Sunday, August 16, 2009

George Sprott: I might complain, but I'm not as old as he was

George Sprott (1894-1975)
By Seth

I obviously haven't read enough of Seth's comics, because this is one very good book, and I would certainly like to experience more of the same. Similar to Chris Ware, Seth has a somewhat clinical approach to his storytelling, although it's far from cold or unfeeling. On the contrary, the point of this story seems to be to examine the life of the title character, with most of the content coming from "interviews" with people he associated with or the memories that went through his head in his last hours. Described as such, that sounds somewhat boring, but it's anything but. Rather, it's a fascinating look into the forces that shaped the entirety of Sprott's life, along with a great example of character building on Seth's part; by the end, Sprott feels incredibly real, to the point that readers might wonder if the book is non-fiction.

We learn early on that Sprott was a local TV host for the last few decades of his life, but it's only a few pages before we discover the rest of his history, with the notable part being his time as an Arctic explorer, which gave him the content for his show, "Northern Hi-Lights". As one of the interviewees states, the trips were of limited scientific value; he was more of a "gentleman explorer", there to hobnob with the natives and take films of the snowy landscape to be shown over and over on his show. In fact, the more one reads about Sprott, the more useless he seems; did his life have any positive impact at all on the world? The question is debatable, but even though many of the interviewees call him a bore or seem to think he was a pompous blowhard, they all seem to have some affection for him, as do various TV viewers, attendees of his lecture series, or, most significantly, his beloved niece. In the end, the cumulative effect of the lives he touched has a powerful result, making him seem an essential part of the human fabric.

Seth's narration is also a notable aspect of the story, adding a contemplative, apologitic voice to the scenes of exposition, starting with a pre-title-page spread of a fetal Sprott floating in an amniotic void and contemplating life both before life and after death:

Other scenes see the narrator apologize for not having enough information, insufficiently delivering details to the reader, or speculating on Sprott's feelings even while he seems to be privy to his thoughts and memories. It's a fascinating device, and one that definitely adds to the mood of the book, while emphasizing Seth as a presence in the story.

And he's certainly worth noticing, especially for the elegant artwork that captures so much nuance in a few simple lines:

I love the way the emotions of characters are captured so well through slight variation in expressions that are cartoony yet still communicative. And there's a great grasp of gesture and movement, easily shifting between realistic depictions and rounded simplifications of the human figure:

The pages themselves are beautifully designed and laid out, each one (for the most part) working as a single unit to tell part of the whole, which makes sense, given that they were originally serialized in the New York Times Magazine. The additions for this collected edition consist of sepia-toned flashbacks to points in Sprott's life, occasional near-abstract spreads of icebergs and such scenery, and a bravura fold-out sequence that works as a sort of barrage of memories that flash before Sprott's eyes in his last moments:

It's poignant, affecting stuff, especially the persistent guilt that continues to plague him after he impregnated and abandoned an Inuit woman on one of his expeditions.

The thing is, everything works together to present a believable portrait of a man and his life, and even though we realize that we've only seen a glimpse of his life and personality, we feel like we know him intimately, even though he's a fictional character. That's the real power of Seth's storytelling here, and he's amazingly good at it. The end result of the book is the feeling of a friend gained and lost, probably similar to being a viewer of his show, or possibly a documentary about the life of a minor celebrity, with the addition of being privy to some of his inner thoughts. It's the kind of experience that only comics can provide, and when a creator like Seth is steering you through it, you can't go wrong.