I&I

Seth in conversation with DeForge + reflections on Canadian art and identity

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Seth: Making History – In Conversation with Michael DeForge was an event well worth attending for Canadian comics lovers. It was a rare opportunity to hear a cross generational discussion about comics from two of the most preeminent Canadian cartoonists working today. As a bonus, attendees were also treated to two brief lectures analyzing Seth’s work and a screening of Luc Chamberland’s The Great Machine (narrated by Seth).

The first lecture was an exploration of historical visual references in Seth’s work that lead to questions about time and identity. Tom Smart, curator and author of Palookaville: Seth and the Art of Graphic Autobiography, suggested that Seth’s use of older imagery was a means for him to create a nostalgic illusion in which he could exercise perfect control. The second lecture was an interesting examination by Sean Rogers, a comics critic for The Globe and Mail, who suggested that Seth’s use of portraiture, especially those that brought together comics characters from different cartoonists or series, represented an imaginary* comics community, an idea I’ll return to later.

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Seth’s imaginary community of Canadian comic superheros for CNQ

The conversation between Seth and DeForge covered a lot of ground. There was a fair bit of discussion about the evolution of the alternative comics scene and generational differences; the shared sense of pulling back from newer comics (more difficult to find newness, unique voices or stories, the loss of the pursuit of something rare and obscure due to comics’ mainstreaming, etc.); and reflections on their careers. However, I do wish that at some points, they had delved deeper into some of these topics as they are both articulate and intelligent and I think lingering longer might have yielded more unexpected insights.

Which brings me to the question I asked (rather inarticulately, I’m afraid) about how they felt about their identity as Canadians and how that affected their work. One of the things I enjoy most about both cartoonists’ work is the historical Canadian references which are never simple, straightforward “shout outs.”

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Seth replied that he was most interested in Canadian visual references, going so far as to have studied national artifacts and designs that evoked a sense of national identity. Landscape also seemed to be a touchstone for him and he referenced Glenn Gould’s Idea of the North. DeForge also agreed with Seth’s comments but added that he was interested in a certain weirdness that was Canadian, citing the Just For Laughs mascot as an example.

I would have liked to hear more about their approach to emphasizing the Canadian-ness (or in Seth’s case, especially the Ontario-ness) of their work. Because it seems to me that their Canadian references are complex and layered. Their work neither celebrates nor undercuts our ideas of Canadian identity in a straightforward manner, but rather they both seem to play with it in weird ways.

Let’s consider Seth’s portrait of The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists, based on Fathers of Confederation, the iconic painting by Robert Harris that was commissioned by the Canadian government:

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Rex Woods’ celebratory tribute to Harris’ Fathers of the Confederation; the original was destroyed in a fire

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Seth’s (in)version

As Rogers noted in his lecture, this portrait not only depicts an imaginary shared community of cartoonists, but it is also a commentary on the imaginary nature of the Canadian nation. By appropriating the image of the founding fathers of Canada to represent a group of individual men making gag strips, Seth both imbues the fictitious GNB Double C with a groundedness in material reality and recasts the non-fictional Fathers of Confederation as fabricated, showing us that this painting of a historic moment is a representation of an idea.

DeForge approaches Canadian history from a different, more slanted angle. My favourite work by him is still “Canadian Royalty,” which can be found in LOSE #4. The very idea of Canadian royalty, a slanted version of the more earnest relationship Britain has with the Queen, is a clever premise. In this slanted way, the comic neither celebrates nor criticizes Canadian identity but rather, it twists Canadian historical references into something entirely new, yet still familiar.

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DeForge reinvents iconic Canadian logos and gives them a mock-authoritative bearing in his alternate, imaginary Canadian space

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Among the heavily stylized figures characteristic of DeForge’s work, a Canadian reader will recognize symbols and references to national institutions, places or historical moments that are made strange and new in the comic’s imaginary world, as if they have been turned inside-out.

There’s so much weirdness going on in this excerpted page: the slanted fleur-de-lis of Quebec; the familiar National Film Board logo appropriated to represent an imaginary state council and reinterpreted as an artist agonizing over a creative block; a familiar sigil of a crown juxtaposed with an imaginary royal character receiving oral sex, the reference to the “newfie accent”… The rest of the comic is similarly rife with cultural and historical references. It feels like DeForge is like a trickster, juggling all these Canadian signifiers and letting them fall askew on the page, epitomizing a very odd, abstract Canadian sense of humour when it comes to our national identity – sometimes irreverent, sometimes sardonic, but always loving the unexpected.

This play with Canadian signifiers by Seth and DeForge cannot be simply described as postmodern play with identity politics. Pomo’s ironic detachment is a critical response to essentialist ideas about identity. But unlike other nations, Canada has never had much of an essentialist identity to detach from. Pomo play deconstructs identities and seeks radical newness; Seth’s and DeForge’s play are very about constructing a Canadian identity in which the imaginary center – the imaginary community of the nation state – is and has always been recognized as imaginary.

