I don’t care who you are, what you do, where you’re at, where you’ve been, or where you’re going — reading the disarmingly confessional comics presented in Joe Matt’s fourth volume of work collected from his late (and lamented) Drawn & Quarterly-published solo series Peep Show, a volume fittingly titled Spent, will leave you feeling pretty damn good both about yourself and your lot in life.
Not because Matt is a master of “self-help” motivational pablum, mind you — just the opposite. In fact, I can pretty much guarantee that unless you’re living under a bridge and slowly, painfully, starving to death, your life is better than Matt’s was at the time he wrote and drew the material that eventually became this book. He lived in a shit rooming house, worked very little, had almost no money (and clung to what little he did have like a miser), saw almost nothing of his friends, was obsessing over a particularly nasty breakup with his ex-girlfriend, and his “hobbies” were collecting old Gasoline Alley comic strips, editing together the “best” scenes from various porn flicks into eight-and ten-hour VHS compilation tapes, and jerking off, quite literally, all the goddamn time (there’s a reason there’s toilet paper all over the floor on the cover).
See? You’re not such a loser after all, are you? All that being said, while Spent isn’t exactly an enjoyable book to work your way through, it’s definitely an engrossing one — in the same way, I suppose, that train wrecks are. And while it helps that Matt’s clean, cartoonish art style is very pleasing to the eye and that the author seems to be not only fully aware of, but as downright repulsed by, his own numerous personal shortcomings as we are, make no mistake — this is a grim record of a guy who’s hit rock bottom and is too disinterested at this point to even lift himself back up. It’s a heady stew of depression, immaturity, egocentrism, and inertia, all wrapped up in a toxic bundle of self-loathing that’s enough to make Robert Crumb look like “Mr. Positive” in comparison, and when you consider that Matt’s best friends, legendary Canadian cartoonists Chester Brown and Seth, have actually said that he lets himself off pretty easy in his own work — well, the mind just plain boggles.
So, while it’s tempting to congratulate Matt for his fearlessness in airing out his own dirty laundry here, it’s also worth considering the very real possibility that he obsessively catalogues the mundanities of his own dead-end life for no other reason than that he’s simply so fucking lazy that he can’t be bothered to do the work that would be required to write and draw about anything else! All of which might make it sound like I’m being pretty hard on the poor guy — unless and until you read this book and realize that, if anything, I’m being rather generous with my assessment here.
Autobiographical material has always been something that appeals to a very small “niche market” in comics readership, most of whom would rather read about guys wearing tights and beating each other up (and yet Matt is considered a loser? Figure that one out), but even folks who are into autobio work will by and large find our guy Joe’s stuff to be, at the very least, thematically off-putting. I admit that it’s phrasing things very kindly indeed to simply say that his work is an “acquired taste,” and the fact that, God help me, I enjoy this stuff probably says a lot of things about my own psychology that would bear close examination and analysis if I had the time, money, or guts to pursue them — but like it I do, and quite a bit, at that. Maybe it’s the juxtaposition of such solidly-rendered, highly-accessible art (and I find mixing some greys and greens into the black-and-white mix, as D&Q have done in this handsome hardbound collection, really works even though it sure sounds like it shouldn’t) with such off-putting, inaccessible material that keeps me coming back to Matt’s work. Maybe I’m looking for someone to feel superior to and just chose an easy target. Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment. Or maybe I just like looking at train wrecks. Whatever the case may be, I’m definitely a Joe Matt fan — but I’d feel uneasy about shaking his hand if I ever met the guy, knowing where it’s been.
Postscript : Matt has moved on with his life, thankfully. He headed for LA some years back to pursue a possible HBO production deal for a TV show based on his work, and while it ultimately came to nothing, he has managed (somehow) to find himself a girlfriend and do some much-needed growing up. I’m friends with him on facebook (full disclosure) and he actually seems to be settling into middle age quite comfortably, even if it means (sadly) leaving comics behind (at least for the time being) and moving into freelance commissioned painting and illustration work. Hey — maybe there really is hope for any of us.