The Life of George Sprott: Talking to Seth

Seth on The Life of George Sprott

George Sprott 1894-1975

The New York Times Magazine has been home to some of the world’s greatest cartoonists since beginning its regular The Funny Pages section in 2005.  Chris Ware and Jamie Hernandez were the first to be published in the institution, and Megan Kelso, Daniel Clowes, Jason, Rutu Modan and Gene Yang have all followed.  Following Ware and Hernandez, the third creator to serialize a story in The Funny Pages was Canadian cartoonist Seth, best known for Clyde Fans, It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken and Wimbledon Green.

Seth’s serial, George Sprott (1894-1975), first appeared in The New York Times Magazine September 17, 2006, and ran until March 25, 2007.  Following the popular run in The NYT Magazine, Seth has expanded and completed the story, a fictional biography of a local access television host.

We emailed Seth to find out how it was for him working with The New York Times Magazine, how much new content appears in the graphic novel edition of George Sprott (1894-1975), and what his goals were for this project.

The New York Times Magazine approached Seth “during Jamie Hernandez's run in the magazine, probably about halfway through his story,” the cartoonist said.  “That gave me enough time to get a head start on Sprott so I could hit the ground running when Jamie finished up. I guess that would place their first phone call sometime in 2006? The years fly by so quickly now I have a hard time recalling when anything happened. It seems like it was about six months ago, not several years."

“Not really,” Seth admits when asked if George Sprott was his first choice of stories to appear in the prestigious venue.  “I had a very vague germ of an idea involving George that I had been playing around with in my head, nothing very concrete.  In fact, I proposed three ideas to The Times. Sprott was at the bottom of that list of ideas.”

Long-time fans will probably be disappointed to hear that Seth admit, “The first idea – the one I most wanted to do – was to finish up a strip, which had come to a sudden end because of a dispute between myself and the editor, that I had begun a couple of years previously in the Canadian magazine TORO. I suspected this wouldn't fly since they would dislike the fact that it had begun somewhere else. I was correct. I doubt this work will ever see completion now.

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“The second idea was a non-character oriented piece. I was going to write a long “poetic” thing about an imaginary city street (about one block of it) that was condemned. I wanted to explore each of the buildings in a single strip – building up about 20 or 25 of these individual histories, allowing them to add up in the reader's mind into a more complete story. I may yet try and do this story someday in the future.

“Finally, I tacked George on as a third option. I described it in the loosest of terms – a funny old man – a local TV host – falling asleep on air, some sort of character study.

Predictably, they picked the piece I was least interested in doing. I should have known it. That is the way these things always go. However, also predictably, as I began work on George Sprott, I discovered it was the strip that pushed me the most and was ultimately the most satisfying of the three ideas to work on. I think that if they had not picked George, I would simply have forgotten about him and nothing would have come of those vague plans. I’m grateful they made that choice – in the end I learned a lot as an artist working on George.

After his previous problems serializing in a magazine, Seth says that he found working with The NYT Magazine’s editorial staff surprisingly easy. “Excellent,” he gushes of the process. “They simply requested, at the beginning, that I produce six strips in pencil form so they could get a feel for the strip. I was a bit worried then, because of the troubles I just mentioned with the magazine TORO. I quit that job over too much editorial interference and I didn't want a repeat of that situation. The Times turned out to be great to work with. I received not one bit of interference. They never tried to influence where I was taking the story or to art direct the strip. They simply copy edited for spelling and grammar. Occasionally they would ask me to remove the work “fart” or something like that. They always apologized for asking and I never minded (I put “fart” back in for the publication of the book). They backed down graciously when I wanted the phrase “knocked up” after initially thinking it had to be replaced. They were great. Sheila Glazer was the editor I worked with and I can offer nothing but praise for how she did her job.”

