This review is also published at: https://bengalurureview.com/an-obsessive-quest-into-the-ordinary-mysteries-of-life
Seth’s ‘It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken’ is a brilliant example of a compelling argument on why no serious lover of literature should miss out on this medium. Here’s the thing about this book – it is the perfect antithesis of the typical idea of the comic book that we have. It’s not about masked or caped superheroes and their exploits, nor about the darker, more complex explorations in to the superhero/fantasy themes that such virtuosos’ like Alan Moore and Frank Miller created. It’s not even a grown up exploration of themes of crime, punishment and morality that have provided some beautifully poignant works like Art Spiegelman’s ‘Maus’. On the surface, this book is just a meandering exposition of one man’s thoughts, doubts and insecurities and his exploration into a private obsession. But what this creates is a masterful journey of subtle but powerful emotional heft, grappling with questions of mortality and meaning, which is so affecting primarily because of its seeming ordinariness. These are questions which any of us could have pondered upon during the course of our lives, and yet maybe none the wiser for it.
The central premise of this graphic novel is Seth’s (his real name is Gregory Gallant) chance discovery of a gag comic by an obscure cartoonist called Kalo in the New Yorker of the 1950’s and his subsequent search for this author who intrigues him so much. However, apart from a few erratic strips in some eclectic publications, there isn’t much for him to go on with. He decides to pursue his slowly burgeoning obsession and tracks down the seemingly reclusive author’s early dwellings and his surviving family, all with the vague idea of finding more about this enigmatic cartoonist. Along the way, there are asides to describe his easygoing and yet very perceptive conversations with his friend Chester Brown (a reputed cartoonist in his own right) as well as relationships which have the possibility of a happily-ever-after. But what is the end to the means? What does Seth hope to accomplish with his unlikely quest?
To answer that question, one would probably have to be an obsessed lover of some form of art themselves. This is an unapologetically slow book which ruminates on the various small mysteries life has to offer as Seth makes his way across small town Canada in his search. In fact, one could say that the quest for the fictional author (it seems to have been confirmed in the years subsequent to the comic’s publication that Kalo was just a fictional character) is just a device; the primary point of the story is Seth’s search for some meaning behind a regular existence. I don’t know if one has to be of a specific mental makeup to appreciate his meandering journey, but it spoke vividly to me at various points. Seth’s narrator is a perpetually disillusioned man of his times, who constantly harks back to a nostalgic past which doesn’t even really exist in his own reality. This constant yearning for the vintage, whether it is on seeing old dilapidated buildings or perusing photographs from an earlier time, is a defining feature of his ruminations which I could most identify with. His harking back to the 40’s and 50’s (from a present timeline in the book of the mid-1980’s) remind me of how the current generation of adults long for the pre-social media and smartphone eras of the 80’s and 90’s. Considering his distrust of anything modernized in the 80’s one can only imagine what he would be thinking of today. However, he also has the self-awareness to realize that there is a very good possibility that he may not have enjoyed a lot of aspects of life in the more constrained past. An example of this would be the restricted freedoms that most sections of society faced. This is something each of us have to be careful of too, when viewing the rearview of time’s march on us with our weary rose tinted glasses of the present.
His constant alteration of moods between introspective self-depreciation at one moment and a casual superiority complex at another is another feature of the novel. While he is quick to point out and sneer at what he perceives to be superficial in other people, he also comes to the realization that he may not be much better in some respects. This mild haranguing of himself extends to what he considers are his failures in maintaining a long term relationship as well. In these passages and other similar ones, he transforms the story to one of a personal journey for truth which many of us would be able to recognize from unresolved mysteries of our own lives.
I also liked his depiction of his friendship with Chester. Unassuming and quietly forced into the narrative, it is a glowing example of the kind of non-judgmental relationship which two friends are capable of, but achieve only rarely. It’s in the almost soliloquys he has in these parts of the book that we get to understand much more about the man behind the façade of the novel and his misgivings and insecurities on life and love.
The art in the book is simple, yet unique in its style. The tones used are mostly blue, black and white and this helps to maintain a relaxed and retro feel to the book. It doesn’t assault our senses; instead, it helps drag us in gradually into the slightly melancholic and thoughtful feel the story aims for. The book was first published as a series of comics in the comic book Palookaville and is now available in this graphic novel format. It’s obvious he is intrigued by the art of comic book collecting, as other books of his also attest to. But, irrespective of this, this work of his is a collectible in its own right which anyone who is even remotely interested in exploring different genres should delve into.