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Book Review: George Sprott (1894 – 1975)

2010 May 31
Front cover of 'George Sprott (1894 - 1975)' by Seth

Glorious

George Sprott (1894 – 1975) is, for my money, a masterpiece within the field of sequential art (i.e. comics). It’s also a remarkable work of design, on multiple levels.

Seth, as the author signs his work, has designed a magnificent artifact, first and foremost. George Sprott is not merely a bound collection of images and text, which happen to be printed on paper, but could work just as well on a computer screen, iPad, or what-have-you. In an interview with The Torontoist, comic retailer and critic Christopher Butcher said of his fellow Canadian’s work:

I’ve got a copy of Seth’s new George Sprott up on my bookshelf – I’m looking at it now. It’s about eighteen inches by twenty inches or something like that, it’s massive. It has blue foil set, hard cover binding, it’s full colour. The telling of that story, the format, is just as important in a lot of ways as the content. George Sprott, the book, has to be big, the format has to serve the material. And that is something digital publishing is not going to replicate.

And Butcher is hardly stretching things when he describes the book as “big.”

George Sprott compared with DVD case for scale

Twice as tall, at least twice as wide, as a DVD case

I should note that, per the publisher’s web site, George Sprott was initially serialized in the New York Times magazine. Presumably then, the work was initially created for, and in any event initially published in, a different format. But I don’t believe that really contradicts Butcher’s view, which I share; whatever the history of the contents, the hardcover book of George Sprott becomes something new and greater than the panels within.

George Sprott, the book, has presence. The size, the heft, the extraordinarily-high quality of material. One can undoubtedly reproduce the panels without these physical qualities and still have a good story, but in this case the author and designer has taken full advantage of properties of print media to create an experience which the PDF preview, for example, can’t really replicate.

Seth employs a tremendous sense of design throughout George Sprott, however, beyond the choice and use of material.

Example page spread from George Sprott

An example spread

The pages of George Sprott are much more than just a series of frames for drawings. Which is arguably almost a necessity, as the story is a sort of Citizen Kane style “documentary” with very little in the way of visual action, but just like Orson Welles’ great work, the technique in George Sprott banishes any thought that the result is just “talking heads.”

It’s interesting to note that, as Butcher pointed out above, George Sprott is printed in full colo(u)r, even though the entireity of the book basically uses a simplified palette of a few muted hues. Yet the full-color printing is hardly wasted. Seth uses color effectively, to set mood, to lend the book its “faded days now gone” feel, and to move the reader back and forth through time. Though nearly all of the story is essentially a series of flashbacks, the scenes from the end of George’s life get a noticeably different treatment from those in the decades leading up to it. The older scenes have a different color palette, different panel size, a hint of a different illustration style; wondrously thoughtful design.

And there’s the lettering. All of Seth’s work features his marvelously quirky lettering; look at the cover, or the sample spread above. In another era, Seth might have been one of the greatest sign-painters of all time.

There’s also the incidental design which Seth drops into his work.

White Owl beer label and Institute for Polar Studies seal, from George Sprott

Fictional logos from George Sprott

Little things, like the “White Owl Lager Beer” label from a series of atmospheric panels. And the great seal of Sprott’s Institute for Polar Studies (itself much less majestic than its name and emblem), which I believe appears nowhere in the book itself, but only in glorious oversized foil on the back cover.

I think that Institute seal, either created specifically to decorate the back cover, or else created for the interior but not used and included on the back cover so that the design would be seen somewhere, exemplifies the kind of euphoric revelry in creating beautiful design that carries through George Sprott. Throughout the book there are occasional two-page spreads featuring near-abstract arctic landscapes. And then there’s the fold-out spread in which the creator just goes all-out:

Double-gatefold interior spread from George Sprott

That's a two-foot ruler beneath the book; this spread is FORTY-SIX inches wide

I will confess that the giant unfolding spread, while dazzling, isn’t really a high point of the book for me otherwise. In terms of the spread’s content, I think that Seth didn’t quite fully achieve what he was going for; I can imagine in my mind the images and bits of dialogue being mesmerizing as a film montage, but as executed on paper in George Sprott I think they fall a little short.

In terms of a design pièce-de-resistance, for my part I was more impressed with this quieter single page, also near the end of the book:

'Life is But a Dream' page from George Sprott

Marvelous.

Look at this. Here, Seth has 1) created an enchanting cartoon cityscape and 2) divided it into a 25-panel grid, with nearly every panel working as a small composition by itself. The symmetry between the moon in the opening panel, and the circle of light projected by a streetlight in the last, is just icing on a spectacular giant layer cake.

I cannot really complete a review of the design of George Sprott without considering one more element, however, to which I must give somewhat less rapturous comments: the model buildings.

Examples of model building pages from George Sprott

'It's only a model!'

I have such mixed feelings about these pages, which occur five or six times throughout the book. On the one hand, they fascinate me. They’re like Seth’s iconic cartoon buildings popped into (two-dimensionally reproduced) three-dimensional life. They’re just adorable; I want these buildings, I covet them. I want to set them up in a little miniature Lakeside, Ontario, and people them with tiny papercraft versions of the book’s cast. More practically, I think the pages serve a very good function in the flow of the book.

On the other hand, they’re just… jarring. Seth’s cartooning is very “flat” and abstracted, and suddenly boom, here’s three-dimensionality. The style and material of the book is very clean and sophisticated, but these buildings look like adorable but still crude grade-school projects. The way in which the book’s high-quality paper and printing make the model photos seem to pop off the page is almost subversively mocked by the childish, corrugated-cardboard buildings themselves. Which is just weird.

Ultimately, all I can say is that the model building pages seem, like the double-gatefold spread but a bit moreso, a worthy experiment that didn’t quite work out. Beyond that I don’t really have a specific improvement to offer; as noted I love the buildings, but I can’t think of a way to make them work. Having those image-only pages to break up the flow of the book a little is a good thing, I think, and I like celebrating the iconic designs of those cartoon landmarks. If there were a way to do it, I wonder about the possibility of some kind of CGI and Photoshop work to produce convincing full-page “photos” of each building in context.

Who knows. Ultimately, George Sprott (1894 – 1975) is still a masterpiece of story, illustration and design. I highly recommend it.