SPENT shoot-out on Newsarama

Newsarama Review - Spent

Newsarama    |    Joe Matt    |    August 15, 2007

Be warned: The book under review is for mature readers. As such, some parts of this review discuss mature subjects. If such things bother you, read no further. SPOILERS are on.

We’re in something of an autobiographical graphic novel—autobiographic novel?—boom at the moment, with new must-reads coming out like clock work. Cartoonists seem to make for great subjects too, because so many of them can be so…well, let’s say idiosyncratic. To choose two favorites for examples, Harvey Pekar has made a long career out of chronicling the life of a cantankerous Cleveland crank, and Jeffrey Brown launched his by detailing his often quite pathetic love life.

Well, if Spent is to be believed, Joe Matt makes the two of them seem among the more well-adjusted people you’ve ever read a comic book about.

He spends the eight years Spent covers living illegally in Toronto, Canada to avoid paying taxes as he strives to save up enough money to live off the interest, which necessarily makes him cheaper than Scrooge McDuck, and a leads him to live what seems like a pretty miserable life.

His “job” seems to be that of a cartoonist, though he does relatively little cartooning.

What does he do? Well, he masturbates. A lot. That’s where the title of the book comes from, in fact. And he meticulously, obsessively, insanely dubs pornography tapes. Borrowing tapes of porn movies from his friend and using two VCRs, he copies them, but only the good parts, carefully editing out all the story or shots of dude’s faces and asses. At the mid-way point of the graphic novel, he’s accrued 184 hours of such self-dubbed, greatest hits porn.

Two of Best Shots’ finest — Michael C. Lorah and J. Caleb Mozzocco — sit down to parse this mature-readers TPB. Welcome to the Shoot Out.

Mike: I wasn’t sure what to expect, as Joe Matt’s reputation is something of a mixed bag. For everybody who likes his work, there’s somebody who calls him the poster child for self-indulgent autobio cartoonists. I’ve only read a few short stories prior to this, and I wasn’t in love with anything I read, but I wasn’t turned off either. I can’t say that anything else he’s done really stuck with me for longer than it took to flip past the last page. That said, although I wasn’t quite in love with Spent, it was certainly very entertaining. Matt’s cartooning is very clear and his characters easy to recognize and “read,” and the dialogue is convincing.

Caleb: It’s certainly a nice-looking book. Like the best graphic novels, it’s a nicelydesigned package, and I like everything about it. The way it looks on a shelf, the way it looks sitting on a coffee table, the cartoon on the back, and, obviously, the interior art.

Mike: Oh yeah, it’s a beautiful book. Matt and Drawn & Quarterly really did a great job assembling it. The appeal of the package is what put me over the top and convinced me to read this – it’s a far cry from the standard-trade-dress, six-issue standard of most book-sized comics. They really put some effort into making an attractive product.

Caleb: If you’ve read a couple of Matt stories, then I guess that puts you a little ahead of me going in. I know the blogsosphere had been buzzing a bit about the book, but honestly I’d never read anything from Joe Matt, so I went in with very low expectations, and I was really caught off guard with just how good it was.

The whole thing was pretty hilarious, and I found it oddly uplifting.

Like, everyone feels like a failure sometimes. I know if I’ve just, um, pleasured myself (Heh; I just realized I have no idea what the guidelines for talking about masturbation on Newsarama are) after an hour of looking at free Internet porn, I’ll have this horrible feeling that I’ve wasted a significant portion of time on something that’s really kinda sad, when I could have been doing something more productive, like drawing my own dusty comics project that spiders are building webs on atop my drawing board, or gone out and tried to meet a girl.

Or, if I’ve done it two or three times in a day, I’ll berate myself with a “Jesus Caleb, you’re 30 and you’re masturbating like a teenager!”

And, hey, who doesn’t look around their one-bedroom apartment full of longboxes and unpaid bills and think, “Is this all I’ve amounted to?”

So reading Joe Matt’s tale made me feel fantastic! Sure, I might jerk off twice daily, but I’ve never done it 20 times in one day, like Matt. I might not own a house or live in a posh pad with a girlfriend, but hey, at least I’m not pissing in a bottle in my closet to avoid running into a housemate I despise, like Matt. So thanks Joe Matt, for reminding me it could be soooo much worse!

The flip side of this, of course, is that as you’re reading about this misanthropic, sad little asshole, you can’t help but see yourself in him here and there, and that can be kinda scary.

Mike: Well, I own a home with my girlfriend and pay all my bills on time, but yeah, I still see plenty of me in Joe Matt. It’s pretty scary that you can feign responsibility and still recognize the obsessive-compulsive, anti-social, excessively judgmental masturbator at the core of your self when confronted with Spent!

What really made the book work for you? My favorite parts were mostly Matt’s conversations with fellow cartoonists Seth and Chester. I thought he did a great job capturing their personalities and interactions. The conversations were breezy and hilarious, particularly the way that they antagonize each other, and you can see why these guys are friends despite their disagreements. It surprised me that, despite Matt being the “loser,” he gets to one-up Seth and Chester as often as they get something over on him. Hell, he gets the last laugh in the diner scene!

