetle Bailey or Blondie had much human depth to them. Certainly Frank King’s Gasoline Alley or Herriman’s Krazy Kat are real milestones—real works of art—but somehow what Schulz did was smaller and more personal than even these two artistic Giants. I hope his work is seen as the little jewel it really is. A perfect, multifaceted gem.

And talking about legacy, you dedicated George Sprott to your collegue and fellow countryman Chester Brown, why?

Chester is my best friend. A very good person and I love him. He is also an enormously talented cartoonist and was really a mentor for me when I was starting out. He’s a year or two older than me but he was much further ahead, artistically, when we were young. He was a real guiding light. As old men we disagree alot about politics and culture (he’s always in the wrong!!) But I always respect his point of view and he takes my criticisms and teasing with great humility.
Seth, photo © Samuel Sanchez
Seth, photo © Samuel Sanchez