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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Seth's Great Northern Brotherhood Is a Nostalgic, Fake History of Cartooning that Adds to the Real Thing

Posted By on Thu, Oct 27, 2011 at 9:00 AM

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Cartoonists command healthy incomes, respect, and wild public adulation. They have sufficient resources to establish their own secret society and protect their shared patrimony in a massive archive. Just kidding -- the world continues to be indifferent (and often cheerfully hostile) toward cartoon art. But the description above -- a cartoonist's deepest dream -- does apply in the world of the new book by the cartoonist known as Seth.

The hardest part of assessing a work you really like can be in its richness. Rather than just one or two shining perfect bits, a broad constellation of factors can overlap in a way that makes it difficult to locate which are the most important. I had this kind of response to Seth's The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists. Like Wimbledon Green before it, The Great Northern Brotherhood exists in a Canadian fantasia, where snow is always beautiful, coats are always warm, and buildings are lovingly appointed with elegant design details.

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To read a book by Seth is to enter an oddly cozy, perfectly designed world where humor, nostalgia, and a gentle sadness pervade like the last autumnal rays of sunlight on a quiet afternoon. Seth's creations are hermetically ideal and totally absorbing, and this new one is no exception. In it, cartoonists live like kings -- or at least like Freemasons -- with a fellowship and a facility that rivals the luxury and amenities of the best-endowed university club. They also oversee the maintenance of an isolated bunker-like archive of Canadian cartoon art in the far north, hunkered beneath windswept snowdrifts the year round.

Told in 136 pages using a deceptively simple 9 x 9 grid format, a cartoon version of Seth himself narrates the tale as a guided tour of the Dominion, Ontario, branch of the titular brotherhood, and, by extension, of the (mostly fictionalized) history of cartooning in Canada.

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Much of the comedy is conceptual. There's inherent humor in a society of oddballs, geniuses, and hacks who are safely tucked away in the bosom of the brotherhood. Sequestered from the mainstream, they achieve great success, experience bitter jealousy, or live out their golden years in an alcoholic haze -- all without reference to reality as we know it. This points to Seth's great contribution to contemporary storytelling -- the idea that graphic fiction, often thought of merely as escapist entertainment, can best address and explore the nature of fantasies, daydreams, and wishful thinking.

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The brotherhood, its luxurious edifice, and its semi-secret archive of vast cartoon riches all exist to preserve the legacy of Canadian cartoonists. But that rich history is mostly Seth's creation. Although he does mention a handful of real compatriots (notably Doug Wright, creator of Nipper, which later became Doug Wright's Family), Seth is the prime mover behind what amounts to an extensive catalog of fictional cartoonists and the worlds they have created.

It would appear that Seth wishes comics had a historian with the zeal of his narrator/doppelganger. Yet Seth does something historians are not equipped to do: He parades a vast, fictional trove of comic art before us, suggesting the depth and breadth of comic art while adding something to it. He piques our interest in the medium by raising questions about its history and about the variety of content, form, and style it has to offer through its many creators. The Great Northern Brotherhood may not represent the true history of comics, but it does it an enormous service by contributing to it in such an entertaining, illuminating, and visually breathtaking way.

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Follow Casey Burchby and SF Weekly's Exhibitionist blog on Twitter.

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Casey Burchby

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