I once met a Belgian who apologized before saying that it seemed to him that Canada did not have much of a national identity at all. And I said there was no reason to apologize because I did not think this was necessarily a negative thing. The centre is empty and we know it. We don’t – we can’t – pretend otherwise. Canadians who have tried to fill that empty centre, usually those with a white/Anglo supremacist bent, have only succeeded by filling it with an imported American identity; their vision of Canada is basically a 51st American state with provincial healthcare.

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Nationalists aside, being Canadian is a radically flexible concept for Canadians. It means, for example, that if we are going to recognize and act upon our country’s long, genocidal history, that is exactly where we are going to go.

Here’s another take on Harris’ (and Woods’) Fathers of Confederation by Cree artist Kent Monkman which was recently exhibited at the University of Toronto Art Gallery:

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Monkman’s aptly titled, Daddies of Confederation

Monkman plays with Canadian symbols like the landscape through the windows and the Hudson Bay blanket (iconic signifier of first contact and trade). Like Seth and DeForge, it is humourous and mischievous, although it is also scathing in its indictment of the Canadian government’s treatment of Canadian aboriginals. The naked figure of Monkman’s alter ego in the centre of the painting, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle (Mischief Egotistical) displayed shamelessly while the white daddies look on in shock and horror, reconfigures Confederation as a plundering of aboriginal land and people; but here Miss Chief also holds a position of power, rendering the daddies mute by embodying truths about colonialism.

When it comes to Canadians playing with Canadian identity, nothing is sacred. Immediately after the Seth and DeForge event, I attended a concert at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. The program opened with a “fanfare” composed by Andrew Staniland that was commissioned by the TSO. This piece, “Reflections on ‘O Canada’ After Truth and Reconciliation,” featured an eerie rendition of the national anthem in a minor key, concluding with a more traditional brassy bombast that sounded conflicted and torn rather than patriotic. This same concert then closed with a wrenching performance of the improvised “Qiksaaktuq” by Tanya Tagaq, which translates to “grief” and was dedicated to missing and murdered indigenous women. As a part of the Canada 150 marketing machine, this concert was, well, pretty weird.

[Qiksaaktuq is not available online but here’s another video from Tagaq: “Money has spent us.”]

For those unfamiliar with Canada 150, 2017 marks the sesquicentennial (150th) anniversary of the founding of the nation state of Canada. And it’s been a weird year for a nation of citizens who have a weird relationship to national identity.

The “sesquie” comes at a period in Canadian history where the country is having a reckoning with its relationship with Canadian aboriginals, Inuit and Métis. The Truth and Reconcilliation Commission has made it clear to the Canadian public that the devastation of the Canadian government’s genocidal actions are not simply echos of a far distant past, but are a fact of recent memory. And from there, it is not difficult to see how this colonial relationship remains alive and well in the present day. A nation built on a resource dependent economy with an identity built on landscape is now faced with difficult, unavoidable questions about how we will continue to treat our resources, the landscape we extract it from – and the people who live on that land.

Sesquie also comes at a time when we are witnessing the rise of ultranationalist sentiment in the West, a backlash to decades of neoliberal economic policies that has been steadily growing since the 2000s and that exploded in 2016. What does it mean to be Canadian when political parties in liberal democratic states – including Canada – are gaining power from rigid, essentialized and racialized national identities that will make no space for anything that will not conform?

Well, for starters, I think it means continuing to enjoy art that constructs an ever-changing, dynamic and self-critical model of Canada. I think that involves supporting artists like Seth, DeForge, Monkman and Tagaq who are helping us construct a Canadian identity that embraces our weirdness. And I think it means giving institutions like The Beguiling, the U of T or the TSO their due in building audiences and developing critical tastes. But on a more personal level, I think it means that Canadians should continue our uncertain dance with the empty centre of Canadian identity rather than trying to fill it up with something definite.

This past February, I had to make a trip south of the border. I had been dreading the crossing all week as news stories about people being detained and having their phones seized began to pile up. As I rode the cab to Pearson, my Nigerian-Canadian driver tuned the radio to the CBC and I was jolted out of my thoughts. Driving alongside the bustling Chinese markets lining Spadina Avenue, Glenn Gould’s second recording of the Goldberg Variations began to play, ponderously slow. The moment was so Canadian, it was almost a parody: a multi-layered multiculturalism marked by the presence of the driver and myself chatting about Toronto, the diverse Chinatown shoppers in the background, all punctuated by the left-of-field idiosyncracy of Gould’s humming, brought to us by one the most Canadian of institutions.

I was moved. In fact, I felt deeply comforted by the realization that all these signifiers of Canadian-ness were empty in the centre; they pointed me to nowhere except an idea of the idea of Canada. The moment was almost a parody but not quite because it was a parody that parodies nothing. And in that moment, I felt protected by the empty centre of Canadian identity. I wanted to surround myself in that space of possibility and hope and indefiniteness. I thought to myself, I can carry this with me, this Canadian spaciousness. And that thought brought me strength.

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Many thanks to The Graduate English Association at the University of Toronto for hosting this thought provoking event!

* Rogers never specifically referenced Benedict Anderson’s Imaginary Communities, but I’m guessing he’s familiar with the text. It’s a highly recommended read for anyone who wants to think more deeply about Canadian identity or national identity in general.

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