This week we’re running online for the first time six pieces from our six issues of Eye on Design magazine. This story was originally published in the “Utopias” issue.
Upon this spot, the morning after the terrible Allan-Bridge Train Disaster of 1912, this 1000 pound stone was mysteriously discovered. According to local legend, it had not been there the day before.
Though no remains were ever officially recovered, locals swore that this same spot was also where the lifeless body of the train’s brakeman had been seen in the fiery aftermath of the crash.
In the decades following the tragedy, residents of The Ward have reported strange mists hovering over the rock, ghostly sightings on the rails and mournful whispers from the surrounding trees. Also rumored is a voice that calls out, ‘Stop the train,’ each year on the anniversary of the crash.
This plaque unveiled September 16, 1962.
—dedication to The Lost Brakeman
This is the marker bolted to a boulder in the front yard of a cartoonist named Seth—yes, just Seth—no last name. Many objects have stories. Why does a boulder need a story?
Entrance to the yard is barred by a towering wrought iron archway, custom-made to read: omnis temporalis. All things are temporary. This archway leads to his turn-of-the-century house, which isn’t so much a house as it is a private island of Seth’s own making. There isn’t a stone that hasn’t been turned and given a character name and personal history.
Three illuminated signs hang on the front porch. There’s one for the Dominion Historical Society, a nod to the fictitious city of Dominion that often appears in Seth’s work. He recreated this town in miniature form in his basement, complete with more than 100 buildings. Another porch sign declares his status as a G.N.B. Double C Member—a reference to The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists, a graphic novel he created to document the fictional club. And finally, there’s a sign that announces your arrival at this house, dubbed Inkwell’s End, in Guelph, Ontario, where Seth has been playing meticulous homemaker for the past decade. I step up to the porch.
PLEASE HELP YOURSELF to a souvenir free pen as a gift from Inkwell’s End, a plaque—another one—by the front door reads, offering a tray of dimes to insert into an antique Vendorama Ball Point Pen machine immediately below it. I plunk one in and a pen emerges. Compliments of Inkwell’s End is printed on its side in Seth’s trademark script. From the moment you enter his realm, he’s directing you—moving you through his story, his world, panel by panel.
I turn the mechanical twist doorbell. And there he is, springing to life from the 1940s—hair neatly cropped and slicked back, tiny circular tortoise-shell glasses framing his eyes, the white lab coat he works in protecting a stunning green suit in a classic cut.
He opens the door to a world that is all things past, present, and future, exquisitely crafted and customized. I look at my watch to see if I’m on time, and in a twist of absurdist fate, the battery is no more. It has stopped.
Guelph (pronounced “Gwelf”) is a town of roughly 132,000 inhabitants, about an hour and fifteen minutes’ drive from Toronto. The modern settlement was founded by novelist John Galt, and there’s a certain sense of remove to the place. One drives past rural stretches and forests on long highways leading to other places only to emerge into a landscape of chain motels, a mall with an H&M and Old Navy, a KFC/Taco Bell, and a Walmart. In other words: the type of place I imagine to be diametrically opposed to everything Seth stands for, given his work.
Inspired by The New Yorker cover artists of the mid-century, Seth made a name for himself with semi-autobiographical literary comics rendered in that classic style, most notably his Palookaville series, including It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken and the acclaimed Clyde Fans. Perhaps this encroaching modern world is what he’s guarding against in his own home in Guelph’s historic neighborhood, The Ward. Many curtains are drawn, and custom stained glass windows with the words Inkwell’s End and Nothing Lasts set in beautiful hues, with an illustration of the house—pull you deeper into this world as they seal off the one outside.
I sit down in the living room as Seth heads to the kitchen for coffee. He returns and politely requests the chair I have selected.
“I’m particular, as you can imagine,” he says. Even his speech recalls the cadence of yesteryear.
