The Idea of North

sprott on the future

George Sprott (1894-1975) is easily my favorite work by the Canadian cartoonist Seth. Most of the text originally appeared in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, but the book improves the project with additional material in an engaging package. It stands an impressive 12″ by 14″, which Seth ably uses to draw in and, at times, overwhelm the reader.

George Sprott is a biography/tombstone* for the title character, who embarked on arctic expeditions as a young man, and later in life recycled those experiences in a weekly lecture and a television show titled “Northern Hi-Lights.” Like all of Seth’s work, it’s abundantly nostalgic. In fact, the subject of the book is nostalgia: the novella examines the ways in which ideas of death and old age color the past and present, and the ways in which people live their lives according to how they think they will be remembered.

Sprott is a sad figure. Early in life he joined the clergy, but he seemed to be a faithless man. His father went senile (George, throughout his life, was haunted by the image of his dad tossing a top hat onto the dirt) and Sprott avoided his mother. A youthful infatuation with one Olive Mott ended in rejection. Even his visits to the arctic, which form the center of his being, are tinged with mistakes and regrets–there, he fathered a child with an Inuit, and abandoned them both. In his later years Sprott conducted a series of affairs, which may have driven his wife to suicide.** His career involved reliving the arctic experiences of his youth over and over again. In his old age Sprott’s audience departs and he sleepwalks through life.

Seth doesn’t make it easy to like Sprott–we see very little of his Polar expeditions, which might have cast him in a more heroic light. But Sprott becomes a vital everyman simply because Seth has constructed his life in a rich variety of ways: dreams, interviews, scrapbooks, recordings, personal reminisces. All of these forms involve some method of looking back and capturing the past. Through Sprott, Seth elaborates how nostalgia can consume our present actions. Here’s Sprott speculating on how the past and future may affect the present:

sprottoncomicsKnowing that death is what must occur in his future, and hamstrung by his past mistakes, Sprott falls into a routine that quickly becomes dreary and somnolent.

But George Sprott is not merely about the man–it’s also an elegy for local culture. Seth employs a series of visual and narrative devices to link George Sprott with buildings and institutions, and chronicles their mutual decline. The title displays his name atop office buildings:sprottbigThis looks similar to important buildings in Sprott’s life, such as this lovingly rendered cardboard cut-out of the Coronet lecture hall:

coronetSeth subsequently traces how both Sprott and the Coronet fall out of favor and then disappear.

Seth uses the space expertly, alternating pages of tight little panels with breathtaking spreads of the arctic. He often frames panels as if they were snapshots of a roving camera; those panels combine to form a larger picture.***

Sprott is currently a steal on Amazon, but consider supporting books like this by ordering from the publisher, or purchasing at your local comic book store.

*The cover, despite its Art Deco lettering and Iconic portrait of Sprott, is colored gray like a tombstone.

**Sprott’s guilt is largely contextual, except for a well-paced nightmare sequence that folds out of the book.

***Many cartoonists such as Frank King employed this tactic in their sunday sections.

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June 2009
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