In fact, the most difficult part of working with The Times had more to do with the realities of a weekly publication far more than any editorial issues.  “About the process, there isn't much to say. After the strip started running I struggled to keep ahead of the deadline – penciling the next strip and sending it off to them for editing while I inked the previous one. It was close to the edge. My lead time slowly disappeared as the six months went on; when the final strip arrived I was getting it in at the very last moment,” Seth acknowledged.

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Despite the deadline pressures, however, Seth told us, “I enjoyed having a serialized story and I would do it again. However, I would never do it as a permanent position. It's too stressful for producing “real” work. You don't have enough time to take a breather and really consider just what it is you are doing. I generally need more time for simply thinking.”

The upcoming George Sprott 1894-1975 book has some new material that didn’t appear in The NYT Magazine. Seth explained, “I knew the serialization of a story over a period of months would make a “continued next issue” type narrative hard to follow. Readers would forget where they left off last week. So, when I planned the strip, I designed it so that it could be read in self-contained pages. Each page would hopefully be fully satisfying to the reader while adding to the previous ones. Eventually they would make up a story. You might even, as a reader, be able to figure it all out even if you missed a few weeks. 

“Later, after the strip was finished I wondered what I would do with the work. I could certainly reprint it, as is, in some collection of my comics but I also knew that it was drawn to be read at a larger size. It would probably translate poorly into a collection of my other work – looking cramped next to comics pages which had only seven or nine panels on them. I thought perhaps it would make a book on its own, but of course, the big problem with that was it was too short to make a reasonably sized book. Each page contained the equivalent of three of my usual pages, but they couldn't be easily broken up since I had designed each page rather tightly. It was a bit of a dilemma.”

Fortunately, Seth had had ideas for George Sprott’s life that couldn’t be fit into the magazine serial.  “The one good thing, though, was that since it was entirely episodic in nature I could easily add in any material I wanted throughout the story without any real editing at all. This gave me the chance to add in a great deal of stuff that I had thought of while doing The Times strip but had to jettison because of space limitations. It also opened the door to exploring some of George's life I hadn't given all that much thought to – just hinted at. Nothing major – just little things.

“Making it into a book was an interesting process. I approached it as an editor and a designer and really tried to figure out what could be added to make this material into a “real” book. What was needed? How it had to be arranged and juggled. How could I make this pile of separate “things” flow and read properly. How to make it “feel” complete.”

Readers who’ve gone through the original version won’t find anything jarring in the book-length edition of George Sprott (1894-1975), but they will find plenty of new material to digest.  “I'd guess that I doubled the length of the original run, at least. That's just the comics pages, of course,” Seth explained.  “There are other full-page drawings, double-page spreads and photos in there as well. I think what a reader of the original strip would most notice in the book collection is that the pacing of the story is rather different now. It is somewhat more fractured – but I hope it is also a deeper character study than the original.”

One of the strip’s more interesting aspects is how the narrator (Seth himself?) acknowledges his own limitations, admitting on several occasions that he’s not clear on the facts of Sprott’s life.  Seth says of the observer, “I am not entirely sure that the narrator of the strips is me. It might be someone else.

“Whoever it is – the narrator was included because I liked the idea that the story was being told to the reader by someone who didn't have all the facts. The narrator is sometimes privy to the most tiny details and in other cases was lacking the most basic information. Having a narrator involved also allowed me to do use a lot of exposition without it being too utterly boring. When you have only a single page to tell a big chunk of story you are clearly going to be stuck with narration boxes. I like narration but it can get repetitive, so I figured this allowed me to add a bit of character to the omniscient voice. It's an idea I would like to explore further in the future.”

In addition to the narrator’s limitations, readers also discover who George Sprott was via interview-like sequences with supporting cast characters – similar to reality TV segments.  The effect is to keep readers distanced from George Sprott himself, enforcing the truth that we can never truly know him (or anyone else), but can only understand him through how others perceived him.

