Clyde Fans. Drawn & Quarterly
Last summer, my then four-year-old son and I took a walk together around Dufferin Islands, a small assemblage of islands connected by bridges and walking paths overlooking Niagara Falls. As we walked hand in hand, he ran his other hand across the leaves we passed and laughed at the sounds hidden within the brush. As we neared the end of one particularly long walking path, I vividly remember my son turning around and saying, “Look at our footprints, Daddy!”
While reading Seth’s Clyde Fans, this very personal memory played on near repeat in my mind. The philosophical musing on the nature of time, memory, and presence are scattered throughout this picture novel as if waiting for the reader to uncover the secret majesty of it all. Clyde Fans should be considered Seth’s magnum opus; the zenith of his oeuvre’s rumination on nostalgia and personal history, it not only finds ways to reveal the common themes of Seth’s work to the reader, but it also challenges them to see the formal qualities of comics as capable of bearing the communicative load.
To appreciate this work’s compulsion to understand the impact of time on relationships and memory, a reader must understand the book’s journey to publication. Intended to be Seth’s “second book,” Clyde Fans “lingered on well past it’s [sic] time” and took an astonishing twenty years to complete (Author’s Note). While this is admittedly longer than Seth had intended it to take him to write the story of the Matchcard brothers, it reflects the novel’s preoccupation with time in a way that feels fated. Abraham (Abe) and Simon both understand, each in their own way, that it is the past (or more accurately, time) that keeps them frozen and unable to move forward with their lives. Seth reveals time’s presence through Abe’s failure to adapt alongside the evolving technology of the twenty-first century, which leads to the loss of his father’s company, and through Simon’s (undisclosed) agoraphobia, which prevents him from truly living in the present, choosing instead to reflect on his past.
Seth masterfully prepares readers for this philosophical narrative reflection on temporality by drawing their attention to the formal characteristics of his chosen medium. In book one near the end of Abe’s long contextual soliloquy, he (for the first time) speaks directly to the reader, saying, “By the way, pay no attention whatsoever to the clocks. I’d be very surprised if any of them are still wound or working” (51). This metafictional address causes the reader to pause and consider the importance of this moment. Narratively, it signals the way in which the Clyde Fans Company is a relic of the past, frozen in time. Formally, it forces the reader to question all that we see. Of course, the clocks aren’t “wound or working.” They’re static pictorial images—but then, so is everything else.
This acknowledgement of the narrative and visual power of time is further elaborated in book three, which features another (quasi)soliloquy, this time from the perspective of Abe’s brother, Simon. Whereas Abe’s soliloquy is spoken out loud (represented in speech balloons), Simon’s, reflective of his introverted nature, is silent (represented by caption boxes as interior monologue). But the contents of their thoughts are, surprisingly, quite similar. Simon says, “Time not space is the barrier that keeps us apart” (200).
One could accept this rumination on time, memory, and visual presence as simple narrative content. But that would fail to recognize the virtuosity of Seth’s cartooning and the way that his work inspires readers to think about how the principles of engagement specific to the comics medium lead to deeper and richer understanding. This principle, termed “closure” by cartoonist-theorist Scott McCloud, describes the process whereby a reader creates the comics’ narrative by reading from panel to panel. Closure turns the reader into “a willing and conscious collaborator” and acts as “the agent of change, time and motion” (McCloud 65). In other words, without active engagement on the part of the reader, the characters within Clyde Fans are literally, as well as figuratively, frozen in time.
This narrative/formal theme culminates at the end of book three. Simon sits alone on his mother’s bed and looks around her room. He says, “I believe this room is as familiar to me as mother herself” (282). Yet, readers are never truly given a chance to meet the Matchcard matriarch as a result of her worsening dementia. That said, as Simon recounts his mother’s stories about the knick-knacks in her room, these items begin to inform his personal recollection of her. Ultimately, these memories of the past, unfrozen by the reader as we move from panel to panel, give shape to her character through her absence.
Clyde Fans is a brilliant and powerful story of loss, failure, personal family history/tragedy, memory, and learning to live in the presence of absence. The patriarch of the Matchcard family, Clyde, is a powerful ghost throughout the story; his absence weighs heavily on both the characters (through memory) and the reader (he has been removed from all of the photos and we never see his face in either brother’s memories). The matriarch is unknowable to us without the power of memory fueled by the formal characteristics of Seth’s chosen medium. Ultimately, this is a story about two very different brothers, their inability to relate to one another, and the widening gulf of separation that was formed in their respective pasts and now manifests in their present.
In his author’s note, Seth reveals that his characters (though fictional) are based upon the pictures of two middle-aged men that hung in the real Clyde Fans storefront in Toronto, Ontario. Those photos of the past marked their absence with presence in much the same way that my footprints and my son’s footprints did that day in Dufferin Islands. I’ve often thought about that moment with my son, seeing our two sets of footprints in the dirt along the path and how those footprints, our very recent past, both signalled our absence and our eternal presence. In this way we’ve been there, we are there, and we will be there for the rest of time. Just me and my son . . . and the millions upon millions of people who have been there before us, are there now, and will be there in the future.
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. William Morrow, 1993.