Seth readily acknowledges the incongruous status of his person in Guelph. There’s a bookstore in the nearby mall, where a clerk directed me to the graphic novel section that includes Clyde Fans—but they didn’t know the author lives roughly 10 minutes away.
“I do get stopped and talked to, but I think I might be better known as a kind of local eccentric—the guy in the hat, sort of thing,” he says. Sometimes people read about him in the newspaper and realize, “‘Oh, you’re an artist. I just thought you were a weirdo.’
“A famous cartoonist is kind of an oxymoron. I was just over in Spain, where I was getting the most tremendous treatment, like a real celebrity, and I didn’t have the heart to tell them that at home nobody knows who I am.”
Reading Seth’s work is like having a conversation with him. His voice resonates throughout his oeuvre, reverberating from page to person and back again—his dry humor, his charm, his unflinching, ruminative perspective on the darker realities of life and what it means to live in this world are omnipresent.
“Unlike some artists, I’ve made a very strong effort to personally connect myself to the work—it’s a persona as well. Very carefully, I’ve always been putting myself forward into the world as an image. It’s not something that happened by accident.”
Seth was born in Clinton, Ontario, across Lake Huron from Michigan, and, as a kid, he moved with his family from one small town to another. When he was still a baby, his older siblings had already grown up and left home, and his parents fought. Seth’s mother suffered what he believes to have been postpartum depression after his birth, and was institutionalized. When she returned home, his parents’ routine of drinking and fighting gave way to a deep alienation between them. The family lived largely in isolation. And yet Seth says his parents took an intense interest in everything he did, and he was enormously interested in them, too. “I was the ideal child in that I wanted to hear their stories over and over.”
His earliest narrative drawings (which he calls “proto-comics”) spawned from images he copied from a school reader. By fifth grade, he was drawing ripoffs of Peanuts strips. His father was a shop teacher with access to Ditto machines (early photocopiers, essentially), and he’d print Seth’s comics up so his son could distribute them at school. In a small town, Seth says, you are more or less labeled. He was The Kid Who Could Draw.
“I had enough encouragement that somewhere very early on I thought I would be an artist. Although I don’t think I had any idea of what that meant.” In seventh grade, he was assigned to do a project on an artist of his choice, so he consulted the encyclopedia and came across Picasso. He was shocked to discover he was still alive. “I thought he was from the Middle Ages or something. I had no conception of what art was about. It was probably around that time that I started to read comic books, and that’s the thing that really changed my life.”
As he drew his own squad of superheroes, he kept his love of comics secret. In fact, he was ashamed of it. Comics were something young kids read, and by this point he was getting picked on enough already. No need to invite any more trouble.
“I think that led me to have quite an inner life… I spent a lot of time in busy work: making models, drawing—the kind of stuff all kids did in the ’70s, but I did it very intensely. I think that is the thing that has shaped my whole life, that kind of small world of busy work.”
After high school, Seth headed to art school in Toronto, “a typical small town hoser.” He remembers himself in a lumber jacket with a Rush button pinned to it, accented by a small teenage mustache. But the artist born Gregory Gallant had come to Toronto with a plan. He was going to leave Gregory behind and consciously build an entirely new identity. In a small town, he notes, everyone knows you, and you can’t change because, well, everyone knows you. Suddenly, he says, he had the chance to transform into “The more sophisticated person I think I always wanted to be.”
He test-drove a series of personalities. He grew a beard. He got involved with an occult group. Then he discovered the punk scene, and things clicked. For one, he says, it felt “super modern.” He’s quick to address the obvious.
“That doesn’t sound like something that would appeal to someone like me, but it did then, because it was probably the only time in my life when I felt in touch with exactly what was going on at that moment. It felt like this was the future. Suddenly you had people with green hair, white hair, wearing shiny silver jumpsuits, and it was all very interesting and modern and kind of ironic… I just really liked the image of it, and it was about creating an individual look for yourself.”
He created a new name to go along with this new self: Seth.
