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.