Seth walked in, looking as usual like a fugitive from the 1950s. This was at the opening of the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, at Innis College in the University of Toronto. Running shoes and T-shirts were in fashion, but Seth was dapper in suit and tie. He had a pocket-protector, with five pencils peeking out. He wore perhaps the only fedora to be seen on campus this month.
Legend surrounds Seth wherever he goes, and his image depends partly on dressing in styles that were popular in the middle of the last century. In private life, he's Gregory Gallant of Guelph, Ont., but as Seth he's celebrity-in-chief among Canadian graphic artists.
On Friday night, he engaged in a public conversation with two contemporaries, Chester Brown of Toronto, best known for his graphic biography of Louis Riel, and Joe Matt, who lived for many years in Toronto before moving to Los Angeles. They talked about their work and their three-way friendship. Brown dedicated one novel "to Seth for his example as an artist" and Matt not only dedicated a graphic novel to Brown and Seth, he made them characters in the story of his troubled relations with the women in his life.
Matt is among the many graphic artists apparently dedicated to taking the comic out of comic books. His work tends to be grim, amusing only in the most grisly sense. He's famous for revealing his private life with embarrassing frankness, even depicting himself and his girlfriend in a physical fight.
In their conversation, Seth asked him, "Why do you think there is value in this kind of honesty?" Matt answered that it was just truthful autobiography. He couldn't see why anyone, even the girlfriends, should be offended. The three artists spoke intimately of such matters, audience or no audience. It was as if they were talking together as they talked in Toronto in the 1990s, when all were struggling to get published.
The Toronto Comic Arts Festival is an outgrowth of The Beguiling, a comic-arts store on Markham St. in Mirvish Village. It may be the best store of its kind anywhere. Certainly it has the oddest name. Twenty years ago, the founders of the business admired The Beguiling of Merlin, a depiction of an Arthurian legend by Edward Burne-Jones, the renowned pre-Raphaelite painter in 19th-century England. They also liked the recent work of Barry Windsor-Smith, who exhibited pre-Raphaelite influences in the eight-page graphic story he created in 1982 and called, in tribute to the original, The Beguiling. When two new owners took over the store in 1997, they liked the name enough to keep it.
The festival shifted to Victoria College for Saturday and Sunday. In rooms where Northrop Frye once lectured, dealers and sometimes the artists themselves sold everything from the beginning of a graphic biography of Shakespeare (so far just one comic-book-size chapter) to A Travelogue from China by Guy Delisle, the Quebec artist who made a big impression with his deadpan comedy in Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea.
In the Victoria College chapel, while John Milton looked down from a stained glass window, Jeet Heer led a discussion of Rand Holmes (1942-2002), newly inducted into Giants of the North, the hall of fame for Canadian graphic artists. Holmes was the king of the underground artists, for many years a contributor of abrasive strips to The Georgia Straight in Vancouver.
The Dough Wright awards, hosted by the TCAF, reflect the desire of the artists to discover or rediscover the history of Canadian graphic art. The awards are named after the man who drew Nipper, a weekly strip about a mischievous little boy that ran in Weekend magazine. This year, the Wright Award for the best book of 2006 went to a collection of piercingly sad stories by Joe Ollmann, This Will All End in Tears (Insomniac Press), work that precisely embodies the dominant tone of 21st-century graphic narrative. Maybe the coverline says "comics by Joe Ollmann," but there's nothing inside that's even slightly funny. Ollmann depicts Canadian society as it looks to chronic losers, depressives and self-loathers.
In one story, a waitress says of the new cook at the restaurant where she works, "He does seem to have some great sadness about him." The same could be said about nearly every other character elsewhere in the book. There's the fat teenager absolutely convinced she'll never attract a boy. There's the office clerk who gets talked into going hunting with the guys at the office, kills a deer and suffers heart-breaking remorse. There's the waiter in a donut shop who tries to treat a wretchedly poor family with kindness and gets rebuked by his boss. There's the waitress whose boyfriend abandons her once he goes off to college. This is a book in which a mother accompanied by three kids buys a bag of day-old bagels and asks to have four of them toasted.
Worst of all, there's Dennis, the mechanic who can't bear the thought of caring for his brother now that their mother is dying. His life has been miserable as long as he can remember -- "the violent, alcoholic psycho-dad and the dipsomaniac mom and the retarded older brother and me, the juvenile delinquent." He knows he should do the right thing with Robbie--be "a decent sort of chap, the understanding brother with the complete mental facilities, the Tom Cruise to his Dustin Hoffman," as in Rain Man. But he can't handle it: "I just know that I'm not equipped for this thing. I can barely take care of myself." Making everything worse, he's a drunk. Sitting in a bar he reflects: "It's a drunk-old-man bar, like all of the bars I go to, so the chances of finding any sort of kinship are limited. Except that I, too, am drunk and getting older all the time."
One of the stories, titled They Filmed a Movie Here Once, takes place in a godforsaken former mining town with a single distinction: People making a vampire film for TV came in with trucks full of cameras and an actor from Beverly Hills 90210. They gave people something to talk about for two weeks, and then they left. That's about as close to glamour and excitement as a character in a contemporary graphic novel ever gets.