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Vernacular Drawings: Sketchbooks of the Cartoonist "Seth"
By Alan Bisbort

It was bound to happen. That is, a small circle of graphic artists turned comic book creators would make the leap for the brass ring of posterity by producing museum-quality work. Among this select few who can get away with it—who have the chops and the unique vision—the latest entrant into such gilded company is a skinny, sad-faced cartoonist from Guelph, Ontario who goes by the single moniker Seth (real name: Gregory Gallant). With Vernacular Drawing (Drawn & Quarterly, 2002), he joins the company of Ben "Julius Knipl" Katchor, Dan "Ghost World" Clowes and Chris "Jimmy Corrigan" Ware. All of these stellar artists have chosen this wonderfully retrogressive venue, the comic book-or, as it's more respectably known, the graphic novel-and we are all the richer for it. Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (Pantheon) may be the best American novel, in any venue, published in the last two years.

Seth shares something with Katchor and Ware, in particular. These three artists have created a visual universe that stands in direct opposition to the modern world. In none of their work will you see a computer (or even the influence of computer graphics), characters with tattoos or piercings, political posturing, violence or even vulgar language. They all seem to be on a religious quest, of sorts, a pilgrimage to a time when things were, if not better or happier, then much quieter, much more sane. They seem to be pining for an irretrievably lost past.

Seth, prior to Vernacular Drawings—which was published by Montreal's stellar Drawn & Quarterly, home of other great comic book artists, like Joe Sacco, Julie "Dirty Plotte" Doucet, Adrian "Optic Nerve" Tomine, Chester "Yummy Fur" Brown, and Dylan "Atlas" Horrocks—was best known for his ongoing series Palookaville. A portion of that comic book series was published in book form last year and given one of the great titles of any book in recent memory: It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken (also published by D & Q).

Even though Seth is probably known to general audiences—whether they realize it or not—through his commercial work for publications like the New York Times, Spin, Forbes, the New Yorker, the "core" of his vision is incorruptible. As he explained in a recent bookstore appearance in New Haven, "There's an upbeat quality to commercial illustration, and you realize you have subtly picked it up when you start censoring yourself, doing what they want rather than what you can get away with. I am not a gag artist. I don't have a sense of humor."

This was said with a straight face.

Indeed, Seth's Vernacular Drawings are beautifully sad, full-page sketchbook renderings that seem to chronologically chart the workings of his mind. Each page is stamped with a date, and the various images, taken from a 12-year period, unfold pleasantly, almost slipping past as one peruses the handsome coffee-table-sized volume. Unlike Robert Crumb—to whom he bears a physical, though slightly less seedy, resemblance—Seth is not harsh or willfully repulsive, except in a couple of glaring places that would have served Vernacular Drawings better to have been left out. Think of Seth as an existentialist Ludwig Bemelmans (the Bemelmans of his adult Hotel Splendide books, not Madeline). All of Seth's figures and landscapes are formal, from the period when men of all classes wore fedoras, smoked pipes (Seth's pipes are as good as Magritte's), sport coats and ties. No jogging outfits, no SUV's, no strip malls or fast food. Not even a hint that a television could exist in his world.

To Seth, according to his note in the front of this book, "vernacular" means "common in all three senses of the word—widespread, ordinary and beneath notice." He goes on: "Just about everything in here was drawn from sources that are widespread, ordinary and beneath notice; old magazines, yearbooks, mail-order catalogues, snapshots, comic books, outdated encyclopedias, girlie magazines, discarded photo albums, and the many, many other forms of paper ephemera that endlessly passes through my studio."

The cumulative effect of the images, though, is powerfully melancholic, so much so that you begin to worry over the mental well-being of the artist. As one does when confronted with a roomful of Joseph Cornell box collages, the viewer makes an effort to will Seth's vision into existence; by doing so, perhaps the artist will be rescued. If he so abjectly pines for the scenes and people he has created, surely they must exist somewhere. The colors Seth gravitates toward only reinforce the melancholic glow of his drawings: olive greens, greys, browns. He has perfected one color in particular, a light bluish tinge, mixed with brown and grey that instantly connects with a viewer. The subjects, too, are telling: isolated train cars in the middle of nowhere under a huge dark star-filled sky; dilapidated warehouses, businesses that are closed or bankrupt, silent groves of trees, empty flyblown streets, emptier than the most vacated Edward Hopper painting.

The best of his work—and one can chart the meteoric development of Seth from beginning to end of this collection—is of the most recent vintage. And, at least to these eyes—perhaps because the scenes are unfamiliar—his renderings of his native Canada stand above the rest. It seems obvious where Seth should go next: he should do more drawings from life. His own personal vernacular world in Canada is as arcane, distant and fascinating as the cityscapes that Katchor creates from his reimagined New York or Ware creates from a nostalgia-laced Chicago.

And, in order to do more drawings from life, Seth might even have to get out and circulate among people. Who knows, he might meet someone who will take care of him, put a few meals in him, give him some small glimmer of hope.