Posts Tagged ‘Joe Matt’

 

So, yeah, here it is, the end of my “Comix Month” that went on for three — no, make that four months — and that still actually isn’t really all that over with since I’ll continue with the Before Watchmen reviews I’ve been doing (in fact, another one of those will be coming up this weekend) as long as I’m still picking those books up, but the fact is we’ll be moving back into film reviews for the most part starting on Monday. But hey, as far as comics/comix go, I did save one of the best of the bunch for “last,” so without any further ado let’s take a look at legendary Yummy Fur and Louis Riel writer/artist Chester Brown’s latest hardcover opus, his flat-out disarmingly matter-of-fact accounting of his time as a patron of the world’s oldest profession, Paying For It, subtitled, appropriately enough, A Comic-Strip Memoir About Being A John

First off, before we even tackle the subject matter here, let me say this about Brown’s ever-evolving art style — if you loved the detailed cross-hatching so prominent in Louis Riel, a lot of that’s gone here, replaced instead with a really strong use of inky blacks and frankly it fits his theme — Brown seems to have moved on from a world where things are indeed quite shaded to one where things are pretty solid, pretty black-and-white, in his mind. His attention to detail is getting more and more meticulous yet he’s doing it with fewer pencil-and brush-strokes than he used to, which is also reflected in his writing, as that’s grown more and more economic, shall we say, as his career as progressed, as well. So if we had to choose two words to describe this book’s overall aesthetic, they would be frank and direct.

 

As you’ve probably managed to figure out by now, this book, Brown’s first-ever work not to be serialized in an ongoing standard-comics format, is an autobiographical account of his, shall we say, “journey” from guy in a relationship to guy who pays for sex to, finally, guy who still pays for sex and has come to view romantic love as not only unattainable, but flat-out undesirable, as well. It’s an interesting philosophical “progression,”(if that’s the word we want to use), and while it gets to be a bit of a polemic, Brown never seems overly preachy simply because he’s always so calmly matter-of-fact about everything. His good friend, fellow Canadian cartoonist and Drawn Quarterly “stablemate” Seth (who features quite prominently in theses pages as does Spent creator Joe Matt) has taken to calling Brown “The Robot” over the years (one of many interesting facts revealed in Brown’s extensive and thoroughly engaging footnotes section at the end of the book — as always with Brown’s work, this section is where half of the real “action” in the book is to be found and shouldn’t be skipped over under any circumstances), and it’s easy to see why — he’s so clinically, even bluntly,  objective about pretty much everything, most especially his own life, that it’s almost dizzying at times.

All of which isn’t to say that most readers will find themselves in agreement with every argument Brown is advancing here, or that his frankness and objectivity (both in the literary and visual senses) can’t be pretty off-putting in and of itself at times (for instance, Brown displays few, if any qualms after patronizing a prostitute who could very well be underage — he does have a brief moment of semi-queasiness about it, but he sees her again anyway, and is simply willing to take her word for it when he asks if she’s 18, and he certainly doesn’t glamorize his sexual encounters with any of his paid-for partners in any way, with most appearing quite repetitious, no faces of the women ever being shown, and Brown drawing himself as, in the terrific words of another online reviewer, “a praying mantis with testicles”), but he certainly earns points for absolute philosophical consistency, if nothing else.

I’ll be honest — I’m not sure how persuasive Brown’s overall arguments will prove to be to folks on either side of the prostitution issue. I went into the book believing it should be legal and came out feeling the exact same way. On the other side of the coin, sorry Chester, but I still believe that good, old-fashioned romantic love is a worthy ideal and one worth striving for. Life, in fact, would seem to be pretty empty to me without it. But Brown does do an effective job of charting his own thought “progression” (again with the quotation marks) on the issue, beginning with the ending of his long-term relationship with well-known Canadian performance artist/dancer/actress/television presenter Sook-Yin Lee and ending with his return to a monogamous relationship, albeit one in which he still pays for sex on principal alone, with a former prostitute he identifies solely as “Denise.” He admits he even loves Denise at the book’s conclusion (be forewarned this book doesn’t have an “ending” so much as it just stops at a certain point in Brown’s life), but that he still thinks all sex should be paid for directly and that monogamy should always be a purely individual decision and that just because one partner in a relationship (of whatever sort) chooses to be monogamous doesn’t mean they have they have the right to expect that the other person in that relationship should be, as well.

It’s all interesting, even downright fascinating, to contemplate this stuff in theory, but most readers, myself included, will find it pretty hard to relate to many aspects of Brown’s outlook simply because we can’t divorce sex from emotion in the same way that he so clearly has. So be prepared to be challenged here, and don’t expect to agree with, or even to be able to relate to, all of Brown’s outlook here,  even if you’re sympathetic to pretty good chunks of it. Like all the best art, this is provocative stuff that has the ability to get you to look at the very nature of human interrelations in a new way. Whether it changes your mind on anything is almost beside the point — the fact is, Brown’s much more interested in simply relating how and why he thinks as he does and how he came to see things in that way than he is in getting you or me to change our minds. Chances are you’ll end up really enjoying Paying For It — I certainly did — but the absolute truth of the matter is that even if you don’t, you’ll still walk away from this work respecting what Brown’s done here. That’s pretty remarkable in and of itself, don’cha think?

 

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.