When I was in Toronto in 2005, I ran across an exhibit at the AGO. It was called “Present Tense: Seth,” and it was the work of a Canadian graphic artist I’d never encountered before. The pictures were sharp and lush, blue-toned or sepia, looking at small-town life in mid-20th-century Canada. There were delicately bleak streets, homes, offices, along with the people who populated them, and all this was accompanied by a cardboard scale model of the fictional town they represented: Dominion. I wandered that exhibit for a long time, feeling both drawn in and excluded. There was so much detail, but I wanted to know what was behind those doors. I wanted to know the story. This Christmas, my husband gave me Clyde Fans: Book 1, the graphic novel those pictures were drawn from, and I was finally able to read the story that goes with the striking and memorable art.
The first part of Clyde Fans, set in 1997, is essentially a monologue in which elderly Abraham Matchcard, owner of Clyde Fans, describes his life as a salesman. He wasn’t suited to it — too unsociable — but he was successful nonetheless, and baffled by his brother Simon’s inability to overcome his weaknesses to become equally successful. He describes his father’s creation of the business, and the way his own miscalculations missed the opportunity to forge ahead with new technology and continue as a successful business. All the time he’s talking, Abe is walking around his house, from room to room: fixing and eating breakfast, listening to the radio, making his bed, putting things away, walking outside for a moment, making coffee. It was clear to me that this man’s life had shape, even if he wasn’t aware of it; by the end of the section, I probably could have made a scale model of his house myself.
The second section, set in 1957, follows Simon, Abe’s brother, on his last-ditch, desperately uncomfortable attempt at a sales trip. It’s clear to us that Simon has some form of mental illness, but he wants terribly to overcome it and live a normal life. The slow erosion of his ability to force himself through the day is utterly convincing. This section is as silent and interior as the first section is wordy, but both sections are intensely expressive.
I have a strong tendency, when reading graphic novels, to skip the pictures and go straight for the words. I’m too much of a novel-reader and not enough of a graphics person, I guess. Lately, I’ve been making a serious effort to slow down and appreciate what this medium has to offer, and Seth’s Clyde Fans really repaid the effort. The blue wash over beige tint was as soft and lush as I remembered, and the expression in the lines of the faces said more than their words could. You may have to spend some time seeking this out — I’m not sure it will be in your library holdings — but it’s worth while. I waited six years for mine, and I’m glad I did.