He regards identity as a central core with layers that form around it, bit by bit. Every book you read, every movie you see, every song you hear and react to—you add those cultural discoveries to yourself as you consume them. But the older he got, the less connected he felt to punk music. At the same time, he had a friend who wore those great-looking suits from the ’40s, and it wasn’t long before he was trying them on for himself.
“I think back on it as being kind of bald ambition. The older me would look at the younger me and kind of chuckle because it’s so transparent… Probably my interest in jazz wasn’t because I love jazz—it was because it went with the suit. Much of it is really calculated, but the interesting thing about calculation is it leads you places. I value affectation. Affectation can be very irritating when you see it in other people, but affectation is a way to earnestly embrace things, and as in art, you learn by copying. There’s nothing wrong with copying. I’m still copying. Anything I get excited about, I think to myself, ‘I’d like to do my version of it.’”
His exploration of the aesthetics of the ’20s through the mid-century extended beyond the page to his wardrobe. Eventually, he says, it all became his normal. He doesn’t even think about it anymore—he just wears a suit every day because that’s what he does. When it comes to his work, he just draws the way he draws.
“The real connection was my parents. Later I realized that so much of my interest in the postwar world is directly related to them because they were so much older than me; they talked about this stuff all the time and our house was full of these things. This house now is full of things that remind me of that stuff.”
The house. Seth sees it as an art project that’s not only directly connected to his work, but to the city of Guelph and the province that runs in his blood. For one, electrical towers are a running theme, depicted in the ironwork outside, in one of the stained glass windows, in the sculptures on the first floor, even in the shower tiles; Seth regards them as a central image of Ontario. Elsewhere, the nearby train bridge and the two towers of Guelph’s basilica can be spotted in cabinetry masterfully crafted by Seth’s father-in-law.
His comic work lives and breathes here, too. For fans, it’s like walking into a museum of the creator’s mind. In the parlor alone there’s a light-up ceramic sculpture of Kao-Kuk, an Inuit astronaut from his book The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists. There’s a trio of nesting cookie jar sculptures of the titular character from George Sprott (1894–1975), a series he originally created for The New York Times Magazine; he removes the top of one to reveal a younger Sprott within, which is then removed to reveal Sprott as a child. There are dolls of all the characters from Wimbledon Green: The Greatest Comic Book Collector in the World.
And then there are the unrelated collections amassed and displayed—a “Canadiana” cabinet featuring his many Mountie and Jasper the Bear figurines.
“Primarily I think of myself as a collector, and that informs everything I do, everything I write,” he says. “Much of how I organize the house is about where you put things, because I don’t want it to be overwhelming.” True to intention, the house comes across as expertly presented—lit and staged by someone with decades of experience nestling characters and scenes into tight panels.
“Primarily I think of myself as a collector, and that informs everything I do, everything I write.”
The tour (conducted with an air of formality, though I’m an audience of one) moves to the dining room, where Seth’s gargantuan short-haired cat Albert looks on warily from his perch. There’s a bookcase containing a collection of rare New Yorker cartoon volumes. Another shelf houses issues of Model Car Science magazine and old Detroit television schedules that Seth has amassed and bound. He once lived across the border from Detroit, in Windsor. So he likes to open them up and discover what he was watching on a particular day and ponder, for instance, why he was taking in episodes of I Love Lucy when Citizen Kane was on.
He has also collected a host of videos (digitized across a variety of formats) labeled “WOC”—recordings of live TV broadcasts “With Original Commercials.” “They were broadcasting every day. Most things didn’t get recorded, but somebody recorded something for their own reasons, and then somehow it found its way into my hands,” he marvels. “That’s very interesting to me.”
