The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists – Seth (Drawn & Quarterly 2011)

This is very much a companion piece to Seth’s excellent Wimbledon Green (the greatest comic book collector in the world). In his introduction Seth notes that if “Wimbledon Green was created on a lark, then this book should likely be filed under the category of an indulgence.”

An indulgence suggests a work that is primarily in the interest of the creator and few others. In the case of Seth. The result of his indulgence is likely to be appreciated by existing fans and new readers.

Seth, as narrator of the book, takes us on a tour of one of the four branches of the GNBCC based in the fictional Canadian town of Dominion. The other three are supposedly located in non-fictional Winnipeg, Montreal and Toronto. The guided tour of the Dominion branch of the GNBCC takes various detours into the lives of the members and their cartoon creations.

Members of the club have their own blazers, handed to them on entering the building, which is itself resplendent with stone-carved cartoon characters above the door, murals, photos of past members, trophy cabinets and a bar (which has copper plated supporting pillars in the shape of trees). There is also a Mountie acting as a doorman, which we later learn was made up by the narrator (a fiction within a fiction).

The golden days of the GNBCC are long behind it and we feel the wistful nostalgia of the narrator as he takes us around the faded building. It is a nostalgia for something that has never been and in many respects appears as a yearning for greater recognition, respect and even financial reward on the part of Seth for all cartoonists.

As with other works by Seth, there is a quiet melancholy throughout the book, a regret over what has passed and what might have been.

During a recollection early in the book, the narrator comments that the 20th century was a high watermark for Canadian cartoonists, a time they were treated with great respect, quoted extensively in the press and winners of important cultural awards. It’s droll but also shows a wish for cartoonists to be afforded the same recognition as other branches of the arts.

Almost every page is split into nine cartoon frames. Some pictures take up two or more of these frames; the blank space between them making the scene more noticeable. I found myself looking at some of these split scenes for much longer than I would have looked at a larger single picture. The artwork is quite simple and cartoony, befitting the subject, and all is in black,white and grey. Seth’s use of light and shade with this limited palette is very effective.

The book mixes fact with fiction, mentioning Doug Wright’s Family, which was a much loved Canadian strip. Doug Wright Awards are handed out annually and the GNBCC won the award for Best Book in 2012. Former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau makes a cameo appearance and there is mention of the first ever Canadian comic called General Fox by the Marquis of Townshend. The comic is a fiction but George Townshend, veteran of the Battle of Culloden and latterly commander of British Forces in the closing stages of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham was a skilled caricaturist and delighted his peers with barbed caricatures of General Wolfe, whom he held in contempt. These caricatures are often regarded as Canada’s first cartoons. Chester Brown, a contemporary of Seth, also receives an honourable mention.

There are humorous moments, such as when we learn that the GNBCC raised funds to build a massive and elaborate archive which, when built, was so remote that visitors must use several modes of transport, including dog-sled to get there. The idea of a profession that is now craving recognition making their archives so obscure and difficult to view is amusingly perverse.

Overall, there are few diversions to lighten the mood and detract from the general air of sadness, as there were in Wimbledon Green. At the end of the book, Seth looks out from the roof of the building and hopes for the return of the great days.

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More Penguin Science Fiction – Edited by Brian Aldiss (Penguin Books 1963)

Another lovely old Penguin paperback. This one has a nice painting by Kandinsky on the cover and a superb, but slightly startling photo of Brian Aldiss on the back cover. Used to more recent photos I was a little surprised to see he looked a little like the Verger from Dad’s Army in the past.

Short story collections are often hit and miss, hopefully more good stories than clunkers. I did wonder at the outset whether the passage of time would affect my appreciation of the stories. I shouldn’t open a book with apprehension but it is difficult not to do so with vintage science fiction.

Brian Aldiss’ introduction to the book is entertaining. He points out that many of the tales deal with the extinction of humanity and that science fiction has domesticated the appalling. He also makes the reader question whether they are real or living some false Matrix existence. “When you hold this book, you are not feeling the paper that came from the Penguin establishment in Harmondsworth, you are feeling the neural response to what your fingers touch. A work of interpretation has been carried out between head and brain. An identical work of interpretation might be carried out if the hand were made of a silicon-based substance or the brain an affair of printed circuits and electronic scanners”. I suppose the lesson from that is, if you don’t like what I write, remember that I may be silicon based life-form.

