Wimbledon Green: The Greatest Comic Book Collector in the World (2005), by Seth. D&Q.
Seth is one of a few names that can be counted on to pop up in discussions of comics with actual literary merit. His great skill as a cartoonist and storyteller is obviously the biggest reason for that -- but as the medium winds its way through the opening years of the 21st century, another seems more and more worthy of mention. Quite frankly, I think the era of cartoonists that attempt to address the "literary" with their work, to dialogue with the great works of fiction and their tropes, has passed us by. That's not to say that the baseline of quality in comics has somehow dropped; only that the zeitgeist behind the good ones these days (and for the past several years) seems increasingly geared to the pictures, the layouts, the history of comics, the things that lie within the medium rather than across the way in literature. (The necessity of a word that serves the same function for comics as "literary" does for prose is especially pressing when this distinction is being made. I've used comicky a couple times, but it seems most likely that nothing will ever stick.)
As time goes on literary comics becomes more and more recognizable as a phase in the medium's development, one that begins around the Hernandez brothers and ends around Craig Thompson. These days the big influences from that period are the great cartoonists who resisted the impulse to travel routes of content previously taken by prose fiction: Gary Panter, Al Columbia, Moebius. Seth, for his part, isn't an influence I see popping up in much exciting new comics work -- there might be a little of his style in Michael DeForge, but it lies beneath other artists' more recognizable inflections. In the long view of history, when Seth as well as Thompson and the Hernandezes and Alan Moore and Adrian Tomine and all the rest are merely memories, it may well turn out that the artist's most significant contribution to the field will have been his massive effect on its book design practices. It's only because the literary-comics movement has hosted some of the very greatest cartoonists in history... but among names like Ware and Clowes, even an artist as forbiddingly talented as Seth is an also-ran.
To his credit, he admits as much in the typically self-deprecating foreword to Wimbledon Green, which is far and away his best book. "No one," Seth writes, "would mistake this gentle poking of the comics world with Mr. Ware's profound and moving work." All the charm of the book is right there in that sentence: Seth has done the kind of comics he makes sure to point out this one isn't, and while they've been very good they've never quite managed the Achievement status that other cartoonists have reached. It's anyone's guess what the reason for that might be, but I think it's because Seth's forte isn't the literary but the comicky. The nostalgia for a forgotten past that tints all his work is much more unique and interesting when it's turned to tall tales than human drama. His broadly cartooned, deceptively simple manner of drawing people is perfect when applied to caricatures rather than characters. And most surprisingly, it turns out that Seth, one of the longest-form of long-form plotters in comics (his serial Clyde Fans has been running for well over a decade at this point), makes his best work in the "novel of ideas" category. Wimbledon Green is a romp, a delightfully silly and fun tear into comics culture and the loons who take it way too seriously, shot through with an amiable sarcasm. Seth spends the whole book making fun of his characters -- or at the very least, studying them with obvious bemusement -- but his affection for everything and everyone he's put into his story is both obvious and infectious.
The main plot of the book is an absurdist shaggy-dog tale chronicling the efforts of a group of cantankerous comics enthusiasts with limitless resources to gain possession of a super-rare back issue that may or may not actually exist. Seth throws out ideas like a fire throws out sparks to make what sounds like mundane subject matter anything but: what in reality would be a few bland phone calls and a paid shipping bill turns into aerial combat, chases through swamps, kidnapping, and grand theft beneath his pen. The little details that push the action forward are almost uniformly more arresting than the actual plot. The club of collectors that forms the book's cast is based out of a marble-columned museum in the center of a bustling city. Crooked comic book auctions end in hard jail time. The massively corpulent, dauntingly pretentious, somehow-still-endearing title character lives in an imposing mansion called the "Temple of Newsprint" -- with an Indian manservant straight out of Little Orphan Annie -- and he can tell who printed a comic by smell alone! This is a comic that refuses to take itself seriously on just about any level, and it is so much the better for it.
