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Smiling Through The Pain: a Joe Matt interview

by Antonio Solinas

Leggi l'intervista in italiano

Hi Joe, your Poor Bastard collection has just come out in Italy. Do you want to introduce yourself to your Italian fans?

Hello, Italy! My people! Iīm a quarter Italian... my motherīs father was pure Italian! I love your food... and the girl that Iīm most currently crushing over, here in LA, is also Italian.
So, thanks for everything good and Italian in this world!

In Peepshow, you portray yourself as poor, lacking motivation and with low self-esteem. Does the fact that your comics get translated in foreign countries give you any sense of gratification?

Having my work translated gives me IMMENSE satisfaction! In some ways, I always feel under-appreciated, here in America, mostly because film and TV are so overvalued.

In one of the last Peepshow issues published, you seemed to be a bit dissatisfied with your early comics and Poor Bastard in particular. How do you feel about the book, now?

I feel that my earlier work is inferior, mostly on a visual level. My style was more grotesque... I drew hands and feet larger... and also, as a writer, I didnīt entertain nearly as many options, panel by panel, as I do today.

When did you first conceive the idea of portraying your private life in Peepshow?

It was around the summer of 1987 that I began my first, real comic pages with an eye on publication. Prior to that, Iīd merely drawn daily diary entries in sketchbooks.

How did your style as a storyteller develop, from young comic fan to witer/artist of a cult comic like Peepshow? Which influences did you draw from?

I credit my good friends and fellow-cartoonists, Chester Brown and Seth, with opening my eyes to a level of storytelling that, previous to meeting them, I had never entertained.

There is a big difference between indie creators in America/Canada and Italy. In fact, Italian indie creators generally disregard mainstream comics, while these seem to be a major influence on English-speaking creators. Is that correct? How important were superhero comics in your formation?

Almost every American cartoonist that I know (male ones anyway) grew up reading, collecting and loving superhero comics. Itīs pretty universal and all-pervasive over here. I, personally, never felt capable of drawing in that style. The anatomy... the muscles... itīs always seemed out of my reach. So, I never really aspired to work for the mainstream companies, such as DC or Marvel.
Also, once I discovered Crumb, Raw magazine, Cerebus, The Hernandez Brothers, etc... the most important thing seemed to be ownership and control of oneīs work... more so than working in any particular genre.
And as for superhero comics, they were simply what I liked in my twenties. Prior to them, I grew up loving Peanuts, Little Lulu, Barkīs duck stories, Dennis the Menace, etc... and as I outgrew superhero comics, I rediscovered all of these earlier loves and embraced them fully.

All the Peepshow issues are set in Canada (although there are flashbacks of when you were actually living in the US). Why did you move to Canada and did this influence you artistically?

I moved to Canada in late 1987 and stayed there for over 13 years. I love Canada.
Artistically, as Iīve said, just knowing and being around superior cartoonists like Chester Brown and Seth influenced me dramatically. Much like improving oneīs chess game -- the quickest way is simply to play against and be around superior talent.
I cannot overstate the value of simply being near like-minded individuals. One is exposed to innumerable, unexpected things, as well as inspired in countless ways. Also, a friendly, competitive atmosphere is always beneficial as well.

In Peepshow, your friends Seth and Chester Brown appear as well. When did you guys become friends? Although it’s not discussed in the comic, did you guys influence one another in any way, from an artistic point of view?

I met both Chester and Seth around 1990, I believe. And I was already a fan of Chesterīs work, as he was of mine. In fact, Chester has said that I inspired him to work in autobiography.
As for my work though, I can clearly see the influence of both of their work on mine.
In Fair weather, I definitely was trying to be more like Chester... things like a few silent panels of me riding my bike are directly influenced by Chesterīs The Playboy and I Never Liked You. (embarrassingly so)
Even in Spent, itīs no coincidence that I depict myself, alone in my room, talking aloud to myself. Seth had already portrayed his characters in Clyde Fans doing the same thing. Even his decision to use word balloons, as opposed to thought balloons, was freely lifted by myself.
And these are just two examples that immediately come to mind. Iīm certain there are countless others.

