Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Clyde Fans by Seth

Seth has been telling this story for twenty years now, so you probably already know this, but: Clyde Fans is a business, not a person.

It was a small enterprise, manufacturing and selling fans for home and business, mostly in the smaller cities of Ontario, Canada, flourishing from the late thirties through the early sixties, and then rapidly declining to end in 1981. It was founded by a man named Clyde Matchstick, who does not appear in this book at all. His two sons, Abraham and Simon, are our viewpoints -- first one, then the other, then both, and one and the other once more to end symmetrically. (This is a long book, despite the "picture novella" label on the cover -- nearly five hundred pages of comics, with each of the five chapters pushing a hundred.)

The two brothers never really understood each other, or valued each other. But I've already said they were brothers.

The father is the hole the story circles around. He walked out on his family when they boys were grown but still young -- in their twenties, I think -- and they don't seem to have recovered from that, or from having him as a father before that. But, despite the name, the book is not Clyde's story. His wife -- or ex-wife, maybe, or even widow; they have no idea what happened to him -- has cut his face out of every photo she could find, so Clyde appears in Clyde Fans in dialogue and as a jagged scissor-cut shape, nothing more.

Abraham was the doer: he leapt into the business, first as a salesman for his father and then to run the office after the old man ran away. It looks like he grew it for a while; the late forties and all of the fifties were fat years. But the business model evaporated under him as air-conditioning became cheaper and more available, and Abraham never adjusted to that shift. (He never says "business model" or anything like that concept here, but it's what happened: I've seen it hit several businesses I worked for as well and it is not pretty.) The first chapter here is one long monologue, with Abraham holding forth (to the reader, or to no one) on his theories of selling, the history of the company, and related topics.

Simon was quieter, colder -- vastly less verbal, vastly less personable. He tried to be a salesman only once, with poor results. We don't see what drove him to that, but we do see that failed trip, and the man he became afterward: obsessed with novelty postcards, spending his entire life alone in the Clyde Fans building, caring for his aging mother in his halting, distracted way. His head is full, but it doesn't come easily out of his mouth -- certainly not with other people, though he does have the disconcerting habit of talking to his collection of mostly-racist novelty toys, often in loud and argumentative tones. There possibly was something wrong with Simon, some mental condition he could have been treated for, but that never happened. He is dead before the first section of this book, set in 1997, having died in the 1970s during the company's long slow decline.

So this is a book of contrasts: doer vs. dreamer, outer world vs. inner world, looking forward vs. looking back. As usual, Seth's essential sympathy is towards dreamers, inner worlds, and looking backward, though Simon is a deeply flawed exemplar of all of those things. Abraham was a healthier, better adjusted man -- but that's only a matter of degrees; he's hurt vastly more people in his life, just by living among more people and interacting with them (affairs with housewives all across Ontario, shutting down the manufacturing plant to save the core sales business for a few years).

And, even more, it's a book about memory and time: about how things change, and how it's impossible to hold onto moments of happiness and joy, no matter how much you want to. Maybe also about what trying to hold onto those moments, instead of moving on, will do to someone.

Seth's art changes over the twenty years he took to draw this -- his lines were thin in the first chapter, much like It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken, but they grow fatter as the book goes on, and the endpapers and opening art is all in his modern style: solid blocks of black and tone with chunky confident lines defining the spaces and people. The book is long enough that it wasn't really noticeable in the reading, though the transition from frontmatter to chapter one is potentially jarring. (But Seth calls it out in his afterword, which is largely about how the book did take twenty years to complete, and how he'll never do anything like that again.)

Frankly, this is a small, personal story -- five hundred pages does not make it an epic, and it was never meant to be. It is physically a bug-crusher, but that's because of the nature of comics: despite the old saw that a picture equals a thousand words, telling a nuanced, dialogue-driven, thoughtful story about people in comics simply takes more space than it does in prose. If you go into Clyde Fans expecting bigness, you'll be disappointed. But if you know Seth's previous work, you'll be properly calibrated.

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