Notes on Clyde Fans
by Ian McMurray
Clyde Fans, Book One, Parts 1 & 2 By Seth, 1997~2001
Palookaville 20-23, Clyde Fans pt 4-5, by Seth 2013-2017
Seth finished this story in 2017, 20 years after he started! (Five parts total, subdivided into two Books, I think.) It’s really interesting to see how it’s developed as he developed as an artist. While his work is as fundamentally grounded as it was when he started, I would easily argue that his output in the last ten years has reached a fluency and purity that few comic artists have yet to achieve. The series as it started in 1997 is fairly rambling:
Part 1 is retired Torontonian Abe Matchcard reminiscing about the past as he wanders through his shuttered electric fan business. It’s Seth, but it’s very much Seth in the form of his more well-known book, It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken. It follows the character, has quiet points followed by text. By the end of the series, it will have morphed into something quite different, because of a number of things I’ll posit at the end of this note.
Part 2 is about Abe’s reclusive brother Simon, who gave up on the outside world in the 50’s, and is set in the 50’s before he gave up on things. Two very obvious things (for fans of his work, at least) to note: Simon resembles the way Seth draws himself in comics, and as this story was written, Seth left Toronto to live in what would be called a small city or a big town, depending on the person. It’s more of a “show, don’t tell” piece than Part 1, and a slight divergence in storytelling style, in that there are even more silent scenes than before.
Part 3 I only have one issue of (I moved internationally in 2003, and that year or two became a gap in my comic collection), so I won’t write about that.
Something of interest to non-Torontonians: the Clyde Fans shop is pretty much Queen Street west in Toronto, east of Yonge, give or take a few city blocks. One of the things that turned me on to his work was simply the notion that my own city told stories. It seems rather obvious now, but Toronto (and Vancouver) are so often substitutes for American cities in film, and rarely an actual setting, that it’s easy to forget that. New York artists never have this question.
So, what changes between Book One and the (I assume) forthcoming Book Two? My theories based on what I know of Seth: 1) he was experimenting in side projects, and those side projects start to influence his ‘main’ project. You can see a lot of George Sprott and other projects reflected in Book Two. He finished the first book in five years, the second part in fifteen. He dilly-dallied, but published other works over that time. 2) he just got a better sense of self. He left Toronto, got married, and built his little kingdom, Inkwell’s End, in a few short years. Also, he was at a level of success where he got flown places to talk, had a painting in the Art Gallery of Ontario, and was just generally able to not care about stuff outside his own space. He also got more design gigs, like with the Schulz books, and that added to his already fabulous sense of refinemen. 3) He doubled down on making himself happy. The Dominion City models he built were not for any economic gain, just something he wanted to do. Some of his recent work is culled from his sketchbooks, and it‘s fantastic. I get the feeling the work we see is the top of the iceberg in his process. And they all developed his storytelling.
After a hiatus, where Seth published other self-contained books, he restarted Palookaville in 2013 as an annual hardcover. Clyde Fans was only about half of each edition, the other half showing some aspect of his work outside of comics and extended autobiography pieces that are from his sketchbooks, and weren’t originally made to be published. The first big difference you see here is that the story has changed from a three-tiered page to a four-tiered page, making the work substantially denser (the bulk of his autobio work in Palookaville is five-tiered, an even denser read!) The next big change is the simplification of images. He was always a “clean line” artist, but it’s hitting a new level here. There‘s not a single panel where the content of it is in doubt, but he couldn’t be more economical in his line choice. The third is giving over panels to text. This is a technique Chris Ware has used, and I wonder if any other artists used it much previously. In [a recent Seth/Crumb thread on Facebook], a few were insisting that Seth copied Crumb, and truth is, Chris Ware is probably the number one living influence on Seth. Emphasis on living, because the next ten on his influence list probably died by the turn of the century. Even just with the production on these books, I can’t help but think Ware’s book production rubbed off on Seth, and likely vice-versa as they are contemporaries with a respect for each other.
So how is Clyde Fans? Honestly, I didn’t care for the ending, which I won’t spoil, but I think it has a lot to do with Seth himself and how he feels about becoming a recluse of sorts. It didn’t add up with the hundreds of pages coming before. That said, I loved the ride, particularly in these final four books. There is a more coherent story and one told more creatively than in the first collection. There is love, there is hubris, there is regret. Aching holes that can’t be filled. It’s a Good Life was a great book, but I think these collections are substantially better, and inversely good compared to the amount of digital ink being spilled on them. I don’t know if this can be his masterpiece. I don’t think Part One links very well to Part Five. He may have to redraw those first three parts! If you think you’ll like them, you’ll probably love them.
Ian McMurray is a Canadian cartoonist living in Japan. His comics are published in Square Comix.
(this article originally appeared as a series of posts on Facebook)