I noticed that your approach to the depiction of Seth and Brown became increasingly more sarcastic (or ironic, if you want), over the course of Peepshow. How did this happen? How did the two react to this?

Seth HAS always picked on me in real life. I merely focus on this tendency of his because I find it funny.
Chester, on the other hand, is less of a good comic character. Heīs quiet, agreeable, and very well behaved. I still donīt know what to do with him! Iīll be attempting to show other aspects of him in my next book.
As for their reactions to my depictions of them, both Chester and Seth seem to understand that my primary focus is on myself and as long as Iīm willing to show myself in a worst light than them, theyīre pretty accommodating.

During the course of Peepshow, your graphic style changed a bit, becoming more graphic, in a sense. How did this style change come about? When did you decide to add a third colour to black and white and why?

My style became simpler in Spent because I drew it almost ”size as.” The artwork was only reduced 85%.
Working smaller forced me to simplify. And the reason I chose to work smaller, in the first place, was because of Art Spiegelmanīs Maus, which I still consider to be the high mark of the comics medium.

You did little work in mainstream comics, and, as far as I understand, you were not happy with how things went. During Peepshow you seem adamant about the fact that you don’t want to work for mainstream comic publishers anymore. Is this still the case, or would you be open to mainstream gigs, presently?

I only colored mainstream books for money. To me, it was just a job.
What Iīm truly adamant about is not having to work on things I donīt own or care about. I donīt see the point, except for the money. And the money never seems good enough anyway.
Not that Iīm not adverse to taking a well-paying gig. No one ever offers me one, so Iīm fine.
Also, the only coloring that Iīm capable of is painted-color, which is now antiquated and obsolete. I donīt even own a computer, let alone know how to color on one.
Also, if I were to pursue other venues of income, Iīd be more likely to pursue writing for television than coloring mainstream comic books again.

Do you get to meet many fans of yours? What kind of reactions do you get to your comics?

I meet plenty of fans at comic conventions or book signings. Usually, theyīre surprised that I donīt appear miserable. I always say ”Iīm smiling through the pain.” and itīs true.
Also, most of my readers are male. Iīve only tried dating female fans twice, with disastrous effects. Iīm more of a curiosity, than anything, to my female readers.

You collect Gasoline Alley and other strips. Do you follow present comics as well? What do you read now?

I do follow present comics, although I usually get on board someoneīs work rather late. I usually need to have good work recommended to me.
But, some names that immediately come to mind are -- Jason and Jeffrey Brown. I love and buy everything they put out.

Do you know anything about European comics? What about the Italian comics scene?

Forgive me, I know next to nothing about European comics! I own all of Hergeīs Tintin books, of course. And Muņoz is another favorite. But, I donīt buy books unless theyīre translated to English. Space is at a premium in my room, and I only buy and collect books that represent superior art AND writing... both must be present.

Our final trademark question: name three comic series (or issues) people should necessarily have on their shelves?

Iīm not a fan of the flimsy comic book format, so my recommendations are all for real books, with spines. And of course, Maus comes first.
Some quick follow-ups would be: Palestine, Ice Haven, Palomar, Locas, Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer, The Beauty Supply District, Frank, Jimmy Corrigan, Ghost World, Black Hole, Caricature and Other Stories, and of course, all of Chester Brownīs work, as well as Sethīs. And Iīd add some of the greatest reprint projects ever -- The Complete Peanuts, Dick Tracy, Walt & Skeezix, Little Orphan Annie, Little Lulu, and Popeye. All are fantastic.

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Copertina del primo <i>Peepshow</i> targato Drawn & Quarterly
Una pagina di <i>Peepshow</i> 1
Una tavola di <i>Peepshow</i> (del ciclo <i>Fair Weather</i>)
Una pagina di <i>Peepshow</i> che evidenzia līultimo stile di Matt
Copertina del volume <i>Poor Bastard</i>, uscito per la Coconino