Last month I asked my friends to write about books they loved (you can read all the essays here). This month, I invited them to write about their favorite graphic novels, and they selected some excellent titles. I hope you enjoy them! (Read all the Great Graphic Novel essays here.) — Mark
It’s A Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken, by Seth
An old fashioned looking guy (wearing a vintage overcoat, a hat and a pair of round eyeglasses) weaves his way through the snow to a second-hand bookshop in Ontario. He is obsessed with comic books, gag cartoons and newspaper strips of the past. Everything he does reminds him of situations and characters conjured up by Charles Schultz, Dr. Seuss, Hergé and other classic cartoonists. Fantasy merges with reality. The past merges with the present. Art merges with life. This artist can’t help himself. He collects the good old stuff.
It’s A Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken by Seth (a.k.a. Gregory Gallant) is dedicated to his mom Violet who repeated those words often. She didn’t invent the phrase; it has been around for a while. In fact, artist Gene Byrnes drew a cartoon called It's a Great Life If You Don't Weaken from 1915 to 1919 for the New York Evening Telegram and the phrase was a rallying cry for American soldiers during the first World War.
The title of the book has an air of melancholy about it, as does the main character’s habit of mulling over things. He thinks too much. Seth drew himself as the protagonist and we are privy to his thoughts (this book is written in the first person). Clearly nostalgic for the comfortable little things of his childhood, he doesn’t like change. Change depresses him. He likes the worn-down look of old things. He is annoyed by change and he is annoyed by people. He lets us know exactly how he feels. Seth’s memories of childhood moments are “sealed in amber” like his mom’s house and feel “safe” to him like the cardboard boxes he used to crawl in as a kid.
As I sit there reading this book (on my front porch under the butternut tree), I flash back to huge stacks of dog-eared Archie and Little Lulu comics. I see myself rocking back and forth on my grandmother’s porch swing, sucking on hard candies and reading those comics. Every so often, I would squint outside at my grandfather, working in his sunny rose garden. Life was good. I never imagined that the scene would ever change or that the house would one day be sold. Golden memories “sealed in amber,” as Seth would say.
Seth, the character, is angst-ridden. Conversations with his friend Chet (Chester Brown, in real life) reveal just how messed up in the head he is (as do the scenes with his mom, brother and new girlfriend). One day, though, there is a welcome distraction. Seth finds a single New Yorker cartoon from 1951 by an obscure cartoonist named Kalo. He embarks on an exciting intellectual adventure- the search for the mysterious Kalo. He combs the bookstores for other examples of his work and finds very little, but he eventually finds out where Kalo once lived. Coincidentally, Seth used to live in the same town as a child. Although Kalo died in 1979, Seth takes a train out there hoping to talk to people who knew him. Reaching a dead end, Seth gets depressed and wonders if a person’s life “boils down to just a few pieces of brittle yellowed paper” left behind.
Much later, Seth finally gets to the bottom of the mystery when he returns to the town and talks to Kalo’s relatives and friend. The final chapter is a scrapbook featuring Seth’s “meager collection” of Kalo cartoons (in the form of tearsheets from magazines). There is even a photo of Kalo in NYC from the late '40s.
From the storyline to the graphics, this book is impeccably designed and that is what makes it great. Seth’s pictorial style consists of elegant, simple line brushwork accented with half-tone teal and solid black shadows (my copy is from 1996). Dynamic black pages with reverse type and drawings of buildings gracefully divide the chapters. Many panels are beautifully wordless, showing the passage of time. The reader gets to stroll silently, along with Seth, through different landscapes and cityscapes, passing birds, trees, landmarks, and buildings. He treats us to ice skating in the dark, train riding in the snow, kite flying with old men: life’s wonderful little things. The end papers are made up of charming Kalo cartoon characters. Subtle humor throughout this book makes it a joy to read.
Wait a minute, Kalo wasn’t a real guy; he is an elaborate creation of Seth’s. Designed down to the last detail, Seth went out of his way to make Kalo appear authentic. Here we have fantasy and reality all mixed up together. I got completely wrapped up in Seth’s quest to solve the mystery of Kalo. After all, I spent many years freelancing as an illustrator for magazines myself. Seth definitely had me going!
All of a sudden, I am reminded of Woody Allen who wears glasses and plays a nervous, intellectual fellow in his movies. I always thought this was his real personality, yet, he insists in recent interviews he is a jock in real life. He likes beer and TV sports shows. He says he donned the glasses to get girls, it’s only a character and he’s not really an intellectual. His movies are often set in the past, well-designed down to the smallest detail, fantasy mixed with reality.
Who is the real Seth (a.k.a. Gregory Gallant)? Is he the same guy as the angst-ridden guy in his picture-novella It’s A Good Life, if You Don’t Weaken? He wears similar clothes. But, I can’t see his eyes behind those round glasses. Does it matter if Kalo isn’t real? Kalo exists in Seth’s parallel universe. Perhaps he is realer than real.
Or… am I thinking way too much?