Wednesday, August 13, 2008

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

It's A Good Life, If You Don't Weaken
by Seth
Fantagraphics 1996

Garrett Martin: Okay, It's A Good Life, If You Don't Weaken seems like a deeply personal and open work, the sort of navel-gazing autobio stuff that dim-witted superhero fans use to stereotype any comic featuring realistically proportioned humans. It's a fairly unflinching look at the unhappiness of a guy named Seth, who is more or less the same Seth as the author, and who hates contemporary culture and screws up every relationship and just generally feels out of place in society. Old cartoons are about the only thing he's really passionate about, and the plot revolves around his search for a forgotten old artist from Canada who had a few comics published back in the mid-20th century. Honestly, if I just read that description without ever looking at the book, I'd probably assume it was a miserable piece of wankery, and be pretty damn reluctant to read it. But thankfully Seth is a fantastic artist, indeed, a fantastic cartoonist, overall, and through his art, design, story-telling, and (just as importantly) self-awareness avoids the (potentially fatal) self-indulgence that could've easily sunk this comic. And it doesn't even matter one way or the other than a big component of the story, the artist he obsesses over, is entirely fictional. At least it doesn't to me. How about you?

Hillary Brown: Well, I guess I didn't really think about how true the story was. That is, I assumed it was all true, and that the main character, named Seth, is actually Seth and that the cartoonist was real and so on and so forth. Sheesh. That's a dumb move for a student of literature to make. Maybe I'm just out of practice and my skeptic hat doesn't fit anymore. Anyway, I suppose it's irrelevant whether it's true or not--the point is the story. I think I might hate the main character version of Seth if I met him, but I didn't really mind reading about him, despite complete disagreement on the value of modernity. I mean, I love disposable pop music and Ikea and Segways and recent innovations like zippers. I think it's close-minded to the point of idiocy to be so in love with the past that you don't live in the present. And yet, he comes off as fairly sympathetic, probably because of that self-awareness you mention. I also couldn't help but think of a number of conversations Jared and I have had recently about memories and nostalgia, which, even to an unsentimental jackass like myself, are important. Seth's musings on why and how we hold onto the past and shape it in our minds are darn good.

The other factors that I think helped me enjoy the book are: 1. The art. I love two-color printing, and, while the tiny, tiny hands he draws are occasionally distracting, the general simplicity of the look is very peaceful to read. There's something about the quiet pacing and the snow that reminds me a little of Skyscrapers of the Midwest. 2. The idea of doing loads of research on an obscure artist. I love doing that. In fact, I get to do it for work sometimes, and it's great. I am a big research nerd and also kind of an obsessive. 3. Printing quality, a factor that is sadly slightly marred by the glaring typo (write-o?) on the front flap. Sigh. Still, that happens with hand lettering, and I guess I shouldn't complain too much about it, as I love hand lettering. 4. The family dynamic is really interesting and good, although not explored enough. I like his brother as a character quite a lot.

GM: I assumed it was all true, too, until I did a wikipedia search on Kalo. What is it about comics that makes us want to take them at face value? Even now I still imagine that most of the character details in It's A Good Life are true, that Seth and his family and Chester Brown are, in real life, more or less like how they're portrayed in the book. But even when a creator doesn't blatantly model the protagonist on his or herself, like with Too Cool To Be Forgotten, I tend to lose track of the fact that the book isn't necessarily autobiographical. Are we just conditioned to expect non-genre comics to be autobiographical because they so often are, or because, unlike movies, tv, and superhero comics, they're usually by a single person, with, y'know, a single artistic vision, and everything? Shit man, I don't know.

I'm far too often paralyzed by nostalgia, but the character Seth (and I assume the man hisself as well) take it a bit too far. Of course he realizes this, and in It's A Good Life laments how it hampers social interaction. That's one of the lessons Seth learns from Kalo's lifestory, right? That you can't just live in the past?

And oh, if you dig two-tone printing, you should check out Fantagraphics' Ignatz line. Totally lousy with the stuff. Lousy with greatness, too.

HB: I don't know if it's anything about comics other than the fact that cartoonists tend to name their characters after themselves. They're thinly disguised even when they're disguised. And they're often written in the first person as far as the narration goes, which doesn't really help the problem.

So, does he learn that lesson? I mean, it's sort of presented in the book, very subtly, through the fact that Kalo didn't just hold on to cartooning but, you know, got into real estate and got married and so on, but, if anything, you could argue that the ephemerality of his life, the extent to which all its details have pretty much drifted away, is even more of a reason to try to preserve the past. That is, doesn't that kind of nostalgia result, to some extent, from a feeling of fragility about the self, a worry that you'll be forgotten once you're gone? It's almost as though you preserve the past of others in the hope that someone will feel your past worth preserving too. I'm also not really sure the issue's resolved. Not that it needs to be tied up in a neat little package, but I found the ending slightly unsatisfying.

(Also, damn. That's Chester Brown? I didn't even think about it.)

GM: Nostalgia is definitely self-serving, and although the character Seth doesn't necessarily learn any lessons or come to a conclusion on the matter, I think that one of the book's points is that this obsession with the past is often fruitless. Seth doesn't really get any answers as to why Kalo quit cartooning, and if it was a decision Kalo was glad to make or had to. And Kalo's post-cartooning suburban life doesn't seem like something Seth would ever want to experience, so in the end his obsessive quest earned him nothing. Even if the character doesn't have that moment of realization, I feel like the book still says, "hey, this Kalo thing wasn't the best use of time or resources", right? I mean, it's not depressing like Paul Karasik finding out what Fletcher Hanks was really like at the end of I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets, but it's also not the ending character Seth was probably hoping for.

Maybe my own personal feelings on nostalgia are shading this too greatly, though. Like I said, I'm kind of paralyzed by it. My wife can't handle it. I spend most of my time thinking about shit that happened long ago. I got mad this morning because some kid reviewing a Love Boat dvd in the Weekly Dig apparently didn't know who Jim Backus or Adrienne Barbeau were. If I devoted even half the time I spend thinking about old shit to doing something productive my productivity would jump like 1000%. I hate nostalgia, even though I love it. And although I agree that we preserve the past of others in hopes that our past will be preserved, I think for Seth, and myself, and far too many people, nostalgia is still mostly about recalling the past because you're unhappy or uncomfortable with the present. Both are self-serving, but only one is self-pitying, and that's why nostalgia is so damn depressing.

HB: Yeah, but what is the best use of time/resources? I mean, you can't spend all your time thinking about that either, and at least Seth's quest for Kalo let him spend another night with his family, which they might appreciate. Plus, you know, human connection and all that. Maybe I don't necessarily think it's wasted because I do plenty of fruitless research myself, or maybe I'm just more the Chester Brown type: interested in the past and obscurity and all that, but less invested in it. A certain amount of nostalgia, too, is just respect for a well-produced object, which, as mentioned, is just what this book is. It's not letterpress, but the choice of paper, the quality of binding, etc. all add up to what we might call a productive nostalgia that results in the creation of a beautiful thing.

GM: Ah, I'm probably just full of shit on this one.

Anyway, true about this thing being beautiful. The real-life Seth has clearly used his nostalgia to make some pretty incredible comics. We can probably assume the Seth in IAGLIYDW will, too, but since that's not in the book I haven't considered it.

I'm probably being an idiot about this "character-Seth" / "real-life Seth" stuff, too, but I do feel the need to distinguish between the two.

And yes, nostalgia can be a great influence, but the danger is dwelling on the past without using it as inspiration for anything useful in the present. Which is kinda what I do, and I think kinda what Seth worries about in the book.

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