Assembled from hastily drawn sketchbook vignettes, its most appealing quality is its looseness, a sense of spontaneity offset by the skill of its artist. When the imagination and hands coming up with the material is this good, one both trusts that the rambling, elliptical story is going somewhere, and doesn't mind that it isn't going there now. Indeed, though Wimbledon's quest for the coveted back issue is the ostensible focus of the comic, that story ends well before the book itself does. The final quarter of the book is both the most perplexing and the best: filling in gulps of backstory by the page, it serves no immediate purpose to the already-concluded narrative but merely entertains like crazy. Seth tells us about the founding of the "Coverloose Club" of comics aficionados, about a few of Wimbledon's more hilariously embarrassing interactions with other collectors, and -- best of all -- about the high points of an obscure (fictional) 1940s comic series that happens to be the title character's all-time favorite. One can't help but wonder while reading these masterful bits what the story is really about if not the hunt for the rarest back issue of all, but by the end it's obvious: just read the title again. Every charmingly zany vignette in the book contributes something or other to our understanding of the mysterious, ridiculous, borderline tragic Wimbledon Green. It's a character study with few peers in comics, and the fact that its subject is such a strange and farcical one only makes the study itself that much more unique and interesting.
Seth's ability to create fully fleshed-out, perfectly idiosyncratic set-ups for completely ridiculous story details is unmatched, almost Dr. Seussian at times. The effect is closest to that of a great performance, with the tale getting taller and taller but never quite leaving the realm of the believable. That's how the old masters of the form, great newspaper cartoonists like Roy Crane and Harold Gray and Doug Wright did it, piling absurdity onto absurdity with a straight face until they had accumulated into a functioning universe. Ever historically-minded, Seth is aware of the sandbox he's playing in, and seeing him riff on the formulas and techniques of great cartoonists past is a delight. From John Stanley's "YOW!" punchline to Frank King's method of drawing dappled sunlight falling through trees on a human figure, this comic takes its medium's history as a giant toybox, spinning new takes on old classics with no end of glee. The visual style Seth uses to support his riffing is worthy of its influences, too: his usual tight, meticulous cartooning loosens up for this sketchbook comic, a rich, golden-hued wash spreads over the panels, the characters become less real people and more amalgamations of simple shapes, and everything gets more and more inviting to read.
You can blaze through Wimbledon Green in an hour or spend days marveling at how Seth constructs fully immersive environments in postage-stamp sized panels with a few square door frames, or spare lines of slashed brickwork, or the bubbling silhouettes of trees. There's a delightful messiness to the most satisfyingly drawn sections of the book, with the wash escaping out over the panel borders or the shapes that make up a figure drawn wobbly and asymmetrical. It's as if Seth is so sure of his forms and compositions that there's simply no need to labor over them too long. The visual continuity of the comic never breaks down, supporting the reading experience with every panel, and everything beyond that is mere frills. It's the ideas behind the drawings that really count here, the smoothness of the pages' movement and the iconic simplicity of the elements in the panels. It's beautiful, like hearing Mozart banged out of a half-busted saloon piano.
That interplay between craft and spontaneity, fine writing skills and throwaway subject matter, the important and the trite, is exactly what makes Wimbledon Green such an individual book and such a good one. By turning a skill set that stands with the best of literary comics to something less serious, something closer to what the great cartoonists of yesteryear that so obsess him and influence his work were doing, Seth created the most interesting and eminently readable book of his career. Sometimes being less serious about one's art pushes it to the greatest heights, and this is certainly one of those cases. When the more restrained, wistful moments and hushed, sparsely gorgeous landscapes that Seth is so famous for enter Wimbledon Green, they have a powerful effect amidst all the giddiness and whizzing of ideas: one can truly appreciate what the artist's contemplative nostalgist aesthetic brings to the table in a hyperkinetic, ADD medium. And when they recede, the skill as a yarn-spinner that Seth so rarely employs in his other work is front and center, making the pages turn like a strong gust of wind. Few artists have the skill to render something concrete with this much abandon; fewer still have the precise combination of strengths to make their most off-the-cuff work their best.