You know it's a comic by Seth when the book features a "band" around the back cover that sports glowing blurbs and quotes, a summary of the work, the price, a barcode, and then a tiny note in parentheses: "The artist requests that this band be disposed of upon purchase." This type of artistic control isn't new to Seth's fans, yet Palookaville #20 marks a radical shift in format and content for the meticulous artist, writer, and designer.
Beginning in 1991, Seth and Drawn and Quarterly published 19 installments of Palookaville in a traditional, albeit boutique, comics format: the single issue. This is not an expedient publishing cycle, and during that time the death of the single issue comic has been trumpeted ad nauseam (and without much actual death). But 2010 was a turning point for comics publishers: both Marvel and DC unveiled digital platforms for their single issues and DC recently eschewed the single issue for an original graphic novel starring breadwinner Superman, a testing-the-waters move if ever there were any. While Seth may be a self-proclaimed "old anachronist," even he saw the format shift heading his way, as noted in his introduction to #20--the first hardcover and expanded installment of Palookaville:
"It's not like I wasn't aware that the comic book format was coming to an end. A shift had occurred (this last decade) in the sales of comic books and people simply weren't buying 'alternative' comic books any longer"”they were waiting for the book collections instead"¦EvenLove and Rocketshad turned into a large squarebound book"¦I hadn't realized how much of a dying breed we were. Was I leaving now too? It seemed a minor betrayal of something to quit the format."
Before Seth's fans knowingly nod at where this typical, forlorn artistic statement may be leading, there are still new tricks left in the old anachronist:
"And the more I thought about it [the new format], the more I liked it. Instead of abandoning the comic book I was moving into a format that was probably more suited to what I was doing anyway"¦Yes, a hardcover periodical would be the ideal format to showcase a variety of my artistic activities. I could publish from my sketchbooks, write articles, show objects I'd made"¦I could continue to serialize longer stories while at the same time offering my audience self-contained works that might make the whole venture more palatable to the casual reader."
Refreshing positivity! And from there, the book leads into a new chapter in Seth's Clyde Fans storyline. The usual steely blue and gray tones are still here, but the chapter opens with a quickly paced, one-man chase sequence. The rest of the story does require a working knowledge of the preceding chapters, but before anything feels too comfortable, Palookaville #20 shifts to another section, titled "Dominion City."
What follows is an unprecedented look into the non-comics life of Seth and the model city he constructed--first glimpsed in photographs within George Sprott (1894-1975). The models comprise the setting for several of Seth's stories, and this section includes a lengthy essay on the construction process, photographs, snapshots from Seth's sketchbooks where he initially conceived the buildings, and then a look at an exhibit where Dominion City was displayed. Like the band on the back of #20, Seth appreciates the artistic control in hand-constructing his own world ("Dominion turned out to be an idealized place. A quintessentially small Canadian city--old and faded--in decline even--but idealized in that it contained nothing that I didn't desire to be there."). For fans of Seth and his work, it's an engrossing look at the artist's hobby-turned-legitimate-expression, and it's in this section where Seth is his most positive.
A sketchbook rounds out the book, and there's a double-sided fold-out to make it even more memorable. But before readers think Seth has gone soft, wait until the "Calgary Festival" chapter that offers a crushing, depressing autobiographical account of Seth's trip to a book festival. It's so full of misanthropy, paranoia, and acute self-awareness that I am a little surprised Seth included it. This is Seth when he's not at work or creating model cities, and anyone who is at all versed in Seth's work will recognize the tiny moments of self-assassination. Yet, when paired with the passion in "Dominion City," it's a particularly wrenching affair. "Calgary Festival" ends with a devastating ache, a pang lasting longer than any fiction he has created.
Seth states that Palookaville will continue in this format as an annual event--much like Love and Rockets: New Stories--with his Clyde Fans storyline extending into two more volumes. #20 offers an alternative to ever-growing format of collected comics--a innovation in what has already become a traditional model.