it’s a good life, if you don’t weaken
It’s a Good Life, if You Don’t Weaken, Seth, Jonathan Cape 2007
“I happened upon a little book that opened up a whole new world of cartooning for me.”
“To know me is to know that I am a collector,” wrote Seth (aka Gregory Gallant) in Forty Cartoon Books of Interest, a mini-comic supplement issue eight of Comic Art, in which Seth leads the reader on a hunt, tracking comics the “old fashioned way,” in bookstores, thrift shops, yard sales. He said, “I believe some of the best years of my life have been spent rooting about in these places.” You better believe it: his UK debut Wimbledon Green, on “the greatest comic book collector in the world,” was set in a world where collecting is more an intellectual quest, a philosophy. For Seth, comics “occupy a BIG part of my brain. It seems like I’m always relating things that happen to me back to some mouldy old comic gag or something like that,” (a revealing statement that will be discussed in a moment). In It’s a Good Life, Seth is back on a trail, this time an obscure gag cartoonist, Jack ‘Kalo’ Kalloway whose New Yorker drawings first intrigue then consume him.
Seth’s story is also one of discontentment, nostalgia haunts It’s a Good Life. Panels of wordless street scenes and landscapes brilliantly show the passing of time as Seth, an out-of-time curmudgeon, longs for a bygone era. Under the cloud of “a vague depression”, he is disillusioned with modern culture (a large part of his time is spent in museums and old, run-down neighbourhoods): “I look forward to the future with nothing but dread. Things are getting worse and worse every year. As awful as things are right now, I’d be more than happy if the world would stay relatively like this until I die. I can’t face the next fifty years.”
Yet Seth is aware of this, his yearning for the past, saying “If you don’t like ‘navel-gazers’ you wouldn’t much care for me…I’m immersed in my past—wallowing in it. I look at my childhood like it’s some sort of golden key. If I just ponder it, sift through it, pick at it enough. I feel like I’ll find the answer to every goddam thing that’s wrong with me now.” And what’s wrong with Seth? “I’m screwed up,” he tells us, “I’m so full of contempt for everyone and everything…my judgements aren’t just opinions—they’re laws.” Judgements confined to dating as well: “All they’ve gotta do is tell me they like crime novels or Marvel comics or something and they’re out.”
If you haven’t got it yet, Seth is the man that comics built: from human interaction (“The people in the funnies always have a good comeback”), to memories (“Whenever I see a train, I think of Tin Tin. I think of Tin Tin when I see Inca relics and pendulums and plus-fours too”), even to sexual awakenings (Little Iodine, the “first image that stirred up sexual feelings in me”).
Originally serialised in Palooka-Ville, It’s a Good Life is as tricksy a graphic novel as they come, Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli’s City of Glass aside. Similar to that metafictional, labyrinthian work penned by Paul Auster (from his New York Trilogy), it purports to be autobiographical (it’s not). From the off, all the clues are there, loaded like some secret code: it’s title, a saying Seth claims that comes from his mother, is not only taken from a depression era song, but recalls Charlie Brown (not only does Seth rate Schultz in the book, “My attitude towards life has mostly been shaped by Peanuts,” he also designed The Complete Peanuts). The journey to find Kalo, can be read as a quest to find meaning in his own work—“After a whole life, is this what it boils down to? A few sheets of paper?” (remember, Seth himself draws for the New Yorker). And quite early into It’s a Good Life Chet, his friend/echo and fellow cartoonist Chester Brown says of Kalo, “He kinda draws like you.” Wink, wink.
For those who unfamiliar with the Kalo mystery, look away—Kalo, like Seth a four-lettered name, does not actually exist, thus posing the question, what is authenticity? Is it Seth’s rose-tinted nostalgia? His distaste for “phoney” people (as in hipsters): “Oh brother! What are these awful trendies doing down here? If there’s one thing that gets under my skin it’s these kind of phonies spending so much time and energy trying to be ‘different’—walking around announcing that their favourite band is ABBA or AC/DC or something equally stupid just to get to jump on everyone else on the anti-fashion bandwagon.” But what of the phoniness, the history he has crafted? No matter. While a hoax, the search for Kalo is a compelling narrative device, and despite the fact Seth comes over a hypocrite, It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken is an essential read, beautifully realised. “A little misery is good for the soul.”
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, November 9th, 2007.