Two short graphic novels are coming soon from Montreal publisher Drawn and Quarterly. One, Seth’s The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists (hereafter The G.N.B. Double C) is in black and white, and a second, Daniel Clowes’s The Death-Ray, is in color, and though each one reads more like a chapter from a longer work, they’re nevertheless complete and dense and masterful.
These days, any comic by Clowes or Seth unmistakably belongs to each man—in the style of their lines, the speech of their characters, and the mood of their fictional worlds. They are two of the best cartoonists around these days, often doing work for The New Yorker and The New York Times. But despite such success, there’s still uneasiness in many underground comics about the status of the medium—about whether comics can grow away from its childish superhero stereotypes, about whether comics can be taken seriously as literature, about whether comics have a future. Both graphic novels deal with these ideas.
Seth’s book is a fictional reminiscence about the history of cartooning in Canada. It’s a counterpart to his 2005 book Wimbledon Green, which was a light-hearted tale about obsessive comics collectors. The G.N.B. Double C is one long, digressive monologue, given by a cartoonist wandering through an empty and quiet branch of the Brotherhood in the city of Dominion, Seth’s fictional Canadian metropolis. The man tours the building and reminisces about Canadian comics and the lives of some of the men who wrote them. The mood and structure reminded me of Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark, or even St. Augustine’s Confessions—which is to say it takes memories and builds them into an elaborate physical space, and nostalgia and wonder are the shoes you have to wear to walk through its corridors.
I wasn’t sure how much Seth describes is fictional or factual, but I didn’t care either. The narrator tells his stories with such simple, sincere language that you never really doubt him (in a manner not far different from another work of fictionalized Canadian nostalgia, Guy Maddin’s My Winnepeg). I did feel that some of the comics he described sounded too good—too interesting, too smart—to be true, but it’s nice to believe for a while that such things could exist.
The book ends with the tour guide on the roof of the Brotherhood’s building, looking out at the skyscrapers of Dominion. It’s a signature Seth scene—a character looking into the distance, feeling melancholy, pondering quietly. The narrator says, “Looking out here, I know I’m looking back…not forward. I know that time is ticking toward twelve. But perhaps our day will dawn again. Maybe this ’graphic novel’ thing has some legs…Stranger things have happened.”
Clowes book, on the other hand, is saturated with color, so much so that it’s like browsing through a grocery store’s candy aisle. It’s also saturated, as is typical for Clowes, with teenaged growing pains and urban loneliness. The story concerns a guy named Andy who grows up as an orphan in the 1970s, but we also see him for a few scenes in the early 2000s, as a divorced adult who’s recovering from addiction.
One day while in high school, Andy’s friend Louie gets him to smoke a cigarette. After vomiting on the sidewalk and going to bed, Andy wakes up to discover he has super strength. It turns out that before dying, Andy’s dad treated him with experimental hormones activated by nicotine, and that he also left for his son a Death-Ray gun. Andy and Louie find the Death-Ray and look for someone in need of rescue or punishment. The boys try for a while but cannot find anyone, so they discuss why not with typical Clowes-ian disaffection:
Louie: Maybe this is the problem. Sure, you’ve got super powers, but that’s nothing without motivation. Look at the Hulk—his wife died, or something. Who do you hate most in the world?
Andy: See, that’s the thing…I mean, I hate a lot of people, but it’s not really…you know…
Louie: Yeah, I know what you mean.
Finally, the boys decide to the use the Death-Ray on Louie’s sister’s boyfriend. They make him go “Pop!” and soon a girlfriend distracts Louie and his and Andy’s friendship falls apart. We then see Andy as an adult, as a lonesome nobody with a pet dog for a best friend. He confesses that he’s kept using the Death-Ray from time to time. The very end of the story is a Choose Your Own Adventure, with the last option giving the saddest, most banal, but also most convincing conclusion to Andy’s existence:
“He retires from his job at the library with the intention of moving to northern California, but finds it too expensive. He removes from existence a priest, a man who spits on pigeons, and the ex-husband of the divorcee on the third floor. He buries the Death-Ray in a shallow hole in the Indiana dunes. He burns his dad’s papers and scatters the ashes in the lake. At some point, he dies, probably of lung cancer.”
However, it’s the visual and narrative style of The Death-Ray that makes it much more than just a brief tale of adolescent anxiety. Clowes’s fonts and frame layouts and color schemes are a pastiche of melodramatic comic books and newspaper comic strips. The story is divided into almost 30 different scenes (and the book only has about 40 pages), each one with a different color scheme and frame structure and exclamatory title font (such as “THE ORIGIN OF ANDY,” “ON PATROL,” and “THE UNTHINKABLE”).
Most of the scenes are vignettes that only hint at something else going on, some other action a character is about to take—the consequences of which get reacted to in later vignettes. (The book’s superhero motif, how Louie and Andy imagine themselves as caped crusaders, feels like another attempt by a contemporary cartoonist to bury the idea of the superhero under a pile of more common and crushing human problems, like boredom, isolation, anger, and drug addiction.) Many of the scenes also involve nice moments of stream-of-consciousness, of memories and fantasies and distracting internal asides. This kind of storytelling usually feels subtle and elegant and sly to me, but at times also vague, and maybe even lazy—as in there was more effort put into the colors on the skin of the page than the plot that’s its beating heart, but those moments are few.
Underground comics have always had a problem with shelf space on bookstores—either receiving none of it or being banished into the rows of pulp superhero comics. But as bookstores close and digital reading becomes more common, you wonder what future there will be for artists who insist on the printed comic. These books by Seth and Clowes are beautiful little things; they’re aesthetic objects in themselves, apart from the quality of their stories. Reading them feels as good as eating a crisp apple or a sweet orange; they’re nutritious, and they’re beautiful. (If The G.N.B. Double C is like listening to a record of old jazz music, The Death-Ray is like listening to a cassette of old rock music.) One can only hope that, as Seth’s narrator asks at the end of his tale, there will be a future for the graphic novel, and for the literary cartoonist, and for a publisher like Drawn and Quarterly.
Drawn and Quarterly will release Seth’s The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists (to purchase it, click here) and Daniel Clowes’s The Death-Ray (to purchase it, click here) on October 11.