Brian Aldiss mentions the writers of each story in his introduction. He is quite brief on the first story, The Monkey Wrench by Gordon R Dickson. I too do not have a lot to say other than the twist at the end is entirely predictable and the irritation caused by the pompous, melodramatic characters and the tortuous histrionics they subjected me to in getting to the end was not worth the effort.

The First Man by Howard Fast (writer of Spartacus) is much better. The story begins with a series of letters between a brother and a sister as they search for children displaying the characteristics of genius so they can be nurtured to become übermensch, the next stage of human evolution. The exchange of letter format works well and it’s a pity it wasn’t used throughout. The attempt to inject tension right at the end of the story was not really necessary.

Counterfeit by Alan E Nourse (you’ve got to have a middle initial to write sci-fi) kicks off with “The spaceship plunged through the black starways towards the orbit of the third planet. It’s trip had been long. It was homeward bound”. It does not really recover from this dreadful start and the story about a shape-shifting alien is the stuff of bad B movies. I almost stopped reading at this point in the book.

Tom Godwin’s The Greater Thing reads like a Western. A man and a woman are pursued through a ghost town by a bunch of bad cops. Only, in this town there is a sentient being spawned by a nuclear blast that learns to distinguish between right and wrong. Again, it’s not great but it is readable.

The next story, Build up Logically by Howard Schoenfeld is one of the strongest in the book. It is a clever, funny and strange tale in which the main character is also the writer, determining the events that affect him as a character in the book as he goes along. A time machine is introduced which moves the entire universe through time so everything remains the same. The writer finds himself in the position of being invented by one of his characters. This was a delight to read.

William Tenn’s the Liberation of Earth is. An extremely tongue in cheek, witty tale of several liberationist of Earth by two warring alien races. Tenn’s understated, dry humour is superb. Humankind’s collective ego is destroyed as they are caught between two seemingly benign and heavily armed alien races.

An Alien Agony by Harry Harrison is another good tale in which a human trader on an alien planet inhabited with intelligent but over-trusting aliens, is dismayed by arrival of a religious missionary from home. The result is a stand off between science and religion. The aliens, called Weskers, try to find the truth by attempting to apply logic to the missionary’s claims leading to a grisly result. I suspect most readers will have some sympathy with the Weskers and their questioning of faith.

The Tunnel under the World by Frederik Pohl feels of its time, even though it is set in the far future. Guy Burckhardt, the main character and his wife Mary feel as if they have been cut from the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. The story, however gets quite strange and has a bizarre Philip K Dick quality to it at times. Guy Burckhardt is not what, or who, he thinks he is and the big reveal at the end was unexpected and brought to mind Scale by Will Self.

Robert Sheckley’s The Store of the Worlds is one of the shortest storeies, but also one of the best. A man called Tompkins has discovered a way to extract a person’s consciousness and inject it into any of the infinite alternate realities that exist. We see a timid man, Mr Wayne, approach cautiously. He wants to undergo the procedure but is scared and worried about the high price and consequential reduction in life expectancy. Mr Wayne’s choices are surprising and at the end we see why he is willing to consider such a high price. This story may make readers reassess their view of their own lives.

Jokester by Isaac Asimov sees him pursue his love of the groan inducing gag
in a story where we find one of the basic human creative activities Isis actually the result of experiments by outside entities. It’s not a brilliant story but, being Asimov, it’s enjoyable.

Pyramid by Robert Abernathy is an ecological disaster story where man, inevitably, is the cause but the scene of the crisis is another planet entirely. I enjoyed this story very much. The main character, Zilli, is a highly intelligent academic from an alien culture that values the ecological balance above all else. Her attempts to use humans to prevent one catastrophe has far reaching effects, which Zilli with her entirely logical and consistent philosophy does not see coming until it is too late. This story still has a lot to say today.

The final story The Forgotten Enemy by Arthur C Clarke is an environmental disaster tale and follows the lone endeavours of Professor Millward (they always seem to be professors or chief scientists in Clarke’s world) as he struggles through a London that appears to have entered the ice age. It’s very much a period piece.

After a poor start I ended up liking this collection. Whilst this book is no longer in print, you should be able to pick it up quite cheaply online, or maybe from a second-hand bookshop like me. Penguin Books won’t make any money out of it but maybe they will if you are tempted by other titles by the writers who contributed to this

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