It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken
|It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken|
First edition cover, Drawn and Quarterly, 1996
|Number of issues||4–9|
|Page count||176 pages|
|Publisher||Drawn and Quarterly|
It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken is a graphic novel by Canadian cartoonist Seth. It appeared from 1993 to 1996 in issues #4–9 of Seth's comic book series Palookaville and in collected form in 1996. It tells a mock-autobiographical story of its author's obsessive search for the work of an old, forgotten cartoonist.
Though fictional, Seth presents the book as autobiographical and features figures from his life such as friend and fellow cartoonist Chester Brown. The minimalist artwork draws from the styles of the early New Yorker cartoonists, drawn in thick brushstrokes with heavy blacks against a greyish-blue wash. The story unfolds with a nostalgic and melancholy tone, and several scenes are in atmospheric pantomime. The book gained Seth a reputation as part of the autobiographical comics trend in the 1990s. It won two Ignatz Awards in 1997 and ranked No. 52 of The Comics Journal's "100 Best Comics of the 20th Century".
Toronto-based cartoonist Seth first drew attention to his work in 1985 when he took over art duties from the Hernandez brothers for Mister X, from the Toronto publisher Vortex Comics. In April 1991 he launched his own comic book, Palookaville, with Montreal publisher Drawn and Quarterly. By this time Seth's artwork had evolved to one inspired by The New Yorker cartoons of the 1930s and 1940s.
Seth had focused on autobiographical stories since the series débuted. Friends of Seth's appeared in it, most prominently fellow Toronto-based cartoonists Chester Brown and Joe Matt, who also featured each other in their autobiographical comics. Though a work of fiction, Seth presented It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken as another autobiographical story, an approach inspired in part by Lynda Barry, who mixed autobiography with fiction in her comics.
The story takes place in 1986 and follows Seth, a cartoonist whose life revolves around cartooning and collecting nostalgic items. He feels ill-at-ease in the modern world and pines for bygone eras. His obsessions and cynicism alienates himself from most around him, including a girlfriend who breaks up with him.
While he searches for information on cartoonist Whitney Darrow, Jr., obsessive collector Seth comes across the work of Jack "Kalo" Kalloway in The New Yorker. Fond of this older style of cartooning which resembles his own, Seth sets off to find more about this obscure cartoonist, whose few published works appeared in magazines such as The New Yorker and Esquire. Seth's search manages to turn up only eleven cartoons by Kalo.
Seth discovers his own childhood hometown of Strathroy in Southern Ontario was where the Kalo spent his life. Seth contacts Kalo's daughter and learns of elder cartoonist's life: how he moved to New York to pursue cartooning in the 1940s and returned to Canada in the 1950s to get married and settle into a career in real estate. Seth's finds it hard to reconcile that the cartoonist he admires could give up a cartooning career and still find happiness in the last twenty years of his life; he come to accept it after a visit to Kalo's mother in a nursing home. Appending the book is a collection of the published Kalo cartoons Seth could find.
It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken was serialized in issues #4 (December 1993) through #9 (June 1996) of Seth's comic book Palookaville, published by Drawn and Quarterly. It appeared in collected form in September 1996 from the same publisher. Seth said his mother used the title phrase when he was growing up. Seth labelled the book on the cover "a Picture-Novella" to avoid the term '"graphic novel" and because he wanted "an antiquated-sounding term". He has used the term on all his later full-length fictional works.
Style and analysis
A strong nostalgic and melancholic tone pervades the narrative as Seth appears to search for peace and meaning in his life. He often talks of his obsession with the past—his own childhood and earlier eras—either through dialogue with friends or in captions as he wanders the streets. Seth's interpersonal encounters tend to be one-sided, revealing his reactions to and judgments of those around him. Several scenes are in atmospheric pantomime, panning through landscapes and cityscapes, with a particular focus on older buildings. The third section opens with such a sequence—tangential to the plot—in the Royal Ontario Museum. The detial in the buildings is much greater than in the simplified delineation of the characters, an approach some such as Scott McCloud argue invites reader identification.
By the time he began the serial Seth had developed a style derived from the cartoons of The New Yorker in the 1930s and 1940s. A particular influence from the magazine is Peter Arno, whom Seth describe's in the appendix as "possibly The New Yorker 's greatest stylist". Seth appropriates the sophisticated, jaded satirical mood of Arno's work along with his thick, bold brushline and compositional sense, though with greater deliberation and restraint. Seth's brushline is simple and organic, yet precise, and Seth pays attention to buildings, landscapes, weather conditions, and other background details. The brushstrokes broaden into thick black shadows, sometimes flattening figures to near-abstract silhouettes. A greyish-blue wash accents the otherwise black-and-white cartooning printed on yellow paper that gives an aged feeling to the book. Seth demonstrates the dexterity of his drawing when he produces the Kalo cartoons in a style as derivative of The New Yorker stylists, yet stands convincingly distinct from the art in the rest of the book.
In a metatextual twist he discusses his love of this style with Chester Brown in the story that itself is drawn in such a way; Brown expresses his appreciation for such cartoonists but disappoints Seth with his lack of enthusiasm. Seth's use of a real person to comment on Kalo's work makes the fictional cartoonst's existence seem more plausible, as does an actual photograph on the final page purporting to be of Kalo.
The tone is melancholic and nostalgic—Seth pines for a past not his own and obsessively collects consumer items from earlier in the 20th century. His focus is primarily on the period from the 1930s to the 1950s, a time he feels particularly "Canadian". He goes as far as to wear an old-fashioned overcoat and broad-rimmed hat, and declares to Chester Brown: "I do think life was simpler then ... easier for people to find personal happiness." Brown disagrees, saying, "I think it's always been difficult for people to be happy." He dreads the future and allows his memories of childhood to dominate his thoughts. Photographs recur as a motif—family photos, as in the scrapbooks Kalo's daughter shows Seth, wedding photos in a diner that Seth's camera eye dwells on.
Reception and legacy
In the middle of its serialization reviewer Kent Worcester called It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken "one of the very few essential exemplars of the potential of the medium". It won Seth two Ignatz Awards in the award's inaugural ceremony in 1997: one for Outstanding Artist and another for Outstanding Graphic Novel or Collection. In 1999 the book placed No. 52 on The Comics Journal 's "100 Best Comics of the 20th Century", and in 2014 Rolling Stone ranked it No. 25 on its list of "50 Best Non-Superhero Graphic Novels".
Seth followed It's a Good Life with the similarly nostalgic and melancholic Clyde Fans, which began serialization in the next issue of Palookaville in 1997; it has yet to finish, and during its serialization Seth has published a number of stand-alone books. Seth has become one of the most respected cartoonists in Canada; his stature has come to rival that of Chester Brown's, and he has earned higher esteem in literary circles than more popular cartoonists such as Bryan Lee O'Malley.
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- Mullins, Katie (Winter 2009). "Questioning Comics: Women and Autocritique in Seth's It's A Good Life, If You Don't Weaken". Canadian Literature (203): 11–27.
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