“In a word, yes,” Seth said of his intention to keep George Sprott away from the reader.  “I wanted to hold George himself at some distance. I imagined that seen from the outside George might look bad but I also suspected that the reader wouldn't be entirely sure what to make of him. I liked the ambiguity. I deliberately chose not to go “inside” him too much. The moment you do that the reader instantly sympathizes with the character. I only really go inside George once in the book – it is in the gatefold section of the book. You literally “open him up” and look inside his mind/soul.”

Part of Seth's 'Dominion'

Throughout George Sprott (1894-1975), many cardboard models of the buildings in the city where George lives most of his life appear as photographs.  The models were created by Seth himself.  “They are part of a cardboard city named Dominion that I have been building for several years. I displayed the city for the first time a few years ago at the Art Gallery of Ontario. They are currently part of a traveling show in Canada that began last year in Kitchener, Ontario, and will travel on to Dundas, London, Montreal and Charlottetown. I won't bore you with the long story of why I built this cardboard town but Dominion is the city that George Sprott takes place in. It also appears in Clyde Fans, as well.”

Keeping track of the details of George Sprott’s lifetime wasn’t as difficult as readers might imagine, Seth said.  “Early on I worked out a bare bones lifeline for George's life. Nothing too complicated, I just mapped out what needed to be spelled out for the reader and what “interviewees” could be used to give that information. Early on in The Times run of the strip I did an installment that quickly spelled George's life out for the reader. I figured that would make it easier to follow the subsequent episodes.”

Seth, like many of us, grew up with a range of local television personalities influencing his childhood, and those childhood memories played a large role in the evolution of this book.  “I grew up around Windsor, Ontario, (primarily) and spent a great deal of my childhood watching both Canadian and Detroit television. I loved TV, possibly I loved it even more than comics. Anyhow, I took in a huge amount of local programming and it left a lasting effect on my brain. The Detroit of my youth (and the decades preceding it) was a very vital broadcasting town. In those days a big town like Detroit had its own pop culture with a very distinct regional flavour. I liked that, and to tell the truth, I miss it in the current world. I don’t watch a lot of TV any longer – it all feels pretty much the same to me, just stuff pumped out of some collective pipeline emanating from the centre of the world.

“Detroit had a real pantheon of 'stars' -  movie hosts, kiddie show hosts, horror hosts, news men etc. They felt both distant and somehow close by. That regional element of it all still holds some undefined interest for me. There was a particular host of a travel show named George Pierrot that was the direct inspiration for George Sprott. Some of his surface characteristics are similar – though none of the personal ones are. George Pierrot was famous for falling asleep on the air.

“I took a lot of this Detroit material as the background for the strip and mixed it in with a certain amount of similar material from Canadian local TV (which was rather similar but less flashy – Americans always do everything in a bigger way). Seriously I could have written hundreds of pages using this background. It's interesting stuff – a real time capsule. Does its passing mean anything important – probably not. The world is a little bit less interesting though when the media ceases to reflect the local environment.

After expanding and completing George Sprott (1894-1975), Seth is returning to one of his most famous and popular comics. 

“Back to Clyde Fans – the home stretch in this book that never ends,” he laughed.  “I am converting  Palookaville into a hardcover format this year. I love the old comic format but Chris Oliveros convinced me that the work would do better if we moved on to this new direction. It's kind of sad, passing of an era and all that.

“Anyhow – the hardcover will be more diverse than the old comic – allowing me to include other aspects of my work. Besides the conclusion to Clyde Fans, there will possibly be written articles, sketchbook material … other strips perhaps. Who knows? I am working on a new strip in my sketchbook right now that seems to be shaping up unexpectedly like Wimbledon Green into a rather long piece (though not in the same vein as Wimbledon). I'm really am looking forward to finishing up Clyde Fans sometime. God help me, I have another long story I am anxious to get going on.”

George Sprott (1894-1975) arrives in stores in May from Drawn and Quarterly. The original New York Times Magazine serialization can be found as pdfs on The NYT Magazine website.

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