It seems incredible to think that anyone would have started their cartoonist career with such title, which is so heavily haunted by the idea of classics and nostalgia that it would seem to take a man further into his career to find the right words, and bring the debate to its full measure.
It’s A Good Life if You Don’t Weaken (1996), however, is Seth’s very first published graphic novel, originally serialized as Palookaville, and is very much considered to be Seth’s most iconic title, as it already bears all of the charisma of his work.
In this graphic autobiography, Seth, comics collector, is on the hunt for Kalo, a mysterious cartoonist from the 40’s that he discovers by accident, and to whom he especially relates. Kalo’s career, which seemed to have reached a peak when the influential New Yorker published one of his cartoons, then seems to have fallen flat very suddenly. Intrigued, and tickled by the sadness of it all and by his love of comics, Seth embarks on a journey to unearth more about Kalo, which ironically takes him back to his hometown where Kalo spent the rest of his life, and peacefully died.
There is a unique depth to this in the drawing and narrative alike. Seth’s nostalgic style and two-tone colour palette seems to be paying respects to the strip cartoonists of the 30’s-50’s era he is fond of and to whom he refers at length throughout the book (i.e Schultz, Chester Gould, Peter Arno…) whilst establishing Seth’s own touch and art style. Seth’s universe is unabashedly retro, and is reminiscent of old black and white column strips whilst his modern narrative devices are somewhat cinematic, reminiscent of old black and white movies.
This retro-look, nostalgia in the lining, which very much defines Seth as an artist, also deepens in the narrative. Seth’s character is hung up with the past, and watches upon life with regrets and the conviction that things were better before, and as set as he is in his negativism towards the present and obsession with the past, Seth’s life seem to be passing him by. Seth continuously refers to his peers with respect and profound admiration, looks upon the old cartoon days with regret, and is saddened by modernism. It just happens to echo his real life: he looks at his childhood and his parental home as a place of comfort, and rather than carrying on with his personal life, gets carried away with the hunting for Kalo.
It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken is haunted by references; so much that comic book collection seems yet another device to withdraw further in the past, to escape the feeling of one’s dissatisfaction with their lives.
‘Life isn’t a series of good or bad choices. It’s harder to steer it one way or the other than most people think. You just get pulled along. You look back and you wonder: ‘Could I have changed the course of my life?’… Maybe you could have, but it would have taken a tremendous force of will.’
Seth is now an acclaimed New Yorker cartoonist and respected illustrator. Aside from his other graphic novels, he has carried out various other illustration work such as cover artwork for Aimee Mann’s Lost In Space album and more recently, illustrated the new Lemony Snicket series for children, which released this year.
It’s A Good Life If You Don’t Weaken
Written and illustrated by Seth
Published by Jonathan Cape (Random House Group), 2006, 196 pp – £14.99
————- Fabrice Blanchefort