Given the title of my site, no one should be surprised when I say that I adore love letters. I love it when someone is unapologetically and wholeheartedly enamored with something — or someone — and they decide to make that love known to the world. Love letters, even when intended for one recipient, are an act of commitment. They turn heart swells into tangible objects, something to hold and crease and reread and savor and generate love in return. Here I am, here is how I feel, and oh, let us talk about how there is nothing better.
The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists is a love letter. Canadian artist and writer Seth creates a simple world where comics are revered and treasured, and it is as lovely as a traditional sonnet. Intended as a prequel to his book Wimbledon Green (which I have not read yet), it began as a sketchbook exercise, without much thought to publishing it. It became a single narrator essay in a nine panel grid format, and he had several starts and stops before deciding what would become the published work. He creates a fictional world so believable that I had to do a bit of Google research to see if I'd just been ignorant of Canadian comics history. The bits of reality mixed with Seth's creations feel authentic, and that's all we can really ask of a good book.
"If you should happen to be wandering along King St. in Dominion," our unnamed narrator begins:
Keep an eye open for Milverton Street and take a right on it. Walk along — just a block or two... You'll find a surprising little pocket of banquet halls and private clubs. Follow along to 169 — a tall three story structure... Somewhat past its prime. The G.N.B. Double C. The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists. Erected in 1935.
We are led on a tour through the building, discussing the history of the murals on the walls, the club jackets, the members old and new, and the impressively designed Forest Room. In the Forest Room, "you'll find a wide variety of original cartoon art hanging there. A near-virtual history of Canadian cartooning."
From there, the narrator goes into the stories of several different comics, discussing the authors and their inspirations, as well as the overall time period and reception during which the pieces occurred. It's remarkably wide-ranging — from straight-up superheroes to single strip gags to cheesy family stories to more complex, introspective work — and it never feels as though we are on a pointless diversion.
In this world, comics are better preserved and archived, and more consideration is given to rewarding fine work. It is from these pages that the Doug Wright Award originated, given to honor excellence in comics written in English. Doug Wright's comic Nipper features into the GNBCC narrative, a strip originally published in the 1960s. Wright's inclusion further serves this fact/fiction blur, creating an alternate history in which some real artists (known in certain circles) are revered alongside their fictional comrades.
Seth switches up his drawing style well when showing the work of these different artists. Some of the comics have a simple, pulpy feel, whereas others have serenely beautiful ink work. One of the fictional series mentioned, Kao-Kuk — about an Eskimo astronaut — can be read on the Drawn and Quarterly website here.
It's impressive, the entire universe he has crammed into a little over 130 pages. It's hard to accurately describe the impact the text and image pairings have, other than to say that they are also filled with aching nostalgia. In the literary world, certain works have been heralded for hundreds of years, and much more effort is made to discuss their impact, compared to the treatment comics receive. Seth seems to be of the opinion that we are in danger of losing the history of cartooning, and that it's a shame that the love he feels so strongly is not more widespread. Loving something can also feel lonely, especially when that love might not be commonly understood. With this book, Seth makes it clear that, during one moment in history, at least one person felt strongly enough to pay tribute. I highly recommend this book.
Full disclosure: I won this book, along with Daniel Clowes' The Death-Ray, as part of a giveaway on BOOOOOOOM! Cheers to them.
This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.