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‘Palookaville’ gets gallery treatment

by Monty Dipietro

I was chatting with old friends in Toronto last week, and our conversation came round to the subject of Japanese manga. I made clear my reservations regarding the popularity of pulp manga in Japan, and bemoaned the fact that many manga artists have even had gallery shows here.

Maybe I should have shut up at that point, for when I went on to suggest that guys who draw comic books would never be invited to show in a good Canadian gallery or museum, it was brought to my attention that one of Toronto’s most respected art spaces, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), has just opened a one-man exhibition featuring a 42-year-old Canadian comic book artist named “Seth.”

So I went and had a look.

The exhibition is part of the AGO’s contemporary art project series “Present Tense,” and features a selection of Seth’s work from 1997 to the present, including two dozen ink drawings and a 3-sq.-meter cardboard maquette of a fictitious town called “Dominion” — the setting for much of the artist’s work. Depicted in Seth’s drawings as a huddle of faded brick and wood buildings, Dominion is a place stuck in the 1950s, and home to the Canadian Toboggan Company, the Public Works Building #9 Snowmobile Shed and Beaver Knitwear.

Born Gregory Gallant in a small town in southern Ontario, Seth draws the popular comic series “Palookaville,” which is now in its 14th year. He is also at the forefront of the new “graphic novel” boom in Canada, thanks in large part to his popular 2001 book “It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken,” a semi-autobiographical account of a contemporary comic artist researching the life and work of Jack Kalloway, an obscure cartoonist of the 1940s and ’50s.

“When I started apprenticing in the ’80s, it never crossed my mind that one day I’d be having a show at the AGO,” Seth tells me in a telephone interview from his home studio in Guelph, Ontario (population: 125,872). “But over the last couple of years things have changed a lot with so-called graphic novels.”

While Seth was initially influenced by Charles Schultz’s “Peanuts” strip, he told me that Japanese sensibilities also contributed in no small measure to the development of his minimal, unhurried and atmospheric style.

“There are manga artists I admire such as Yoshihiro Tatsumi (who, like Seth, is published internationally by Drawn and Quarterly Books in Montreal). But I think I was more influenced by Japanese filmmakers such as Yasujiro Ozu, because I felt an affinity for the slow narrative and the introspection; and by Japanese writers such as Junichiro Tanizaki and Yasunari Kawabata. Here, I feel the past and what the authors are feeling for that period, and although it doesn’t relate to my upbringing, I understand the feelings. I think there is nostalgia in that work, and I think maybe there is more nostalgia around these days because the future is regarded less with optimism and more with fear.”

I asked Peter Birkemoe, owner of The Beguiling, a Toronto shop with a reputation as one of North America’s leaders in contemporary comic culture, about similarities and differences between graphic novels and manga.

“The increasing interest in the ‘graphic novel’ genre — and that is just a term that the major Canadian bookstore chains adopted because they found it more acceptable than ‘comic book’ — was certainly helped along by manga,” said Birkemoe. Indeed, The Beguiling has several racks of classic and contemporary Japanese manga in book form, translated into English and printed in Canada or the United States.

“The most obvious difference between the Canadian graphic novel and Japanese manga relates to the industry and the market,” says Birkemoe. “There are Japanese artists who have become wealthy from doing manga, but for someone like Seth, the work is a labor of love. That means the releases come more slowly, as opposed to the regular production of a certain number of pages per week expected from the big artists in Japan, and it also means Seth has more freedom to do what he wants.”

The results have been impressive. While slick superhero anthologies also end up in the new graphic novel sections of many bookstores, Canadians can also choose from a wide range of high-quality independent and small-run publications. In the major bookstores I visited last week in Toronto and Montreal, graphic novels were prominently displayed, and the AGO show can be expected to further legitimize the genre in Canada.

While I remain uncertain about the enduring artistic value of comic books, I was impressed by the graphic novels I saw and read in Canada. More than a few delivered political messages, others were more introspective, while some did both, and spoke to changing social environments.

Seth’s work in particular has an uncommon charm, an ability to evoke something like a universal nostalgia — to take us to a moment where, although not a lot happens, we leave with a warm and tingly feeling for having been there. At present, Seth has not been translated into Japanese, but I can’t help wonder if his work wouldn’t resonate with audiences here, too.