Toronto Star | James Grainger | June 24, 2007
SPENT in The Toronto Star
Joe Matt puts two real-life Canadian graphic novel stars, buddies both, right into the pitiless story of his own alter ego
Confession has long replaced wisdom, analysis and experience as the true measure of personal authenticity in the court of popular culture, as a slew of daytime talk fests and reality shows and tell-all memoirs will attest. The more secrets and sins that a fading or wannabe celebrity is willing to publicly confess, the better the chance of penetrating the collective consciousness and memory.
This being the case, graphic novelist Joe Matt may well be remembered for possessing one of the most authentic selves in history. For nearly 20 years, Matt's Peepshow comic has chronicled his sins and spectacular personal failures as a man, boyfriend and artist with an aggressive, clinical candour that borders on the pathological. From his pathetic stinginess to his obsessive masturbation habit, addiction to pornography and crass mistreatment of his long-suffering girlfriend, Matt lays it all on the page, apology-free.
Matt, a Philadelphia native who lived illegally for a number of years in Toronto, where his comics are set, has seen his work eclipsed by the success of what appears to be his only two friends, Ontarians both – Seth, whose nostalgia-infused illustrations regularly appear in The New Yorker and other magazines, and Chester Brown, author of such graphic novels as Ed the Happy Clown and Louis Riel.
The three friends launched their careers in the 1980s, part of a generation of graphic novelists who helped establish the genre as a legitimate highbrow art form. Matt's bleak subject matter and scant output have made him the least known of the trio but to some fans, such as myself, the most compelling.
The reasons for Matt's diminished artistic output are one of the three or four themes that tie together the narrative in his newest graphic novel, Spent, which collects the most recent four issues of Peepshow and may signal an end to the series' protracted Toronto storyline (Matt recently moved to Los Angeles).
Matt's on-paper alter ego is way behind on the latest instalment of Peepshow, a delay brought on by the energy-draining effects of masturbating at least five times a day and devoting too many working hours to bootlegging his favourite hardcore porno scenes (with all shots of the male actors' faces carefully edited out). He has long given up hope of reconciling with his ex-girlfriend, who never forgave him for publishing, in comics form, his detailed masturbation fantasies about her best friend. There are no romantic prospects on the horizon.
With his personal and professional life reduced to twin outputs of diminishing returns, Matt bickers in diners and bookstores with Seth and Chester, who try to tease him into turning his life around. Matt relentlessly punishes himself for his failures, only to deflect the blame onto anyone he's ever crossed paths with, including his mother and a girl who taunted him as a boy, before collapsing into nihilistic self-loathing, thereby initiating the whole cycle again.
What separates Matt from so many practitioners of the confessional art is his refusal to petition the reader's sympathies. He doesn't blame his emotional retardation on a crappy childhood (not completely), and on the few occasions that he attempts to transform his pathetic behaviour into sympathetic comedy, with a Seinfeldesque burst of glib irony or a self-deprecating one-liner, he draws the Joe Matt character with a wincing, grotesque smile clearly intended to repulse the reader.
If Matt were just a guy on the next barstool, blubbering to anyone who will listen, he'd cut a pathetic figure indeed. Luckily for us, he is an artist who takes remarkable care with his work. Matt's clean, jaunty lines hearken back to the Golden Age of the Sunday funnies, creating an unnerving disconnect between his graphic subject matter and nostalgic aesthetic. Spent is pure comic book art, the individual panels nudging the plot (such as it is) forward with dramatic compression.
Matt also plays with the story's content and form by reminding the reader that they are holding a comic book whose creator, for all his gormless self-absorption, has carefully chosen only those autobiographical incidents that best serve the drama unfolding on the page. In one scene he even comments on the very comic the reader has just finished reading, calling it "page after page of (Matt) whining about porn. It's masturbation in comic form."
It's hard to guess whether Matt really believes his work is just "masturbation in comic form" or is deflecting potential criticism by acknowledging its limitations. But this ambiguity, this continual guessing at what could possibly motivate a man to so tirelessly catalogue his own failings, is one of the many reasons to return to Matt's work.