Wimbledon Green by Seth

Wimbledon Green
Seth, 2005, 125p.
Full disclosure: I am a hardcore Seth fan. I buy everything he authors1, and while it isn't all equal, I always enjoy it deeply. I bought and read this book when it was released over five years ago, but I hadn't read it since. I am not a big re-reader of novels, and this includes graphic novels, though it really shouldn't. Most of what I read comes from the library, but the works of Seth, Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes I buy, read, then plop on a shelf.

A recent addition to this sleepy collection was Seth's follow-up to Wimbledon Green, titled The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists. I read that with the intent to review it, but then decided that I needed to review Wimbledon Green first, so I re-read it, and then re-read it again. Now I really want to re-read George Sprott, which to date I think is his best work. But all of this takes me further and further away from writing about his work, and perhaps that is more than just laziness. Seth is my favourite, and one is reluctant to reduce a favourite.

Both works are "From the Sketchbook of the Cartoonist 'Seth'", that is, he presents them as informal works. He treats them as a personal creation (though he admits in the introduction that this is a wilful delusion) and is loose and playful, and with Wimbledon Green he is experimental. Seeing a skilled but sometimes austere artist like Seth gambolling off on a loose comic romp is a joy, and there is surprising depth here, interleaved with the foolishness.

Wimbledon Green is "the greatest comic book collector in the world", in a story that imagines collectors as being super heroic. Green in particular is part superhero, with his hazy origin story, his henchmen and so forth. Or perhaps he is a supervillain, with his dubious means and selfish outcomes. As with both hero and villain, those that provide commentary on him oscillate between awe, fear and resentment.

The story is told through a series of vignettes, with talking heads alternating with more adventurous segments. Various collectors and comic book store owners offer their stories and impressions of Green, and we see first hand the moment of his great discovery, and the story of his childhood genesis. Seth explains his experiment in the introduction; He was inspired by artists like Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes, who have told complex stories through a series of loosely connected strips2. As a sketchbook project, though, he just started drawing and he appears to be discovering the story and the characters as he goes along, rather than illuminating a fully formed idea. The pieces don't entirely fit, and I think the key to the vignette-style of story telling is that works best if the author understands what he is unveiling clearly, such that vantages can be selected that are both interesting and fundamental. The defects here are mitigated by the lack of overall seriousness of the work — I can forgive the chunks that don't quite fit because they are light and entertaining3.

In the middle of the work is a 40+ page section that centres on a race between Green and adversaries to capture a comic book MacGuffin. Told in two long narrative sequences with an intermission to profile one of the introduced characters ("Jonah", a villainous and unflattering version of Seth himself) and an explanation of the nature of the MacGuffin in question. All of this section is told in a packed 4x5 grid, with only occasional panel joins, with each panel not much more than an inch square and drawn in a looser, more comic style than his formal work. The race sequences are boisterous and fast moving, and unlike anything by Seth I had read before.

Other sequences, like the final series, are wistful reflection in a classic Seth mode of storytelling: A primary character walks through an evocative space, narrating a personal history full of tender loss. But unlike the similar sequences in Clyde Fans, the character here has the ability to renew and escape. The introduction has altered my reading (particularly of this section), and my suggestion to readers is to skip the introduction on the first pass, then read it and at least selectively re-read.

Seth has a talent and obvious affection for creating history, particularly from the turn of the century to about the mid-1970s. His fictionalized history of comics is often more interesting than his history of collectors, perhaps because it is somewhat more passionate. Throughout the work are pages featuring "Selections from the library of Wimbledon Green", featuring covers and short catalogue descriptions ("Fatsy #7, mint-1965, infamous flatulence issue-most copies destroyed $3000", "Be A Man #1, near mint-1942, strangely homoerotic $2350"). These covers are funny, but credible enough that I have to admit I googled a couple to see if he had inserted a few real titles as a joke.

My favourite section takes this idea and gives it depth. "Fine and Dandy: A Short Talk by Wimbledon Green" is an 8 page history of a favourite but largely forgotten series by fictional comic legend Lester Moore, featuring odd-couple hobos Fine and Dandy. Green treats us to the outline of the series, with notes on reoccurring characters and running gags, and a selection of highlights from the sadly truncated run of 36 issues. Here his 4x5 grid opens up with a 2x2 cameo on each page, and we toggle back and forth between the narrative view and excerpts from the comic. Were these sorts of comics ever really as good as the fictional ones here? Probably not, but it doesn't matter, we get to enjoy the creation within a creation and Seth couldn't balance his creativity and wistfulness in a more believable and engaging way.

The portrait of an evaporating or lost creation, tangled with the success and failure of the creator, is likely Seth's most persistent story line. In Clyde Fans and George Sprott it is beautiful but the depth of the loss is somewhat oppressive; the touch of lightness here is a lovely change. And that is perhaps how to view the work as a whole. The ideas and personality of the artist remain on full display, but there is a buoyant frothiness here that is refreshing without being entirely silly. Fair warning, it is indeed silly in places. And I have to admit, a lot of the mystery around Green is coy and contrived.

Late in the novel is a four page story called "In the Temple of Newsprint", which details Green's day to day routine. Each day, he picks two works from his collection (one comic, one print) and studies each for an hour, taking notes. A lot of comic work is perhaps deserving this sort of contemplation; while both the text and the artwork is deceivingly sparse, there is so much nuance. The feel of the line work, the abstractions of form, the colouring and composition, the pacing and play of the text. Much more than prose, comics are variable speed reading. You could read this novel in 30 minutes, or spend many hours. Or like me, rocket along then get stuck on a panel here and there. Certainly in a novel you can get snagged by a sentence, but in a comic are a half dozen aspects each with as much nuance as a sentence. In a great comic, these aspects all play and fight with each other.

Perhaps I will follow Green's (and Seth's) cue here, and pull an older Chris Ware volume off my lonely shelf, and spend an hour with it.


  1. I buy all the books he writes, but couldn't possibly keep up with the books he designs. His book design work has become somewhat of a brand-name, I think.
  2. Clowes' Wilson is an extreme example, where the story of the protagonist's life is told entirely from single page strips, one after another. Clowes varies the style and tone significantly between comics, which allows style choices to be an expressive element in the story.
  3. Seth returned to this style of fragmented storytelling in a subsequent polished work: George Sprott, which is much more organized and cohesive, but also much more serious.

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