We move to the kitchen. When Seth and his wife, Tania, bought this home, it was a typical 1980s kitchen, so of course the first thing they did was destroy it. Seth rebuilt it from the ground up with antique appliances. There’s the ivory stove, with once-rusted panels he sent to California to be recoated. There’s the white Crosley Shelvador fridge that he purchased from a company that rents antique appliances to film productions. At some point, he laments, it will inevitably die, and then “I’ll either have to find another one, or the awful thing is I may have to get one of those reproductions.” Of the many things Seth mourns, it’s the loss of the repair shop. They used to be ubiquitous, but now we just throw things away and move on.
Upstairs, his obsession with bookbinding is on full, resplendent display. A door frosted with the words The Wimbledon Green Memorial Library—Quiet Please! and a depiction of its comic-hoarding namesake character leads to a wonderland of paper, replete with its intoxicating aroma. Floor-to-ceiling custom shelves hold everything from a full series of Man, Myth & Magic, to Marvel and Star Trek annuals; there are numerous bound volumes of Seth’s research and groundwork on various projects; Wimbledon Green ephemera, from a bust of the character to Green’s framed fictitious rejection from a comic book club. I ask Seth why he enjoys teetering over the line between his literature and real life.
“I’m not really sure why I do it. I like the idea of it. The artists I’m most interested in, one of the things I love about them was how they brought the work they did into their lives.”
He cites Max Beerbohm, an early 20th-century caricaturist and writer. “He sat around and fiddled about all this life,” Seth says, noting that Beerbohm would do things like write false inscriptions in his own books from famous people. “Much of his life was just playing, and that appeals to me on a basic level. It doesn’t really have to have a big meaning.”
While Seth reads books by other authors, he often draws in them. “Some of them have become quite elaborate, where I’ll have glued in individual characters. These have turned into weird little projects on their own, which I don’t really have any purpose for beyond pleasure.” He has somewhere around 100 of them.
Detailing Seth’s inner sanctum could stretch for pages. But how does he see it? “It is a bubble. I’m working on creating my own dream world that I want to live inside. When I go out, I am horrified at the vulgarity of the modern aesthetic. But on another level, you are a product of your own time. This is the world I live in and I’m used to it.
“Some architect, maybe it was Philip Johnson, was talking about the Guggenheim in New York and how great it looks, and he said the Guggenheim looks great because all of the other buildings on the street follow the rules. If all the buildings were like the Guggenheim, then it wouldn’t look great. And to some degree, the reason things from the past are so evocative is because they’re surrounded by this garbage of the present. If everything out there was a perfect representation of 1920, you’d lose the evocative quality that the past has.”
Beyond the 1950s television he watches, beyond the stack of old books entitled Breeding Aquarium Fishes, beyond the wall of fake cartooning licenses he made for himself, and beyond the set of custom doors frosted with his name, Seth works out of a studio in his dark basement. Inside, it’s thrilling disarray, a stark contrast to the crisp orderliness of the library. There are cups of pens and paintbrushes, piles of books, and projects in various stages of completion.
Take, for instance, the notebooks on the history of Dominion, the fictive city that often appears in his series. Or the massive model he built of the town, where an errant squirrel once took up residence. It’s one thing for artists to get lost in the worlds of their imaginations, but it’s another to actually build them.
It’s all part of following a thread. “Following the thread is what leads you to other work. You don’t know where any of it goes. I lately came up with this philosophy, this idea, which is: When you think up an idea for a project and you don’t do it, it’s like, ‘Oh well, you didn’t do it. It’s not the end of the world.’ The real tragedy isn’t the project that got lost, it’s that you would have learned something doing that project that made the next project. That next project is what’s really lost because you will never go down that road. So following the thread to me is what’s interesting.”
There are many, many threads. There are his personal diaries, made using rubber stamps of himself, to which he adds text (he’s at least six months behind); his 40 or so books of paper cutouts; The Ministry of Post-War Drabness, a book he worked on for nearly 10 years, exploring Canadian vernacular design. Maybe one day he’ll publish it. Regardless, “It was fun to do, and it was busy work. Like I said, something that’s part of the process.” In addition to his “real” deadline-oriented work, he tends to have eight or nine other projects going at once.