Also, the scene of Matt dubbing together porno “best of” tapes had me crying with laughter. The scene is a few pages too long and he kind of kills it, but the initial moment (kind of sickening, kind of “oh, that’s brilliant”) when you realize what he’s doing is among my favorite comic moments.

Caleb: I agree the best part was the long section in the diner with his fellow cartoonists. That scene was 30 pages long, with six panels on every page, and could have gone on forever, and still would have seemed too short, I think.

And yeah, the first time he starts dubbing—pages 47 to 51—I had no idea what was going on, and it was with a kind of creeping horror that it dawned on me exactly what he was doing. It goes on sooo long that I eventually was just skimming the bubbles, but I think that’s what made it so damn hilarious. Just reading a partial reenactment seemed tedious as all hell, my mind boggles at what it would take to actually come up with the amount he had at the end.

Mike: That’s true. I hadn’t thought of it that way. Haha!

Now, I said I wasn’t quite in love with it, so I must admit that I wish Matt indulged in less existential bemoaning of his fate. I guess I see where other readers might find those portions amusing, but I didn’t. Matt’s social interactions kept me turning the pages, but most of his “alone time” slogged the pace of the book down, I felt. I just found the “woe is me, I like porn and can’t get a girl” sequences to be - not awful or impossible to get through, but they’re much less entertaining than Matt’s social interactions. His dialogue and ability to pace the social scenes sell them so convincingly, and illustrate all of his failings so clearly, that to belabor the point by having him stand around, dwelling on such thoughts (in his little thought balloons) just enforces a point that was made much more effectively elsewhere. He’s already made the point in a much more hilarious fashion elsewhere, you know?

Does his artwork remind you of anybody in particular? It’s very open and appealing work, and I really enjoyed the simplicity of the pages. He captures the characters’ annoyance, discomfort, amusement and everything in between with such convincing ease that I was pulled right into every page.

Caleb: Heh, yeah it did.

Okay, I read the first few pages where our hero and his friend are in a used book shop looking for old books of cartoons, and not only does the art look familiar, but the guy he’s hanging out with looks familiar, and his little rant about things having been better in the past than they are now sounded familiar, and I had a weird “Holy crap!” moment when I realized that Joe Matt, or his comics avatar, is hanging out with Seth, or his comics avatar, whom I recognized from It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken.

Later, Chester spends time with them, and that’s the same Chester who was in Seth’s It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Waken>. He’s a cartoonist too. Is that Chester Burns? That’s the only Chet or Chester I see on Drawn and Quarterly’s homepage, but Burns doesn’t look much like the Chester in Spent.

Mike: I believe it’s Chester Brown, author of Louis Riel [Editor: He’s correct. You can also see more of Chester Brown in Yummy Fur].

Caleb: I see. What was weird about it to me was that it somehow made the autobio aspect of this comic more forceful (and, retroactively, that of It’s a Good Life…), because there were now multiple autobio sources reflecting the fact that, you know, Seth really dresses like that, really rants about that stuff, and so forth.

To use a nerdy analogy, reading that first scene was a lot like reading an old Marvel Comic, where the “shared universe” of the MU would be underscored by Spider-Man teaming up with the Fantastic Four or something. I got a sense of a “Drawn and Quarterly Universe” reading some of these scenes.

Mike: I haven’t read It’s A Good Life yet. I’ll have to make it a priority now. That’s very cool.

Caleb: Now if Drawn and Quarterly could just publish a monthly Drawn and Quarterly Team-Up…

Anyway, Matt’s art, yeah, it honestly reminded me of Seth’s quite a bit—which added to that “Holy crap!” moment of déjà vu)—and which is perhaps unavoidable given the coloring, the publisher, and the fact that Seth is standing right there through much of it.

I also though about Joe Sacco a lot, mainly because Matt’s opaque glasses look so much like Sacco’s.

Mike: Sacco’s a good comparison. Sacco with Mike Allred’s thick outlines.

Like I said initially, I didn’t quite love it. At its best, Spent was hilarious. At its worst, it’s a little self-indulgent (for my tastes). Matt tries to deflect that complaint a little bit, by noting right in the book that some people will complain that the book doesn’t have a “big message,” but I’m not asking for a big message. I’m perfectly content to laugh at Joe Matt’s (hopefully) exaggerated social foibles – with fellow cartoonists or with his terrifying landlady! Those scenes make the book sing. In the end, however, I’m glad I read it, so I guess that says a lot. Spent is hilarious, and I do recommend it, but I hope Joe Matt realizes that he made his grand statement without needing to spell it out.

Caleb: It’s definitely a weird book to recommend to people. I think you have to know who you’re recommending it to pretty well before you encourage people to read it.

As for the message, I kind of liked the punchline of the only thing Matt really seems to love—his cat—literally shitting all over him at the end. Things do get kinda meta when we see him drawing scenes we’d already read, and he talks about whether they work or not, but I think the accomplishment is the message itself. As bleak, sad and meaningless as so much of Matt’s life was, in the end he did draw a very nice-looking, very funny cartoon book out of it, and we two—who have never met him—spent some time laughing at it and feeling somewhat superior. So that’s something.

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