Fair Weather, Joe Matt. Drawn and Quarterly, 2003. $16.95, 128 pages.
Yes, it’s “Year One” week here at LY&HF.
What do Oprah, Freud, and the Catholic church have in common?
They all share a psychological theory I call the disclosure theory. Here’s the theory in a nusthell: you’ve got to let it all out. Bottling up your feelings and past can only harm you; the truth must out. Self-disclosure brings happiness, or at least some reduction in one’s load of misery. And the dirtier the laundry you air, the better you’ll feel.
This theory has proved enormously popular in Western cultures, especially the modern US. So entrenched is the theory in our cultures that we see it as a self-evident truth of human nature, rather than a culturally specific theory (and a theory which may well be false).
I have no idea whether cartoonist Joe Matt feels better for letting it all out. But, if the disclosure theory is correct, then he ought to be the happiest guy on the planet. For over a decade now, Matt has let it all out. And then some.
In his long-running autobio series Peepshow, he has consistently portrayed himself as a grossly tight-fisted, mean-spirited loser with emotional problems. And I do mean grossly, so tight-fisted that he (notoriously) pisses in a bottle to save flushing the toilet.* More recent issues of Peepshow have focussed on another of Matt’s personal issues, his self-confessed addiction to porn. The gruesome details therein, including cum rags and wankathons, are not for the squeamish.
All of which probably sounds excruciating, the comicbook equivalent of getting cornered at a party by someone going through the 12 Step program. Luckily, Matt the cartoonist possesses a self-awareness that Matt the character lacks. Which means that Matt the cartoonist is funny, perfectly willing to play his grotesque quirks for all the laffs he can get.
In Fair Weather, which reprints four issues of Peepshow, Matt turns his steely comedic gaze on his younger self, growing up in the 1970s. The plot is simple, mostly a framework to hang the period detail and minor incident typical of this sort of autobiography. Over the space of a single weekend, the young Matt hangs out with his best friend, argues with his parents over chores and comic books, and waits for the annual church fair
The cartoonist is no kinder to his young self than he is to his old one. He depicts young Matt as a bed-wetting cry-baby, a coward, a cheapskate who exploits his poorer best friend and thinks nothing of double-crossing him for profit, a brattish ingrate with no emotional allegiance to anyone beyond himself. No porn addiction yet, but only because he’s still pre-adolescent here.
As with much of the self-mutilation school of autobiography (think R. Crumb, Larry David and Woody Allen), the humour in Fair Weather often comes from the sting of recognition. Readers may never have threatened to burn their parents’ house down, as Matt does in one memorable scene, but we all acted like selfish brats at one stage or another.
Fair Weather isn’t just a belated apology for juvenile misdeeds, however. As the main character, Matt’s assorted flaws are naturally placed in the foreground, but the background is his family, friends and a 70s childhood. And this background allows for–no, practically demands–the usual tropes of the growing up genre, including fraught friendships, sexual confusion, and nostalgia. This is nothing ground-breaking; in fact, nothing that will be unfamiliar to anyone who’s ever watched The Wonder Years. Still, Matt handles it so deftly that the standard descriptions apply: the book is “evocative”, “poignant” and so forth.
What keeps it from schmaltz or staleness is the clash between the cartoonist’s genuine nostalgia for his youth, and his natural cynicism about his younger self. The distance between cartoonist and subject gives the cartoonist room to feel sorry for the little bastard at times–but he still knows he was a little bastard. And although there can be no loss of innocence for those who were never innocent, even little bastards face growing pains.
Matt has long been pals with fellow autobiographers Seth and Chester Brown. All three are published by Drawn and Quarterly, and routinely pop up in one another’s books. While Brown gets praise for his ethereal, otherworldly style, and Seth for his olde-timey New Yorker schtick, Matt’s art is often overlooked.
This does disservice to Matt, whose self-effacing visual style hides its own skill. His Peepshow: The Cartoon Diary of Joe Matt shows a nimble visual imagination but Matt generally supresses such formal tricksiness in favour of the traditional virtues of good story-telling.
His panels are clear and flow well in the (mostly) six-panel grid he adopts here. Figures are drawn with a thick, smooth, cartoony line with little or no shading. As a result, they pop nicely against their surroundings, and can show expression with a minimum of detail. This is especially true of Matt himself, with his blank, white face hidden behind a large pair of glasses. A hint of raised eyebrows, or hatching on those otherwise blank cheeks, can speak volumes for the character’s mental state–as a rule, either: embarrassment, self-righteous (and misplaced) anger, craven fear, or greed.
Maybe Joe Matt feels better for putting this stuff out there, in the same way that Crumb (Matt’s biggest thematic influence) used to do. I don’t know whether the disclosure theory is right or wrong. But we can be thankful that Matt believes it’s right.
He must do. He’d be crazy to make himself look like such an arsehole if he didn’t believe it.
* Matt’s pee-jar was further immortalised in Johnny Ryan’s autobio/war movie mash-up strip, PeeJarHead, collected in Comic Book Holocaust
Recommended? There are worse ways of spending your $16.95, especially if you like this kind of thing. Just don’t expect anything too grand; the book is very low-key, even in the context of Matt’s own oeuvre.
IYL: The growing-up sub-genre of autobiography, e.g Stand by Me or, yes, The Wonder Years; confessional misanthropic comedy in the vein of Curb Your Enthusiasm or Robert Crumb.