Memories of Seth

Seth Fisher, comic book artist, lover of life, encourager of aspiring artists, friend to all, and the energy in every room he entered, was born in Seattle in 1972, lived in Coronado, in South Dakota, Colorado, and several places in Japan; and died in Osaka, Japan in 2006. It was a life far too brief for the many people who loved him and for all the projects he had in mind. But even in its brevity, his life was an influence on his family and friends, his students, and on many people he never met. A Japanese friend said of him,

Being with Seth was like watching magic in front of me: he turned every trivial thing around him into a super cool thing. It seemed he was writing a comic each and every moment of his life just like the way he drew a comic by changing a white sheet of paper into a fun world. I thus felt like being in his comic he was drawing while seeing him. The most important things I have been taught from him is that everything on this earth is worthwhile. Whenever I am disappointed, I can smile just by thinking of Seth.

When he was in seventh grade, Seth decided that he wanted to be a comic book artist. Having made that decision, he never looked back. That was his goal, and he worked toward it. But it was not the only skill he worked on. In high school he decided that he wanted to learn to do magic. He bought a second hand book about card magic and learned nearly every illusion in the book with its accompanying patter. Then he found other books, and learned those tricks. By the time he had finished college, he was skilled enough at sleight of hand that he could entertain a group of people with card and coin tricks for hours.

At 16 he started inline skating. During college he pushed the limits of his abilities, until during his sophomore year he was jumping over cars. Pushing the limits was not enough though; to Seth control was essential. He jumped and raced and turned and flipped, but never broke any skin. A local skate shop sponsored him with all the new wheels, elbow guards, and knee pads he could use. He designed and wore a t-shirt for the shop that said on the back, “If you can read this, you are going too fast.”

But it was drawing that was his passion and his motivator. He lived in Coronado with his mother from age 5 to 10, but then his mother remarried and the family moved to the East Coast with the Navy. In junior high school Seth went to live with his father in Custer, South Dakota. His mother and stepfather soon moved back to Coronado, and Seth came every summer to visit. When he discovered Comic Con in San Diego, he attended every year without fail. He learned to bring a portfolio of his work and stand in line for an editor at DC or Marvel Comics to look through his work and offer a real life critique. Whatever the editor told him he needed to learn, he learned. By the time he was 23 or so, his work had improved enough to receive some real attention from professionals, though so far nothing that turned into a paycheck.

After college, Seth went to Japan with the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Program, where he taught English in a rural Japanese high school on the small Oki Islands. He was initially drawn to Japan because in Japan, everyone reads comic books, or manga, as they are called. Recognizable to Westerners by the ubiquitous large eyes and tiny triangular noses,

Manga stories actually have many more subtleties than their American counterparts, both in words and image. Seth studied the intricacies of manga, and wanted to go to a country where an adult could read a comic book in public without feeling the need to hide it behind a copy of Newsweek.

So he went there for the comics, but what he found there was life! He discovered a love for teaching. He loved his students and was loved back. He delighted in preparing interesting and funny lessons to help them learn. In the ocean there he became an expert diver and spearfisher. He immersed himself into the culture around him. He said in a letter,

In Japan for the first time in my life I am experiencing the thrill of being alive. Not in a trivial way…like a way that I think lots of people never feel… I can’t be sure of that, but there are times when I feel so complete…like I’ve reached a peak & I can stop searching for a meaning to life. It’s like a drug…I just want to hold out my arms & let the world crush me. Like I could bear any pain without a flinch…like I have found a place…. It sounds sort of silly maybe. But I see my place. And I see what is important is not to be found outside or on TV, but inside. I will be happy to die and happy to live.

One of his fellow teachers said of him later, “Seth was an innocent.” It is true; he assumed that everything people did to him they did out of love.

He filled his classes with surprises, and his extracurricular events pushed the boundaries just enough to make the girls giggle and say, “Can he really DO that?” On one occasion he invited the students in his English Club make skits in English which he videotaped. To show them what to do, the first video was of himself as “Sockman, Finder of Stolen Tissues”. The video began and ended in the hallway of his staid Japanese school, with several of his fellow teachers taking supporting roles. Under Seth’s influence they allowed themselves to be dressed in funny hats and do goofy stunts, even in front of their students. The camera follows Sockman into classrooms and the faculty room while he hunts for the perpetrator of the crime. Even the school principal has a cameo where he says in English, “Sockman is great!” (Seth said later that he tried to get the principal to wear a paper helmet, but he declined.)

Seth put together and illustrated a book of English lessons that had worked particularly well. He hoped to someday add to it and have it published, and so he sent it to other Japan English teachers, asking them to use and critique it for him. In his cover letter to them he wrote,

I do not, in fact, consider myself an English teacher by trade. I am an illustrator who took a small three year detour through Japan in my quest for personal and professional development. After three years of teaching English at a medium-sized rural Japanese high school, it was only a stern dedication to my craft that pulled me away from the fulfilling world of education….

