LA Times | David L. Ulin | July 24, 2007
SPENT in LA Times
Comics have a curious relationship to truth. Although the genre has its roots in fantasy, it's a vivid, autobiographical medium, in which the combination of words and pictures draws us in. Will Eisner, Harvey Pekar and Art Spiegelman all told stories about their lives years before the current vogue for graphic self-expression; now, younger artists such as Alison Bechdel and Adrian Tomine explore fundamental questions of identity and self.
Still, for all their immediacy, comics raise issues of authenticity, of the relationship of the page to the world. Even the most minutely rendered panel is an extrapolation, an impression — a visual metaphor. That was the idea behind Spiegelman's decision to frame Jews as mice and Nazis as cats in his Holocaust memoir-in-comics "Maus." If other artists aren't necessarily that explicit, their intent is similar in the end.
This, of course, is true of virtually all narrative nonfiction, but with comics, the tension is heightened by the inherent artifice of the form. It's tricky to write about your experience in a medium driven almost entirely by little drawings, in which you represent yourself in caricature. What's real? What's illusion? The beauty is you can't quite tell.
Joe Matt's "Spent" is a perfect example of this dynamic, a self-portrait that exposes its author's secrets even as it heightens them for dramatic effect. This has been Matt's stock-in-trade since his first book, "Peep Show," came out in 1991; influenced by Chester Brown and R. Crumb ("Spent" is dedicated to Crumb, "for showing me the way"), he portrays himself as a kind of everyman loser — neurotic, porn-addicted and utterly unwilling to grow up.
It's a solipsistic universe, one in which Matt (or his comic book alter ego) exists in a never-ending state of childhood. "I've barely changed," he notes in "Spent." "Even this room looks pretty much the same as my childhood one — full of toys and comic books. Somehow I've managed to avoid almost all of the trappings of adulthood — a regular job … wife and kids … a house … a car…. "
For Matt the character, this is something of a victory statement, a celebration of integrity. For his creator, it's a bit more fraught, because "Spent" is almost devoid of meaningful relationships. The self Matt presents in these pages is isolated, unable to break free of his bad habits and make contact with the world. "It's lonely in here," he admits at one point, in his boardinghouse room. "I feel like a prisoner in solitary confinement … just rotting away."
That's an exaggeration, like the character Charlie Kaufman in the movie "Adaptation"; were Matt this dysfunctional, he never could have produced this book, and yet, as in a work like "Adaptation," that's part of the purpose, to illuminate by embellishment, to reveal the truth by taking it to extremes.
"I was purposely showing my own shallowness!" Matt tells a friend who calls him on the casual cruelty of an earlier comic, in which he described betraying his (now ex-) girlfriend of many years. "Plus I exaggerated everything for the sake of the comic!" It's a telling statement — perhaps the most telling one in the book — with its implication that a related process is at work here.
Unfortunately, no matter how acutely rendered, a solipsistic universe is a solipsistic universe, as airtight as Matt's room. And as "Spent" progresses, it starts to feel claustrophobic, less a memoir than a particularly fixated bit of diary-keeping, with every indiscretion cataloged.
It's not the material that is the issue; literature has long been informed by obsession, self-indulgence, going back to Thomas de Quincey and Laurence Sterne. But unlike those writers, or even the so-called transgressive novelists (William S. Burroughs, Kathy Acker, Alexander Trocchi), Matt ultimately has no focus larger than himself.
To be truly transgressive, an artist needs to find the commonality that makes antisocial or even dangerous behavior universal, that allows us to enter his or her world.
Clearly, this is Matt's intention; at the end of "Spent," he declares, "I need something to give meaning to this stupid life of mine … otherwise what the hell is it all for?" It's a valid question, but coming so late, it feels less like a revelation than a dodge. "At some point," he writes, describing a project that, one must assume, is this very volume, "the reader's going to realize that it's going nowhere … that there'll be no payoff … no epiphany … no nothing. And then what?" [article continues]