Looking around at the objects amassed in his basement, such as those WOC tapes, I wonder aloud what he makes of people who don’t collect anything. He lights up.
“I find it hard to understand! I can’t imagine not gathering things. It’s a natural process. It’s about you—it’s not really about the objects. Why do you want them? Why do you want to display them? What are you trying to say about yourself?
“If I wasn’t making art, would I be bothering to think this much about who I am and what identity is? It confuses me because I think the key thing about life is that you try to figure out who you are.”
He ponders for a moment. Sure, he says, he collects things like historical Canadian cartooning because he feels it needs to be done. But then there’s the flipside.
“Like, why did I suddenly get interested in doll chairs?” he asks, incredulously.
It’s time for lunch.
Seth used to love a diner downtown called the Apollo Eleven but, “it recently got turned into a craft brewery. That’s the modern world for you.”
Despite it being nearly 70 degrees outside, he dons brown leather gloves, one of his signature hats, and a leather briefcase that he wears like a backpack, and we depart. But rather than walking to the street, he goes straight for the woods to the right of his house—a striking move for a man wearing a custom suit. Sticks crack underfoot as we ascend a steep hill.
“It’s a not very well-marked path,” he says. “You have to hang on to a couple of trees here, but it’s the nicest way to go into town,” he says, glancing left and right. “We want to make sure no trains are coming. This is strictly illegal, but I don’t think we’ll get in any trouble.”
The soaring railroad tracks take us high above the Speed River. It’s sunny and windy. As we come into town, people stare at Seth—some discreetly, others with open inquisitiveness. He doesn’t seem to notice or care. We arrive at the modern Italian joint Buon Gusto, where the staff knows and warmly welcomes him. He orders Tina’s Meatballs (beef, pork, and veal), a Di Casa mixed greens salad, and a glass of Chianti.
“Everything here is perfectly adequate,” he says of Guelph. He prefers old jazz bars, but seems resigned to occasionally patronizing the sports bars that have replaced them.
The table behind us breaks out in a rendition of “Happy Birthday.” He smiles and claps along with the family when it’s done. Espresso machines scream, waiters buzz by with pizzas. We discuss politics. Physics. Smoking (a former prodigious smoker, he quit about eight years ago). Vaping (he’s not a fan, despite our proximity to the nearby purveyor Ponyboy Vapes). His wife, Tania’s, Crown Barber Shop (which he designed, and for which he created a detailed backstory and related ephemera that hangs inside).
Naturally, the past comes back. He says, “I think I was trying to build some sort of rationale that the world was better then. This is not an argument I would be making now. Obviously the world was not better in the mid-century, nor was it better in the mid-19th century, nor will it be any better 100 years from now. Life is life and it’s complicated. Some things I think were better, and some were worse. Obviously we’ve made a lot of social progress. Not enough, but we’ve made a lot.
“What does appeal to me is a kind of formality to the culture that I feel has disappeared. I like that kind of culture based on structure, civic groups, and parades; all the stuff that is kind of corny definitely appeals to me. Much of that has disappeared from our culture because ours is the ‘keeping it real’ culture. ‘Artifice is bullshit.’ But I think artifice is interesting. I miss that element of it, and I’ve romanticized it for sure. I dress in a very calculated way because it’s what I would like things to be. If I had lived in 1950, I probably would have romanticized the 19th century. It’s probably more about rejecting the current era than anything.”
As we finish our meal, I tell him about my watch stopping on his front lawn.
“Well, there’s the intro to your story,” he says. Everything a story, always.
As I leave, I stop at the massive boulder in his yard and stare at it once again: “The Lost Brakeman.”
I consider going back inside because I forgot to ask him about it, and I desperately want to know its truth: Was it here when he moved in? Did he have it brought in? Was there really a train accident? Is there any local neighborhood lore, or is a boulder just a boulder?
But I leave. Sometimes a story is best left a story.