That stern dedication to his craft was his continuing modus operandi. In 1996, during the time he was teaching English, Seth met Andrew Dabb online via a website that showcased aspiring comic creators’ work. They started talking, got along well, and decided to do a comic book together. They worked on a story they called “Happydale”, and a year or so later Seth had an 8-page mini-comic that gave a feel for the story to pitch to a publisher. It was initially accepted by Non-Line, a company that was publishing independent work. But a few months after they had signed a contract with Non-Line, it collapsed.

Instead of giving up, or taking the mini-comic around to other publishers, Seth wanted to try and sell the story whole. It took him about a year to draw 140 or so pages, an entire two-book story. Andrew Dabb says,

The end result was that a year later we had a publishing deal at Vertigo [a division of DC Comics] based pretty much entirely on Seth’s art and his incredibly cool, gracious personality. Not to mention his work ethic; for one panel in Happydale, which showed the undercarriage of a truck, I can remember him telling me how he had actually spent a few hours laying [sic] under a truck and sketching. It was that kind of dedication and eye for detail that made Seth stand out.

DC Comics’ Vertigo was as enthralled with Seth as Seth was with the success of his venture. But, though he wanted to draw comics, he had recently received an offer too good to refuse: a chance to work with a team of top-notch creative people at Presto, Inc. to develop the computer game MYST 3: Exile. He worked with Presto for the year it took to put Myst 3 together, drawing energy from collaboration with other artists whose minds were as quick and whose artistic goals were as high as his.

When the game was complete Seth went to DC Comics with an idea he had for a story. He says,

Willworld was conceived after I pitched a story idea with art samples to Joey Cavalieri at DC. We brainstormed and decided to use the art style as a starting point for a Hal Jordan story. I wanted a writer that would shrug off some of the spandex cliches that I was worried could limit my art, but still tackle the fantastic. I wanted it to be both surreal and yet grounded at the same time. Joey suggested Marc [DeMatteis], and we were off and running. Originally the idea was presented as a 48 page book, but I guess they liked the idea so much they wanted a full 96 pages. I think DC was unsure how I would deal with a superhero character, and they figured that Green Lantern was one that would be pretty flexible. There is a playfulness to Green Lantern that appeals to my sensibilities. Batman and Superman just take everything so seriously. I don't think they could handle Willworld.

After Willworld the DC editors knew that they could trust Seth to draw brilliantly and on schedule, and so they offered him some other superhero work. In 2000 they teamed him up with Jonathan Vankin, who—like Seth—had spent several years in Japan, to produce Vertigo Pop: Tokyo, a series that was set in Tokyo and celebrated Japanese pop culture. Then came Batman, after which Seth went to work for Marvel to do the Fantastic Four/Iron Man: Big in Japan series that—as Ben Morse said in Wizard Magazine—“served as his coming-out party to most mainstream fans”. He seemed inevitably on the cusp of widespread recognition, had he chosen to continue on the path he had embarked on.

A side effect of even moderate fame is fan mail. Seth often received letters from aspiring artists asking for advice and critiques of their work. He answered every letter, and gave realistic advice to those who needed help. To some, he wrote back after a few months to ask how they were doing. Justin Page, who wrote to Seth, said later,

I sent out letters to about 30 artists whose work I admired. Only four answered, and of those, Seth’s response was the only one that was both polite and encouraging.

After he and Justin became friends Seth said that he had not wanted to tell him how hard it was to actually make a living as an artist, because he did not want to discourage him in any way. Justin is now making a living both as an artist and representative for other artists.

Nobody knows exactly why Seth was on the hotel rooftop that evening in late January of 2006, in Osaka. His wife Hisako and their young son Tofu were at her mother’s house so that Seth could have quiet to finish the work on the Big in Japan series. When he finished he took the train to Osaka to celebrate at a club he knew about where he could dance and let go. But he had always liked rooftops. His friends learned later that he had spent time on the roofs of buildings when he was in college too. He hated the idea that he was uncomfortable around heights, and he challenged himself to do what he feared, to not let fear have power over him. So there he was, seven stories up, on a rainy evening. It was in his nature to push the boundaries, but to stay in control. His best friend Langdon Foss says,

Seth would never take chances that would result in his death. Whatever happened, it was the one chance in one thousand that happens to a guy hanging out on a roof.

The following morning he was found dead on the pavement below.

Langdon goes on,

His long-term goals were not so much professional or artistic; he wanted to help the world. If that meant becoming a good artist, he would. If that meant learning to understand people to the point where he could call anybody in the world his friend, that’s what he would do. I think the greatest loss here is not the loss of a fine visual artist, but of an incredibly compassionate man who wanted to help humanity. Seth was on the street, in the club—he was loving people. That’s what he was all about.

by Vicki Sheridan, Seth's mother