Propaganda is Spent
Joe Matt’s been teetering on the edge of complete personality breakdown for as long as I’ve been reading him. And his work has always been just as brilliant, disturbing, intense and fascinating as Dorkins. Of course, there’s always a question with these works as to the veracity of the artist’s real personality and I’ve always felt with Matt that he puts on a persona for his autobiographical comics. He must, surely, pick out the most dysfunctional and disturbing aspects of his life to put down upon the page? Surely?
Because there’s an awful lot not to like about Joe Matt and his work. As the perfect summary strip on the back page tells you; he’s a pathetic whiner, obsessed with pornography, a chronic masturbator, horribly cheap and not exactly the ideal friend or boyfriend. It’s very, very hard to have any sympathy with the author here.
But this is the comic equivalent of a personal train wreck. As vile as Matt portrays himself, you just can’t help watching. In fact, there are many reports of how nice Joe Matt, the person is. But Joe Matt the comic character is almost without appeal.
Spent is broken down into four chapters with two of them effectively an extended conversation between Joe and his friends and the other two dealing with Joe’s life, his obsessional nature and his porn collection – a painstakingly edited series of “best of” tapes that take him hours and hours of work.
His prickly relationship with his friends, his Scrooge-like way with money, his inability to just get on with work and the obsessional masturbating and porno collecting is unpleasant and disturbing throughout. When he starts to analyse himself we’re left looking at a very fragile and tormented artist but like so many aspects of Matt’s life it’s difficult to stop reading, and we the readers are equally obsessed with finding out just where he’s going to go with all this. And the simple answer is nowhere. Matt the comics character hasn’t really changed or developed since his first appearance as a whiny, self-obsessed, selfish, obsessional, pornography obsessed masturbator.
“and then there’s my current storyline….. once again I haven’t a clue what I’m doing. It’s not even a story, just page after page of me whining about porn…. At some point the reader’s going to realize that it’s going nowhere, that they’ll be no payoff, no epiphany, no nothing.”
Yet it’s testament to Matt the cartoonist’s skill as both writer and artist that I’m still following his work. Matt’s writing is confessional, conversational and above all; fascinating. His artwork goes from strength to strength. Gone is the interesting but flawed obsession with tiny panels and a huge information overload on each page. It’s been replaced by a gorgeous open and spacious 8 panels per page layout full of detail and expression. Each panel has obviously taken Matt agonising hours to complete.
And this leads us onto Matt the cartoonist and his aversion to getting work in front of us with any regularity. Since starting Peepshow back in 1992, he’s managed to generate a body of work consisting of 4 books from 16 issues. His work rate is glacial and it’s his obsessional nature and failure to focus on his work that’s to blame. Matt is, like Dorkin, an artist who repeatedly and consistently fails to see his talent for what it is, preferring to be overly critical to the point at which it harms his work.
(A little self analysis time from Joe. Page from Spent, art by Joe Matt, published Drawn & Quarterly.)
In the page above we have the quintessential Joe Matt problem that both point out why he’s so difficult to like and yet so impossible to resist. The torment that he puts himself through is morbidly fascinating:
“If only I weren’t so goddamn weak and lazy. I can barely even call myself a cartoonist anymore. My productivity has been steadily declining for years – from a snail’s pace to a complete standstill.
Instead of growing as an artist, I’m just squandering what little talent I have. It’s no wonder I never win any stupid awards…..
What happened to me? Where’s my ambition?”
There’s a telling exchange in chapter 4 with his publisher at Drawn & Quarterly. Somehow they keep putting up with the prevaricating and the lies about when the work is due and keep putting Matt’s work out in some of the best looking books around. But sadly, I doubt Matt himself will ever look at them with anything but regret and despair.
It’s not an easy or comfortable ride liking Joe Matt. But it’s an intriguing and fascinating look into someone’s artistic and personal life. I’d definitely recommend you pick up his work and join me in watching a tortured soul flagellate himself for our pleasure and amusement.
Richard Bruton is a lifelong comics fan and former Comic Book Store Guy; you can read more of his thoughts on comics and life on his blog Fictions.