Pop Matters | Brian Bethel | August 8, 2007
SPENT reviewed by Pop Matters
To be honest, it at times seems unfair to me that Joe Matt should be so well-known in the world of comics. He produces work at a sluggish pace, only writes about himself, and verbally begs his readers for pity and endearment. At this point in his career, Matt is more a personality than an author. Most people read his work not for its aesthetic value, but to know what’s going on in Matt’s own life. One might even say his works have garnered so many fans, and notably so many fans similar to Matt himself, because reading about his life assures a certain boost in the reader’s self-confidence about their own. Yet at the same time, reading Matt’s work constantly reduces the reader to Matt’s own level. Matt’s comics problematically document his voyeurism by appealing to our own.
Matt and his fellow Canadian graphic novelists Seth and Chester Brown alternately exemplify the traits and mindset of the obsessed collector: the middle-aged male who combines a love of his own childhood (and the past in general) and a somewhat self-centered sexual obsession with a hatred of the charismatic people of the modern world. While Brown captures the haunting childhood memories in works such as The Playboy and I Never Liked You, and Seth captures the decline of old-timey idealism in Clyde Fans, Matt, though similar to his compatriots in interest and temperament, focuses almost exclusively on the contempt and sexual self-obsession.
Through his ongoing series Peepshow, compiled first in The Poor Bastard and now in Spent, Matt has primarily documented A) his hatred of himself and others, and B) his near-constant masturbation and obsession with porn. While Matt gleefully focuses on his every flaw, he seeks neither personal redemption nor a deep insight into his own character. His work documents his exploits as a total jerk but doesn’t attempt to explain or soften them. At one point in Spent, Matt complains: “If I knew why I was the way I am, wouldn’t I not even be that way?” Matt’s comics lead to the question: why relentlessly portray yourself as a jerk, if you seek neither to improve yourself nor to redeem yourself to a greater public?
Reading Matt’s comics with this in mind leads to questioning the purpose of their very existence. His works straddle tendencies toward sentimentality, self-obsession, bitter sincerity, and regretful longing, but can never swing in one direction long enough to achieve a definite meaning. Spent, though it compiles nearly ten years worth of comics, remains ambiguous in aim. Perhaps Matt wants to justify his loneliness—to give himself an audience that will help to balance out his own sense of voyeurism. And yet his work remains eerily tied to events within his own life, enough to demolish any definite sense of insightful removal. When Matt laments the loss of his ex-girlfriend, is it with the hope that she might read the strip and take him back? When he longs for a new one, is he thinking that one might phone him up after reading his work? Matt’s comics seem to promise a detached judgment of himself but end up blending uncomfortably with actual events, at times feeling like some sort of public diary.
So how has Matt managed to keep making comics for the past 15 years that focus exclusively on himself and his endless disappointments? Doesn’t art involve some sort of risk, some sort of extension of oneself beyond one’s own life? At one point in Spent, Matt disparages his own body of work to such an extent that he nearly persuades his readers of the lack of its worth, complaining: “At some point, the reader’s going to realize that it’s going nowhere . . . that there’ll be no payoff . . . no epiphany . . . no nothing. And then what?” Spent in many ways seems to be the climax of this line of thinking. But the answer seems to be a positive one.
Over the past 15 years, Matt has somehow managed to make a series entirely out of his flaws and failures, and to make it interesting and engaging enough to earn a devoted readership. Despite the fact that the art, language, and technique aren’t particularly original or inventive, his readers keep reading, and likely will continue reading for some time. Matt, through his documentation of his life as a loser and a voyeur, ultimately exposes his readers as voyeurs themselves, unable to put down his work be it because they want to ensure themselves of their own self-worth, or because they pity Matt in all his failures.
The trick that Joe Matt plays on us all is that, even though in one scene he devotes four pages to his taping and editing of a porn video entitled Anal Clinic, he is still less voyeuristic than the reader, who actually reads those four pages and continues onward. Matt, as a self-designed loser, has actually garnered himself an audience, which in fact shows that no matter how lonely his stories may be they have enough merit to attract a large fan base. In reading his works, we are always more voyeuristic than Matt himself. While Joe Matt continues to withhold meaningful insight into his own ample flaws, his work at best reveals that we are not as above him as we might think.